Something rather wonderful is happening in English football.
It’s suddenly become interesting again.
Yes, I know, it crept up on me, too. And it’s been going on for a little while, as well.
But on Monday a line in the sands of footballing expectations was crossed.
Along with a fair few million around the planet, all tuned in to watch Leicester’s splendid dismissal of Chelsea 2-1 on Monday night, only a small minority would have genuinely anticipated a victory for the plucky visitors from London. Perhaps a majority might have gone for a draw but hang on, this is newly promoted Leicester, playing the current Champions of England.
What on earth is going on with the once mighty blues?
But wait – it’s not just Mourinho’s Meltdown providing the fun and (lost) games for Chelsea.
Over at Liverpool, a turgid early season start saw the dismissal of their formerly high-flying manager, and a stubborn anchor remains, resolutely digging the club into 9th place, for now, at least. Up at high spending Man United, few barely recognise a club that once won everything with Louis van Duul seemingly in a race with The Special One to be the next manager out of a job.
Yet everyone, including the current leaders, have been dropping points like confetti since the opening days of the season and the truth is, the league – and access to the prize of those precious top four places – feels wide open, certainly going into the Xmas period.
(Okay, 16th-placed-Chelsea, maybe not THAT wide open, but you get my drift.)
With the possible exception of games against Aston Villa, it truly feels as if any side, on their day, could beat any other.
So what’s happening?
Well, possibly everything – or nothing.
It is possible – even likely, perhaps – that the Leicester’s, Palace’s, Watford’s and West Ham’s of the world will slip back down to a more ‘normal’ looking mid-table berth by February/March. The arguments about squad depths are usually corralled at this point and there is much truth in the squad depth based arguments.
But it is the sheer numbers of established ‘bigger’ teams doing badly against the so-called smaller clubs that catches the eye. Clubs that have had multiple seasons’ EPL pay days to bolster their squads to presumably challenge for trophies and league places alike are proving the real puzzle – Villa, Sunderland, Chelsea, Newcastle, Southampton, Stoke, Everton, Liverpool – all are (or have been) struggling to a certain extent – and some struggling badly – given the funding that has gone their way in recent seasons.
And on the opposite side of the same coin, by contrast, the sheer number of recently (or quite recently) promoted outfits who appear, so far, to be doing very nicely indeed thank you – tekaboo Bournemouth, Watford, Palace and of course Leicester in particular!
Simply put, we appear to be in the eye of a revolutionary storm that is sweeping over English football – and indeed, the rest of the footballing world.
To get some context to what is happening it’s worth remembering that round the year 2000, Premier League TV income was around £670m which was considered a staggering increase in the figures for 1991-97 which was set at £191m, itself a sum considered by many as being likely to prove ruinous to the beautiful game. By 2004, the figure had soared to £1.024 billion, a number itself up, by 2013, to £3.018 billion and all set, finally, from 2016-2019 to hit £5.136 billion pounds.
The beautiful game appears to have been well and truly supplanted by the ugly cheque book.
By 2013, a number of football clubs’ business models had been put on notice. By 2016 those same set ups may well be considered somewhat, well, irrelevant – possibly even redundant.
Let’s pay some kind of tribute to those models, those systems of funding that made amateur accountants out of so many of us and at least one of which seemed to fly in the face of the now almost quaint-sounding ‘financial fair play’ regime of the largely discredited Platini ‘led’ UEFA.
It all seemed so important up until very recently.
My personal least favourite was the Oligarchy/Sovereign Wealth funding model used to float the likes, of Chelsea and Man City.
‘Grudging’ respect is granted to Man United’s towering commercial team, largely unrivalled in the footballing world in as far as their fortune was (at least prior to the Glazers’ arrival) entirely self-generated. Today, even as a non-United fan, one can only wince at how the hard-earned advantages won in the 1990’s have been squandered in recent years thanks to a spending spree that can only be politely described as careless, short-termist and profligate.
