On 25th March 2014, Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich became mathematically unassailable in Germany, smashing the Bundesliga record with seven games still to play. This time, it is 17th March 2018 that will be – according to the Times’ statistician Bill Edgar – the day of destiny for Guardiola’s lithe blue figurines: Brighton at the Etihad the proposed final obstacle to becoming the earliest English top-flight victors since 1891.
It is perhaps premature to get carried away with thoughts of how early Pep Guardiola could conquer the league, especially with trips to Anfield, the Emirates, and Wembley to come, but as Manchester City continue to extend their own record winning streak, a more pressing concern is the threat to the widely-held notion of the Premier League as the most competitive in world football. This is not to detract from the achievements of Guardiola or his Manchester City side, curated with purpose and vision, perfectly executed – be it a deft Kevin De Bruyne through-ball or a searching cross-field high ball from Ederson – and perfectly managed. In fact, it is the opposite.
It feels incongruous to be having this discussion just two seasons after witnessing the ultimate sporting underdog tale, but the Premier League is constantly evolving. City are the beautiful veneer of a cash-soaked, global-reaching incarnation of the Premier League. When Leicester triumphed, they created a vacuum, and as Roberto Saviano lays bare in Zero Zero Zero, ‘evolutionary transformation is fuelled by vacuums’. In short, Leicester sparked a renewed assault from each of the now-entrenched ‘big six’.
Antonio Conte’s Chelsea were the harbinger. With a revolutionary tactical mutation – perhaps merely an adaptation to the personnel at his disposal – Chelsea were able to conquer the division. However, it is Manchester City who have seized the opportunity with most meaning, a perfect storm of financial clout, gilded talent, and visionary coaching. Chelsea were controlling and relentless, but City are an indefatigable wrecking ball, representing how an eminent force can function when everything slots together perfectly. Manchester City have the league wrapped up in December; yet more pointed is the gulf in class between the top six and the rest that is continuing to enlarge.
Newcastle captain Jamaal Lascelles described their fixture against Manchester City as a nothing-to-lose game, effectively a free shot at the champions-elect sandwiched between fixtures against West Ham and Brighton. That’s exactly what Jonjo Shelvey put into practice, taking a free shot from the halfway line straight from kick-off. Newcastle were as close as any team this season to frustrating City, only the third to concede just a solitary goal, but they did so passively. Shelvey’s effort was one of only two shots on target for the Magpies.
The concern is that the deployment of this game plan is proliferating, and the results are telling. This season the rest of the league average 0.44 points per game versus the big six, while the big six average 2.38 versus the rest. Burnley top ‘the rest’ with a healthy 0.86 p.p.g., achieved with roughly a third of possession. For their part, Burnley and Sean Dyche are enacting the philosophy to a tee; the fact they represent the only team not cut adrift is an indictment of the League’s dynamic.
On 23rd December, Everton hosted Chelsea and offered no attempt to partake in possession, failing to register a single shot on target. Indeed, Everton’s season is a distillation of the fine balance between ambition and consolidation, and of a team stuck with nowhere to go. Everton have long since loomed, but with £150 million spent in the summer to no avail, the appointment of Sam Allardyce is imbued with resignation. Since his arrival at the club, Everton have recorded 40 shots versus 94 conceded and yet quietly accrued 12 points from a possible 18. They will probably finish 7th. Southampton will likely sack Mauricio Pellegrino, end up in 8th, and try again next year.
It is therefore a misconception, perpetuated globally, that every Premier League encounter will be a frenzy of lethal attacking like Arsenal 3-3 Liverpool. When the new domestic broadcast package is auctioned in February, 200 games out of a possible 380 will be available to be screened. It is the international market, however, that is beginning to wield greater power – the latest Chinese broadcast deal represented a 1000% increase – and that has forced the Premier League to play mediator between the best and the rest, holding clandestine meetings over proposals for performance-based distribution. With the competition eroding in greater context as its appeal is outsourced, the big six re-establishing themselves as eminent forces in Europe, and digital giants Amazon, Netflix and Facebook swarming, just how sustainable is the future of the Premier League?