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How the middle class survives in the Premier League

Tuesday 18th December 2018

Image: Martin Palazzotto, CC by NC-SA 4.0

In early November, I tried to wrap my head around the way the Premier League was separating itself from life rather than imitating it as we expect. Well, it's doing it again.

While ineffective left-leaning political parties in Britain and the US struggle to deal with populism on the right, the latter's growing political power serves corporate interests to the degree the middle class is fast becoming a fairytale we tell our children. You're either well-off or in the shitter. Haves. Have-nots. There is no 'in-between'. But lo, in the shadow of a looming No-Deal Brexit and the wake of Donald Trump trampling and bellowing as the Republican Party's not so symbolic rogue elephant, the 2018/19 season gives us a clearly defined class structure featuring five teams rolling in points at the top, seven impoverished clubs at the bottom and eight comfortably detached sides in the middle. How is this possible?

Lay of the Land

The obscenely talented admittedly go about their business as though nothing's changed. Supposedly, there's now a Big Six in English football but one from the group always seems to slum it in a given season. This year, that's Manchester United. Jose Mourinho has finally paid the price even though it's not completely his fault. The other five clubs gradually separated into two groups. Liverpool and Manchester City battle for supremacy while Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal settle into a contest for the two remaining Champions League places.


Image: Martin Palazzotto, CC by NC-SA 4.0

United retain their Big Six membership in name only, much as Arsenal did last year. Eight points behind the Gunners and eleven from Chelsea in fourth, the beleaguered Red Devils are so tightly squeezed into the table's mid-section, another defeat could drop them as low as 11th. Five points separate them from Brighton in 13th.

The Seagulls are flying high in relation to Newcastle, the club directly below them. Brighton's tough loss to Chelsea coupled with Newcastle's tough-to-watch victory over Huddersfield narrowed the gap between them from eight to five. Nevertheless, it's distinct. Among the poor folk, the Magpies are the only squad more than three points above the drop zone. The other six are all in danger of falling away. Fulham are the only club who don't look like climbing out.

The question is why the league divided into three tiers?


For once, it's not all about the benjamins. 

Yes, Manchester City tops the league in both points and spending for the past season-plus. According to Transfermarkt, the Sky Blues spent €602.19 million after hiring Pep Guardiola. That's £541.93 million at the going rate. Liverpool invested €182.2 million [£164 million] following their Champions League final defeat last June. Those are the top two teams. On its face, money seems to be at the heart of their success.

No one is saying wealth has nothing to do with it but the heart is off the mark. Tottenham Hotspur sit six points behind Liverpool. They didn't shell out even a ha'penny in the summer transfer market. If it's all down to cash on hand, then €30 million or thereabouts [€182.2 million/6] currently buys you a one-point lead in the Premier League table.

Further evidence money isn't the root of anything in the Premier League is submitted by Manchester United and Fulham. During Mourinho's tenure, chief executive Ed Woodward authorised £419.49 million in transfer fees. They're sixth for the second time in three years. Fulham spent £98.1 million this past summer. Dead last on nine points at an average of just under £11 million per, they're either not getting the same value for their money as Liverpool or the problem lies elsewhere.


Image: Martin Palazzotto, CC by NC-SA 4.0

Bang for their buck

You have to admit both City and Liverpool received good value for their money. City have Kevin de Bruyne, John Stones, Aymeric Laporte, Kyle Walker, Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva, the list goes on. On Merseyside, €42 million purchased 44 goals across all competitions from Mo Salah in 2017/18, another 13 this campaign. With Sven Mislintat installed as transfer guru at Arsenal and Monsieur Wenger no longer standing over his shoulder, the Gunners resurgence flows through midfielders Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi.

On the other hand, City also spent money on Claudio "Butterfingers" Bravo and Gabriel "Tap-in" Jesus. Even though Pep Guardiola isn't perfect, you have to admit he's coaxed far more than expected from a player like Fabian Delph. Is it the gaffer, then?


Fulham spent nearly a £100 million pounds in the summer. Slavisa Jokanovic refused to adjust his tactics to the Premier League's demands. He had owner Shad Khan's full support and let him down. Seems obvious, doesn't it? Except when you try to throw Jose Mourinho into the equation. Then the picture loses focus.

Yes, the Portuguese feuded with everyone including the players, press and the board. When he benched his most talented creative player, Paul Pogba, against Liverpool, it was clear his policy was 'my way or the highway'. Like Liverpool, the highway won handily. 

But is United's failure all about Mourinho? As much as that might appeal to Jose's ego in a perverse fashion, you must look at the board as well.


Image: Martin Palazzotto, CC by NC-SA 4.0

Leadership from the top down 

The former boss claimed he didn't receive full backing in the transfer market. If the better part of £420 million isn't full backing, football is in a sorry state. That's roughly 80% of Manchester City's outlay under Guardiola. City has 44 points in the table, United 26. That's 59% efficiency from 80% expenditure. Are we back to value for money or still on about man-management?

In the Mourinho v his players debate, the argument was often made [hello] that if the boss is feuding with one player, it's probably the player's fault but if he's feuding with most of them, even if it's one at a time... well. 

Only, that argument can also be applied to ownership and the executive. Since Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill departed, United has hired three managers. All of them, even David Moyes, were capable bosses with impressive achievements on their CVs. Just like Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial, Alexis Sanchez and [who am I forgetting?], none of the three became bad managers overnight. For all Moyes' struggles after leaving United, he did a job at West Ham. Louis van Gaal was asked to leave while still clutching the FA Cup in one hand and a flute of champagne in the other. Mourinho has some deep-seated bitterness to work out before he accepts another job but he still has a trophy room rather than the traditional cabinet.

Ed Woodward had to know he faced an imminent decision regarding Mourinho. Even so, he renewed Chris Smalling's contract within the past week and is understood to be in talks to do likewise for Ashley Young and other United veterans while negotiations with David de Gea remain stalled. Forget his priorities, isn't Ed aware he's kneecapping any Mourinho replacement [who might have his own ideas regarding personnel] or the football director the club allegedly intends to hire? 

Like the Premier League table, Manchester United's organisation is compartmentalised rather than fluid and connected. The teams in the top five all have their acts together. Strong leadership exists from the top all the way down with talent and resources in abundance and managed expertly. Everyone is reading from the same chapter. The middle class have most of the ingredients but there remains a flaw or breakdown in communication that holds them back. Those facing relegation have serious issues in at least one area if not all. As deep into the mire as Fulham have sunk, their one hope is that the critical flaw in their design was the manager and that Claudio Ranieri's timely appointment can remedy the problem.

For Manchester United? Well, it's difficult to sack absentee owners content to leave football operations in the hands of a marketing specialist.


Image: Martin Palazzotto, CC by NC-SA 4.0

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Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.

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