Now that the opening weekend of the Premier League has kicked off, one thing is absolutely clear. Both Chelsea and Manchester United have a new rival to contend with. It’s an opponent that will be hanging over their heads throughout the entire season, adding pressure at key moments. It’s a new competitor in the Premier League that both top clubs fear. Its “name” is two words: goal difference.
No longer is it a question of whether Chelsea or Manchester United can win their matches each week. It’s now a question of how many goals they can score against their opponent. Such is the might of both clubs that seemingly the only thing that may separate them at the end of the season is goal difference. Perhaps we soccer fans should change the way we describe how many points a club gets each weekend? Instead of Chelsea or Manchester United “picking up three points,” maybe we should remark “Chelsea got a +6 this weekend.” What about Manchester United? “They got a +3.” Of course, I’m being slightly sarcastic, but you get the point. The gulf in class between the top two clubs and everyone else is extremely noticeable. Yes, the opening fixtures for Chelsea and Manchester United were against clubs who were just promoted from the Championship, but there’s an obvious difference in talent between the “Big Two” and the rest, even Arsenal and Liverpool.
I don’t mean any disrespect to supporters of the other 18 clubs in the Premier League, but the league has really turned into a league of men versus boys. West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle United were schooled so much this past weekend that it was extremely blatant. And it’s not only recently promoted teams. Remember how Chelsea walked over seemingly tough competition last season such as Arsenal (both home and away)? And how Manchester United blew Arsenal away at the Emirates?
Yes, Chelsea and Manchester United will face difficult opposition now and again but it seems that they’re continually able to pull something out from their bag of tricks to still salvage a draw or grab all three points. But these close games are too few and far between. Instead it’s the pressure of goal difference that spurs them on to try to demolish teams and ratchet up the positive goal difference. Last season, Chelsea ended the league with a +71 goal difference. Manchester United, while only one point behind in second place, achieved a goal difference of +58. In the first season of the Premier League, 1992-93, there were two more teams in the league than there are now. But still Manchester United won the league with a goal difference of +36. Applying that goal difference to today’s standards, United would have the fourth best goal difference in the league.
For supporters of Manchester United and Chelsea, these one-sided “contests” are enjoyable to watch. But they’re not much fun for everyone else from the neutral observer or supporter of other teams. Manchester United and Chelsea shouldn’t change anything, and I don’t want to see the same type of parity which paralyzes a lot of American sports. Instead, there needs to be something done to level the playing field a little.
In sports, there are always underdogs. The reason many of us like underdogs is because sometimes the underdogs win. When you lose that, you lose unpredictability and things get decidedly boring. The 2010-11 Premier League is still only a few days old and things may change, but so far it looks like it’ll be a two-horse race with a lot of also-rans this season. Let’s hope I’m wrong.