Premier League’s chasing pack can threaten weaker members of ‘big six’ | Jonathan Wilson
When the Daily Mirror previewed the 1971-72 season with a weary reference to “superclubs”, seemingly the earliest use of the term in English football, the newspaper was talking about Liverpool and Leeds United. Its writer was not saying one of them was guaranteed to claim the league title, which was ultimately won by a Brian Clough-inspired Derby County, but highlighting the advantages of resource and, more specifically, personnel that meant Leeds and Liverpool would at least be challenging for honours.
Times change and expectations with them. It would be a major surprise if anybody other than Liverpool threatened Manchester City this season. We may talk of a Big Six these days, defined largely by infrastructure, but few give four of them much hope of winning the Premier League.
Each of those four clubs can point to specific reasons why they are unlikely, from a playing point of view, to challenge this season. Tottenham are continuing their evolution from upper mid-table side with ambition to regular member of the elite. Chelsea have a new and inexperienced manager and a transfer ban. Manchester United are entering the seventh year of their post-Ferguson transition. And Arsenal, despite breaking their transfer record to sign Nicolas Pépé, are operating under severe financial constraints and still have no central defence to speak of.
Given the significant possibility that Liverpool will not be able to maintain their form of last season it may be that the most intriguing battle this campaign will be for fourth – which this time round surely will not be the slow bicycle race it was last season.
The gulf from Liverpool in second to Chelsea in third was 25 points. From United in sixth to Wolves in seventh was only nine.
That is still a major step but it may be that the Big Six are not quite so secure. Certainly there are reasons for qualified optimism for each of the other four sides who finished in the top half last season.
Wolves have made permanent the signings of the forward Raúl Jiménez, scorer of 13 goals last campaign, and Leander Dendoncker, as well as landing the promising young Italian striker Patrick Cutrone, in a relatively quiet summer. Their first season back in the Premier League was remarkable, and featured wins against four of the top six as well as two defeats by relegated Huddersfield. Their task for this season is to work out a way of playing that makes them as effective against the bottom six as the top six which, at least on the face of it, means there is ample potential for improvement.
Their big problem, though, is participation in the Europa League. The additional demand on players has proved debilitating for various clubs in the past and Wolves have a particular issue in Nuno Espírito Santo’s preference for a settled side: 10 of his players made 33 Premier League appearances or more last season.
Everton, with their impressive plans for a new stadium, can also feel things moving in the right direction. Again, their most important deal of the summer is probably a loan signing made permanent, with André Gomes bought from Barcelona, although Fabian Delph is a useful addition to the midfield. Whether he is sufficient to make up for the loss of the security offered by Idrissa Gueye, who has gone to Paris Saint-Germain, is doubtful, though. This perhaps will be the season when it is possible finally to work out whether Marco Silva, with his history of early promise fading away, is any good or not.
The hiring of Brendan Rodgers at the end of February was an indication of Leicester’s ambition but, although they have attacking pace and midfield creativity in abundance, Harry Maguire is a major loss in defence as he departs to bolster Manchester United’s backline for £80m.
Then there is West Ham, who have the manager and the stadium (at least in terms of capacity) and finally seem to be allying that to astuteness in the transfer market. It is a long time since they had a consistent striker but Sébastien Haller, with 15 goals for Eintracht Frankfurt last season, appears as likely as any of the recent candidates to fill that void.
As a group, that tier of clubs looks as strong as it has in a long while but to break into the top six would still require one of them to have an exceptional season and/or for one of the Big Six to falter.
That is possible but, even were it to happen, it would not mean there was suddenly a Big Seven (or a Big Five). The structural advantages of the top clubs remain.
Perhaps more important than breaking into the top six, at least if it is a one-off, is for those clubs to develop a sense of identity, a recognisable and enjoyable style. It is something Brighton have spoken of as well, the need to be something rather than merely to survive in the Premier League.
This sounds positive and, in context, it probably is, so long as one does not think too hard about the economic changes that have left football so stratified that a title challenge is so far out of reach for so many.