It wasn’t long ago when the position of the country’s biggest and best clubs seemed immutable. Even after Leicester’s unprecedented league win in 2016, there existed a collective feeling that the country had witnessed something that could never occur again- it was a blip in an otherwise never-ending cycle of six clubs fighting for supremacy while the rest battled it out for a consolatory Europa League qualification round. While people are keen to point out that this format remains the most competitive across Europe’s top leagues, it appears as though they have surrendered themselves to the existence of a startling power imbalance within the modern game. Italy, Germany, and France stand out as the most non-competitive leagues within Europe’s traditional top 5 leagues: Juventus have won the Seria A title a staggering 8 consecutive times, while Bayern Munich have won the Bundesliga 14 times in the past 20 years. Although PSG are relative newcomers to domestic success, only Lille, Montpellier and Monaco have managed to pip the Qatari-owned giants to the Ligue 1 title since their takeover in 2011. Spanish football is not exempt from the same problem, where the supreme dominance of Real Madrid and Barcelona has only been undermined three times in the past 20 seasons.
Although this paints a positive picture of English football where competition and equality are concerned, the acceptance of just 6 teams vying for the title – along with a global perception of the Premier League’s competitive superiority over other leagues – has been detrimental to any attempts to create a fairer and more level playing field for clubs and its persistence seemed to have only extended the gap between the country’s most established teams and the rest of the pack. For those who hold an admiration for fighting against the footballing status quo and challenging the hierarchy of some of the game’s most powerful clubs, this season has served as proof that the representation of an impenetrable English top 6 was little more than a façade that perpetuated the notion of money and reputation as the metrics for success.
It would be fair to say that this season has been particularly woeful for some of England’s top sides. Liverpool have been a cut above the rest following an unexpectedly poor league campaign from City that has been tainted with injury problems; both Manchester United and Arsenal have been a shadow of their former selves due to issues stemming from their respective ownerships and boards, while Tottenham’s sacking of Mauricio Pochettino after uncharacteristically poor league form was indicative of their failure to build on their momentum, opting to sell key players and run down their contracts instead of attracting new personnel. Chelsea find themselves in a transitional phase following their summer transfer ban and the acquisition of Frank Lampard as a manager, and this has presented Premier League sides outside the top 6 with a unique opportunity to fight for European places, something which felt so out of reach for lesser teams in seasons gone by. Wolves, Everton and Burnley, despite average starts to the season, all find themselves in healthy positions to compete against the likes of Arsenal and United for a Champions League or Europa League birth, but it’s Leicester City and Sheffield United who have particularly impressed this campaign. With limited funds compared to those around them, both clubs have fashioned a unique and eye-catching style on the pitch that has taken them to a level that no one could have anticipated at the start of the season.
Although Leicester’s remarkable league position seems slightly more believable than Sheffield United’s, given their previous achievements in the topflight, their ability to rebuild themselves into a fresh, youthful team and adapt to a cultured and stylistically pleasing system under Brendan Rodgers has been inspired. Young and technically astute players such as James Maddison, Youri Tielemans and Harvey Barnes have been introduced, and their integration into a team consisting of tried and tested premier league champions in Kasper Schmeichel and Jamie Vardy produced scintillating performances in the first half of the season. While they haven’t quite been able to impress in the same way since their 4-0 home loss to Jurgen Klopp’s record-breaking Liverpool side and have had to make do without midfield enforcer Wilfried Ndidi since late January, they sit in the third position ahead of Chelsea, United, and Spurs. Considering the strong possibility of Manchester City being expelled from the Champions League for next season, it would take something drastic for the Foxes not to achieve a second European qualification in five seasons, something that seemed unimaginable at the start of this campaign. Sheffield United’s strong campaign fighting alongside Premier League stalwarts for an opportunity to gain Champions League qualification for next season has been nothing short of sensational given their modest time spent in the top tier. Before current manager Chris Wilder took over in the summer of 2016, the Blades had only managed a 13th place finish in league one: now they find themselves within touching distance of achieving the impossible after sticking primarily with the same nucleus of players that lifted them from the third tier into the top flight. Their implementation of a unique style involving overlapping center-backs has certainly turned a few heads, but Wilder’s courage to show faith in the players and system that got them to the Premier League has been rewarded.
What both sides have highlighted through their performances is the need for an identity on the pitch, along with the right personnel to execute the tactical demands of their managers. This may seem obvious, but it is precisely these elements that both Manchester United and Arsenal lack: United’s decision since Ferguson’s retirement to sign players based on their marketability rather than their influence and functionality within the squad has cost them dearly, while Arsenal have failed to address their defensive issues that began during Wenger’s tenure and the lack of fitness within the squad has made it difficult for Arteta to implement his high-octane style. Although neither Sheffield United nor Leicester can compete with these two sides financially, they have given hope to other clubs of their stature by proving that smart recruitment strategy, rather than huge wage and transfer expenditure, is the hallmark of a successful side. The longevity of these clubs’ respective projects remains to be seen, but it would seem that their ability to compete with the richer and more historic teams will only be enhanced by their participation in European competition. Liverpool have set the blueprint for shrewd spending on playing staff that fit a coherent tactical system and Rodgers and Wilder will need to follow suit-while staying true to their footballing values- if future seasons are to be as successful.
It would be fair to say that recent coronavirus developments have thrown something of a spanner in the works for this current campaign. The Premier league’s decision to suspend all games until the 3rd of April following Mikel Arteta’s positive test for the virus has left many fans wondering if another ball will be kicked for the foreseeable future. The implications of a potential refresh for the season, meaning that all the previous 28 fixtures would be rendered irrelevant, are enormous for all top 6 clubs. Liverpool may have to wait another year for their chance to get their hands on the trophy, while the monumental efforts of Leicester and Sheffield United may have been in vain. If that is to happen, next season will be the ultimate test of these club’s credentials as consistent contenders for European places.
This truly unique Premier League season, although possessing one of the most dominant teams in English football history, seems to have offered other clubs with the opportunity to shift the balance of superiority away from the six most elite teams in the country and create a league in which the biggest prizes seem slightly more reachable for all those competing. Whilst Manchester United and Arsenal struggle to return to the winning ways of yesteryear that provided them with so much financial clout, other teams have taken matters into their own hands by discarding these entrenched notions of club superiority and showing faith in their ways of doing things. As these historic footballing institutions struggle to claw their way back to former glory by ignoring their flaws and investing heavily in players that carry a reputation rather than suit a manager’s particular style, some of the country’s less reputable sides have become the torchbearers of a new era in which greatness can be achieved in ways no one believed were possible in this superclub era. The exclusivity of domestic silverware success has created a dull repetition in which the same winners are churned out year after year, and the achievements of clubs such as Leicester City and Sheffield United should be celebrated as small triumphs against a system created to ensure the dominance of the richest teams. Although their achievements may not stand the test of time, they have pointed towards the fact that football needs new winners if leagues are to keep their competitive edge and leave fans with a sense of intrigue as to what surprises each season could bring.