Sean wrote a very good piece on the struggles of the Big Four this season. It is demonstrably true that none of them have matched the levels we expect of them. Even league leaders Liverpool are only on course for an 83 point season. United won the league in 2002/03 with 83 points, but it wasn’t since 2000/01 that the league had been won with fewer points (United again, with 80).
He puts this down to the failings of each of the Big Four. This is certainly plausible: none of them have looked exceptional this term. But could it be attributed to another factor altogether?
Despite what Sky Sports News can lead us to think, none of the Big Four operate in a vacuum. Each game in which they drop two points, one unfancied opponent picks up one. Every shock defeat means that one of the Unfashionable Sixteen has picked up three.
Could this year’s tight league table be down to a big step up in quality throughout the division?
Almost all of the teams who have previously struggled are stronger this year. Fulham beat Arsenal and drew with Chelsea at home and drew at Anfield. Everton have held Chelsea and United to draws at Goodison. Promoted Hull won at the Emirates and drew at Anfield. Even Stoke have beaten Arsenal and got two draws against Liverpool.
Just watch old episodes of Premier League Years. Gone are the days when bottom half sides would be full of players like Peter Atherton, Graham Hyde, Peter Fear or Bryan Gunn. Gone are the ploughed up pitches, 9-0 demolitions and Peter Kay style centre halves. Could a player like Julian Dicks or Neil Ruddock survive in today’s game? Just watch the bottom few teams in today’s Premier League. West Brom keep the ball on the floor even when a more direct style could benefit them. Blackburn (19th) have Roque Santa Cruz, Spurs (18th) have Luka Modrić , Stoke City (17th) have, err, Ricardo Fuller, Middlesbrough (16th) have Tuncay Şanlı and Manchester City (15th) have a Brazilian inside forward who calls himself ‘Robinho’.
We like to define the Premier League as the triumphs and disasters of four big clubs, and therefore we naturally ascribe their struggles to their own failures. But could it be that the competitive nature of 2008/09is due not to a process of levelling down, but one of levelling up?