By contrast, the Self-Sustaining Model of Arsenal Football Club was the one most mocked by rivals, commentators and indeed some of the club’s own fans. Trophy-less for a few years, in some ways, it was the most ‘English’ of business models – one of those principled, plucky, fight-them-on-the-beaches kind of models that dominated the moral high ground, if little else.
But all three modus operandi can be considered somewhat out-dated in a world where even the smallest clubs of the league – such as little Bournemouth – have valuations in excess of £100 million and all 20 clubs in the EPL are now in the top 40 revenue earners in the world, at least, according to Deloitte. Even the mighty German Bundesliga at £1.7 billion has been dwarfed by the EPL’s value, already in excess of £3 billion – and that’s before the latest new deal has kicked in.
Of course, should the cash somehow run out one day, we all know which model we’d prefer our own club to be sheltering under.
Okay, enough (almost) of the numbers – what does it really all mean?
Well, it’s interesting that despite Man U having the highest revenue at £433 million, with City on £348m, and Chelsea on £324m, the (relatively) smaller English sides are now earning enough to buy – and pay – players of a sufficient quality to cause real problems for all the ‘big’ clubs.
Don’t be deceived by the headline transfer figures that dance before our eyes in the dreaded transfer windows – very decent players indeed are heading to the likes of Leicester, Bournemouth and Watford not merely to admire the shire views.
The real impact of the ‘new money’ is in the salaries the clubs can now afford and it is this that is likely to cause chaos in the European leagues over the coming seasons. Leagues that now threaten, in my view, to become zombie affairs as their best talent heads north. Apart from the risks presented to the English national side by the influx of foreign talent, the softer, slower and less competitive leagues of Spain, Italy and France are unlikely to be firmed up in the foreseeable future.
Many of their best players are already bidding farewell to the somewhat sunnier climes of Europe and Latin America in favour of the highest weekly wages on the planet and the grey skies of a tiny island nation which somehow once again finds itself punching well above its sporting weight. All this no doubt to the consternation of a largely rudderless UEFA and FIFA, who are both as powerless to intervene in this new world order as the moral vacuums they inhabit are empty and valueless.
And where does all this leave Arsenal? Did we just waste 10 years buying a shiny new stadium when really we could have been (over-) spending on players and shiny old cups? Is there any way any of this could have been anticipated?
Surely, somewhere, somehow, there is a way to cast blame and demand ‘Arsene out’, if only for old time’s sake?
To be honest, it’s not an argument I want to fully address as we will never really know what we might have achieved during the years of austerity had we stayed put at Highbury and thrown all caution to the wind. One suspects the likes of Chelsea in particular would not have had things all their own way and City would have never got so far ahead. Maybe we’d have not lost some of our better players to Man U, Barca and others.
Regardless of the rights and wrongs of that particular argument, the Emirates Stadium, apart from almost doubling the numbers of spectators actually getting into games, has another more symbolic importance.
Aside from being one of the most modern stadia in world football, Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium represents the club as being the most forward looking, advanced and prepared club in the country – and, very likely, in the world.
Not only do our ever-improving training facilities in London Colney represent the absolute cutting edge of sports science, but there is talk, in some ‘in-the-know’ quarters, of Arsenal presently looking around for a new site to build a second stadium – this one for our U21’s, U18’s, and other squads to be able to play in front of smaller but no less enthusiastic crowds of spectators, fascinated to see, in a competitive setting, the very best in world youth.
But over and above all this, our development and investment in data analytics – something few properly understand – is already placing our club in the driving seat of talent assessment and acquisition.
Because, when everybody is firing £20 notes from their TV-rights funded tanks, you have to be able to spend wiser, not greater, in order to secure competitive advantage.
A lesson the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea, to name just two, do not appear to be learning any time soon.
Yes, something rather wonderful is happening to English football.
The old guard is no longer having things entirely their own way and whilst few will refuse the new money, there will be many nervous eyes cast in the direction of the explosive impact all this cash will have on the cosy cartel that once dominated English football.
Yes, they were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off, maybe.
But now everybody in the League have got their hands on the loot.
As the prospects for the biggest clubs hang in the balance, everybody has a chance to win again and, happily, things may never be quite the same again.