The English Premier League is a festering mess of greed, sleaze and stupidity but, allowing for that, the 2010-11 season is shaping up quite well. It is at least less predictable than at any time in the century so far. It may be too much to hope for only three months in, but there is cause for thinking that, for only the second time in Premier League history, none of the three promoted clubs will go straight back down. For anyone other than local rivals of the clubs in question, this ought to be seen as a sign of progress.
There have been several occasions when one team has spent an entire season anchored to the bottom of the table, but these have become much more frequent recently with Watford, Derby and Sunderland all enduring abject humiliations within the last decade.
This season, however, Blackpool's defeat of West Brom at the start of November means that all three promoted clubs were in the top half after ten games. Newcastle, widely tipped to struggle with a small squad and novice manager, have achieved their biggest win in a north-east derby in 55 years and beaten two of the clubs who would be expected to finish some way ahead of them in Villa and Everton. Their enigmatic owner has even managed to keep himself out of the headlines so far, although his mysterious reluctance to give Chris Hughton a full-time contract suggests that he is itching to go back to the old days of throwing money away on a big-name boss. While Blackpool and West Brom have both been beaten 6-0 by Chelsea they have also had notable away wins, at Anfield and the Emirates respectively.
The promoted teams have played open, attacking football and haven't sat back and tried to pick up clean sheets and the odd point here and there. Ian Holloway and Roberto Di Matteo have kept to the philosophies that secured promotion and Chris Hughton has consistently played with two big strikers – Newcastle have scored 19 goals already this season, six more than fourth-placed Man City.
Perhaps the higher profile managers should take heed. Liverpool have struggled when playing Fernando Torres as an isolated lone striker. They didn't score a goal in the first half of a match in October, but relied upon late surges when a second striker came on to help Torres. Under Roberto Mancini, Man City have also struggled to score when playing with a single striker.
The newly minted City have performed pretty much as neutrals would have hoped since they embarked on their globe-straddling project, unsettling the other big clubs by flaunting their wealth while also seeming to be perpetually on the verge of a crisis themselves. Even if Sheikh Mansour continues to fund squad building at the same rate, it's also likely that the team will be beset by strife as players on six-figure weekly salaries react badly to being dropped by whoever happens to be the current manager.
Meanwhile, none of their newly acquired rivals is exactly forging ahead. Chelsea have spent the past five years demonstrating that success can be bought while the owner's placemen like chairman Bruce Buck continue to provoke derision by claiming that the club is run like a regular business. But Roman Abramovich's days of mega-spending are clearly over. Meanwhile, Arsenal still have glaring problems in goal and central defence that their manager doesn't seem able to address, Liverpool are seeking to recover from years of ineptitude in the boardroom and Man Utd will lose key players to retirement next summer and may not to have the funds to replace them – especially if they have to give Rio Ferdinand wage parity with the resolutely loyal Wayne Rooney. Plus, as is mentioned elsewhere in this issue, United's owners have loaded the club with a ticking timebomb of debt.
Also looming up on the horizon are UEFA regulations due to start in 2012, having been unsuccessfully opposed by the Premier League, that will prevent clubs taking part in European competition from spending more than their turnover. While teams of financial advisors will no doubt be working out ways to circumvent them, the restrictions should bridge the yawning gap between the gilded few and the rest of the division. If that also means that star players from future Euro and World Cup-winning sides opt for Italy and Spain, or Qatar, rather than coming here, then that seems like a fair exchange.
From WSC 286 December 2010