Premier League: Bored of the Big Four
So here we are again, it's barely the middle of November and the Premier League table already has a depressingly familiar look.
Some of you will be looking at the league table and thinking something along the lines of "Only nine points separating fifth place to 20th, this is going to be a hell of a season!" But is it really?
Sure, the signs are that the relegation scrap is going to go down to the wire (which it usually does anyway) and the UEFA Cup spots will only be decided at the end of the season (which they usually are anyway). But what about closing the gap between the big four and the rest?
This was supposed to be the season where the likes of Aston Villa, Spurs, Everton, and Man City made in-roads towards the promised land of the Champions League. Liverpool and Arsenal were vulnerable, we were told.
Well so far, the big four have lost seven games between them out of 47 (around 15 percent). The other four supposed contenders have lost 21 out of 48 (around 44 percent). Note that out of those seven big four defeats, three came in games against each other.
Only Arsenal have looked anything remotely resembling vulnerable, with surprising defeats against Fulham, Stoke, and Hull, yet they still sit three points in front of fifth placed Villa already, who themselves have lost poorly to Stoke, Middlesbrough, and Newcastle.
With the likely confidence boost from Saturday's win over Manchester United, Arsenal should step up their game in the next month or so and are likely to increase that gap, while the other three members of the dominant four are unlikely to slip up too often themselves.
Manchester United may only be one point ahead of Aston Villa, but the gulf between the sides has already been apparent across the opening months, and United have a game in hand.
It's looking safe to assume that the challenge to the big four will be over before it even really began this term, with Man City struggling, Everton and Spurs already playing catch up, and Villa still prone to feeble defeats against teams they should beat on paper.
Liverpool, Chelsea, and Manchester United have been beaten just once by non-big four opposition so far this season, in a total of 28 games. Yes, anyone CAN beat anyone, but the chance of an also-ran beating a big four team is becoming less likely with every season.
Anyone can win the lottery if they buy a ticket, but it doesn't mean the chances of it happening are high.
The big four have a positive goal difference of plus 58. The rest of the Premier League has a negative goal difference of minus 58, with only Manchester City and Aston Villa in the black after 12 games, and Fulham at zero.
Much was made of Hull City's start to the season, and there is no doubt it was both glorious and surprising (partly glorious because it was so surprising, and there lies the rub), but after three defeats on the bounce, albeit with two of those coming against big four opposition, they have sunk back into the relegation-haunted/UEFA Cup chasing pack.
Englishmen have often taken great delight in mocking the fact that the league north of the border is dominated by Rangers and Celtic, with the rest in a league of their own. But what's the difference between a 12-team league dominated by two teams, and a 20-team league dominated by four? I am struggling to see a profound one.
What is so galling about this season is that some of the also-rans have no real excuse for their apparent inability to compete. Aston Villa invested heavily in a team that finished sixth last season, while Arsenal lost a key player in Mathieu Flamini and have stuttered at the beginning of the season.
This has been a great opportunity wasted by Aston Villa (and others) to put a marker down that they will be contenders this season. Arsenal have lost three matches this term, and could go on to lose six or even more potentially in total.
(Arsenal fans, before you accuse me of writing you off, be fair. You still have five matches against the big four, including three away from home, so a few more defeats in the next 26 matches is a perfectly reasonable, if unappetising, thought for non-Gooners and Gooners alike.)
That means that Arsenal could lose more games than any of the big four managed last season (Champions Manchester United lost the most, with five defeats), but nobody looks in a position to take advantage even if that did happen, and the other clubs only have themselves to blame for that.
Villa should be doing better than they are, given the funds at their disposal, and the money they have already spent. It is continually damaging to Martin O'Neill's big reputation that they are not really competing for a Champions League place.
It is harsh to compare eras, but I can't help but wonder what Brian Clough, to whom O'Neill is consistently compared, would have achieved with this Villa set-up.
Manchester City have only just been awarded the PIN number to the bank of Dubai, but they were already investing heavily in their squad before the takeover. They were improving on a team that managed ninth place last season, despite an end to the season that was ruined by managerial uncertainty.
Up until January last term City were already looking like Champions League contenders. Alas, it didn't last, but they have no real excuse for losing seven of 12 matches this term with the players at their disposal.
It's not just the teams who should be contending who are underperforming, though.
Sunderland are not a team who should be competing with the big four, but given the amount of money they have spent in the last two years they should be doing far better than they are.
They managed 15th last term, so they could reasonably be expected to challenge the top 10 at least after spending a small fortune in the summer. It might still happen for them, but their inauspicious start suggests another season of mediocrity at best. Roy Keane has a bigger collection of strikers than Arthur Scargill ever managed.
Everton have been hampered by financial constraints, and the fact that they have got themselves back up to seventh after a bad start says a lot about the ability of David Moyes. They are spoken of as Champions League contenders because of their consistent over-achievement, and it would be wrong to criticise them for not looking likely to compete this term.
Spurs, well, they are Spurs. Even after their disastrous start to the season they are only eight points behind fifth placed Villa, and can be reasonably expected to finish in the top half of the table, at least now that Harry Redknapp has sole charge of the team.
Then we will be where we are every season with Spurs. Next year will be the one...
That appears to be the tag line for the Premier League: Next season someone will REALLY challenge the big four. But when will it happen? And how many fans will the EPL lose to boredom in the meantime?
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