With the race for Champions League places at its tightest in history, James Dutton takes a closer look…
Another chastening week for English football in the Champions League and Europa League. Much like many knock-out round evenings in the last five years, a lack of quality, adaptability and in-game intelligence, a naivety that has once again exposed the flaws of the best sides in the rough-and-tumble Barclay’s Premier League on the European stage. All the money, facilities and resources but barely a hint of nous between them; English teams obsess over qualifying for the continental competitions yet have little idea what to do when they get there.
Qualification for the Champions League is that pot of gold at the end of a 38-game-long rainbow; as equally exalted as silverware now is the opportunity to be knocked out by a side from a second-rate European league in the knock-out stage. Priorities may be skewed but when the financial reward for a top four finish is so grandiose it becomes, as Tim Sherwood would say, a no-brainer.
As money has proliferated in the Premier League so the Race for the Champions League™ has become ever increasingly hard-fought. This is where it has been heading since Jesper Gronkjaer sank Liverpool in 2003 and scored the biggest goal in the history of Chelsea Football Club. TV deals have increased manifold since, and with that prize money and the desperation to gatecrash the party.
And so in the spring of 2015 the greatest draw to the Premier League, the most expensively assembled league in the history of football, will be that Battle for Fourth™. The title race looks sewn up – and who could begrudge the most bitter and paranoid champions-elect in Premier League memory – while, quite frankly, anyone six of the bottom eight sides could be relegated and no one would notice next year.
From an interesting sub-plot across a 38 game season the pursuit of Champions League football has become the central Narrative™ thread. How has it come to this and what does that say about us? Two valid questions in a season where I’ve previously described the joust for fourth as the “artificial fruit of Sky Sports’ impact on English football”.
Yes it is an artificial construct to add the veneer of competition to a league which has not seen a change at the top since August. But it is more fierce than ever this year, a fact that is quite undeniable, so let’s at least celebrate something which is a distraction from the monotony of the top of the Premier League, and keeping it all at least relatively interesting.
From a state of chaos and mediocrity in early November the chase for fourth has settled down since Christmas. The top sides have figured out what they’re doing, and two of the three surprise packages have regressed to a mean. Four points separate third from seventh – the lowest gap in Premier League history only twelve games from the season’s conclusion.
Each are among the form sides in the league right now – Arsenal, Man United, Southampton and Tottenham have lost only twice in their last 10 fixtures, while Liverpool are undefeated since the middle of December. It’s the most fascinating and tightly packed this area of the league has ever been so late into the season – a glance at previous tables since that fabled play-off between Chelsea and Liverpool 12 years ago proves as much…
A combination of early season fatigue – the infamous World Cup hangover – over-confidence and tactical naivety amongst the leading sides saw the lesser lights – particularly Southampton, West Ham and Swansea – flourish in their wider absence. The curious case of multiple top four candidates slipping up every weekend helped Liverpool not lose hope and engendered a belief in Spurs that saw them rack up a number of unlikely late victories. Meanwhile Arsenal remembered how to Arsenal.
Eleven games into this season West Ham sat in fourth with 18 points, the lowest points return for a club sitting that high since the 2005-6 season, before the top four regularly hit 70+ points in a season. At West Ham’s rate – 1.6 points/game as it was then – 62 points would have brought a fourth place finish—the lowest since 2004-5, when Everton collected 61.
Third and fourth are only 14 and 15 points off that target, and given recent form would expect to surpass that 70 point threshold once again – something which looked extremely fanciful before Christmas. Arsenal’s 79 point fourth place finish last season will still take some beating, though Spurs’ record 73 point total for finishing fifth could be set to fall.
Whichever way you interpret the remainder of the season, one thing is for certain; the complacency which defined these sides in the autumn has gone. The Premier League may have become that bit more predictable as a result, but the competition it sells itself on is back. With more teams competing in the Race four Fourth™ than ever and the increased monetary reward on offer, the intensification of competition for places is a natural consequence; it is only going to ramp up, year on year, from here. The twists and turns that are bound to come in the weeks – and years – ahead will surely prove value for money for Sky Sports’ world-wide behemoth – and that’s all that matters isn’t it?