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Leagues Within Leagues

Football is such a wonderfully fluid thing it can throw up a fascinating new debate each week but two big questions remain from season to season. Who is going to win the league and who is going to lose so badly they tumble out of it? Another question, in some ways a fusion of these perennials and the accelerating income at the top of the game, has become prominent also. How many leagues are there in any one league?

I am going to focus on the top league in England but this is an exercise that can be applied to any division in any country. This season it looks very much like a four league 1 – 5 – 5 – 9 with Manchester City running away with the title and only competing with themselves for how much they can win it by. That’s followed by a fight for Champions League places and a battle Royale to avoid relegation either side of a very squeezed middle. How on earth did we get here?

It is easy to grumble when your team isn’t producing the goods but to enjoy a truly satisfying whinge an element of injustice is essential. In the football world this breaks down into two clear fields: money and being treated unfairly. What’s that I can hear from the back? The rich sides always get the rub of the green. Tell that to the fan of a Premier League side playing League Two opposition in the FA Cup. The entire tournament is effectively (and openly) sold on the promise the big boys being turned over. Real injustice comes from injurious treatment by officialdom and, to a much lesser degree, the modern football commentariat of old professionals and journalists. Social media has been mobilised by fans to counter the latter pretty effectively but a well-argued tweet makes no difference to a referee’s line of sight or, indeed, his opinion of the players involved in an incident.

The money issue is harder to tackle. It has poured into the game and continues to do so. Where it ends up is as much down to luck (i.e. which clubs are available to buy at any given moment) as the clever marketing of behemoths like the Premier League. The summer leading up to the start of this season saw a new record spend of £1.47 billion while in this January window EPL clubs doubled the previous spending record with a £450 million outlay.

The figures are extraordinary but do they explain everything? I don’t think so. As wonderful a manager as Jose Mourinho is, it was hard to take his complaint about his free-spending city rivals seriously. United shelled out £150 million in the summer for three players while City spent £221 million on seven. Now I’m not going to call Pep Guardiola ‘thrifty’ but United probably could have afforded to spend another £70 million if they had really wanted to. So is this a money issue or a player-recruitment and management one?

Further down the league, witness the cautionary tale of Everton. Plenty thought that they’d had an exemplary closed season. Sure they missed out on Giroud but they brought back the still immensely skilful and aggressive Rooney and brought in (after a tussle) Sigurðsson. A player who came as close last year as perhaps any footballer ever has to keeping their side from the drop on their own. Along with these old heads, they signed the already good and improving Pickford and Keane. These new additions to play alongside the already exciting Lookman, Calvert-Lewin and Davies.

However, despite a credible draw with Manchester City, they were taken to the cleaners by United and Tottenham and Koeman already had that haunted look in his eyes by the time Arsenal, the leagues Hipster fringe, gave them such a pasting nothing could save him. It proved what we all knew already but sometimes need reminding of - a good team on paper is just a good team on paper.

As for next season, I can see Manchester United making up a two team league with City but as for the rest? That is difficult. Chelsea (now with added Giroud) seem close to one of their regular implosions. Arsenal and Liverpool are both good but neither can defend and it’s an open question whether a quarter of the Spurs first team and their manager leave for Madrid in the summer.

Football is such a wonderfully fluid thing.

Leonard Apple

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