Those of us round long enough to remember the Ipswichs, Blackburns and QPRs of old running rampant in the early days of the Premier League may have winced listening to Setanta’s commentators gag with delight as Dossena’s lobbed long ball made it Liverpool 4, Manchester United 1. “This is why this is the greatest league in Europe, and quite possibly the world,” they gargled, screaming like a pair of bible thumpers who, after praying for sunshine, point to the cloudless sky and shout, “See?!”
Except Liverpool’s win, like the odd sunny day, doesn’t prove a damn thing. Today Tottenham, who lagged behind in every meaningful stat minus the goal tally, kicked Villa out of the top four. Of course, our friends supporting any one of the Big Four clubs will say, “It’s down to O’Neill innit? He just didn’t buy right, he got his tactics wrong, not like our Fergie or our Wenger or our Rafa” as if the Premier League exists in a monetary vacuum where things like geographical advantage, historical popularity, immense television broadcast fees and sponsorship support don’t exist and even if they did, certainly don’t play a part on the pitch.
At the end of the day, it’s an eleven-a-side game, innit?
Perhaps if you’re Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal or Manchester United and playing each other. Take Saturday for example; Sir Alex was right—United were the better team on the day, but Liverpool scored the goals. It was probably for this very reason the Setanta crew were practically convulsing with delight—”Take that, doubters! Our league is an awesome league because the shit club won, and the race is back on!” Yes, a lot of topsy-turvy for the clubs near the 55 to 65 point range.
But the rest of the league is either in one massive relegation fight (ten clubs are within six points or less from the drop) or holding off faint hopes (and I use the word ‘hopes’ guardedly) for the Europa League. Villa were the only club who even managed to get pundits to talk about breaking the Top Four, let alone the league title, for more than one news cycle. Their loss means it’s normal service resumed, with only the unlikely possibility of a Liverpool title pip providing any narrative tension.
The Premier League is the not best the league in Europe (though the Big Four are certainly the best European clubs at the moment) because it’s not a “league.” A proper league, as the name implies, features a number of clubs who each has a chance at winning the league trophy. The odds don’t have to be equal; there may be dominant clubs and shit clubs. But when money creates a feedback loop to the extent that we’ve seen in England, when the same top four clubs ride the crest of historical popularity, ever-increasing broadcast fees and significant geographical advantage, the idea of a “league” dissolves completely.