There’s a new middle class in the Premier League and it’s all the rage. Crystal Palace have already won at Stamford Bridge this season, West Ham are knocking off big sides week after week and Leicester are looking ever more upwardly mobile.
The promise of the new television deal is partly behind this. With an already lucrative agreement already in place, clubs have been convinced to speculate in pursuit of Richard Scudamore’s next bounty – due to come into effect from 2016/17 – and have spent the Summer recruiting aggressively.
Simultaneously, chairmen throughout the league are becoming more resistant to predatory buyers. Bill Kenwright recently held firm during Chelsea’s pursuit of John Stones and, also notably, Jeremy Peace spent the last weeks of the window clinging determinedly to Saido Berahino’s shoelaces.
Temporarily at least, the confluence of those two attitudes is creating a more competitive division. Mid-level clubs no longer see the value in immediately cashing-in on developing talent which is and will continue to stabilise their squads, but they are also reaching further up the tree and signing players who used to the be the sole preserve of the well-resourced.
Andre Ayew, Yohan Cabaye, Xherdan Shaqiri: top-four players in all but name who were signed by clubs with no realistic hope of making the top-four.
These really are different times.
But if the league is moving closer to some sort of parity, there’s still an obvious attention-gap in the way its games are being analysed and assessed.
The competition, as we’ve all come to realise, is really a five-team tour around the country. For years, those clubs who dwell outside the Champions League places have been presented as props within a bigger, more interesting story and when a less fancied side did achieve an unlikely result against the odds, it was always treated in the same, slightly demeaning way.
Well done, little team – here’s your pat on the head – now what was the matter with Liverpool/Manchester United/Chelsea?
And that’s still happening…
We don’t seem to care very much for the detail within these surprise results and the retro-analyst’s instinct seems to be always to focus on the fault within the favourite.
What did they do badly? Does this one’s manager deserve to be fired into the sun? What does this mean for the championship?
When West Ham won at Arsenal on the opening day, their two goals were examined in microscopic detail – but only for the sake of judging whether Petr Cech had made errors. There was little discussion of Mauro Zarate’s excellent swivel-and-hit for the second or Dimitri Payet’s exquisite delivery for the first; the story was Arsenal and the shortcomings of the various Arsenal players.
West Ham were praised and some vague interest was shown in Slaven Bilic’s tactical approach, but only really as a courtesy before before being lost under a flood of alarmist conclusions about Arsene Wenger.
That’s really the standard and, actually, it’s quite logical: digital and print coverage of the Premier League game is focused almost exclusively around the Big Five’s journey through the competition, so it follows that their peaks and troughs should be analysed in the depth that they are – but that doesn’t have to come at the cost of casting the other teams into the shadows.
One of English football’s great strengths is its diversity and the range of challenges it presents. Now, with this newly termed middle-class getting stronger and producing unexpected results on a semi-regular basis, there’s justification in lingering on their strengths once in a while and not relying on that generic “defended well, good discipline, tried hard” form of appreciation.
There are hints that such a movement is beginning and even limited shows like Match Of The Day are starting to step tentatively off the reservation and into a slightly more diverse world, but – if we are to believe that this new era is a genuine movement rather than a passing fad – that has to become the norm and a greater effort should be made to allow the watching public to understand what it is that’s making these other sides competitive.
One of television’s great boasts about the Premier League is its lack of predictability and its “everyone can beat everyone” culture, but the broadcasters have only ever seemed to half believe that. Up until now, that’s been a natty slogan rather than a reality.
That’s what will validate the notion of a progressive middle-tier: the acceptance that these teams demand three-dimensional appreciation and are no longer just part of the support act.