In my local takeaway the other day, I noticed a striking deal on the wall. A couple of big pizzas, two doner kebabs, chips, salad, pop, all for £25. What struck me wasn’t the great value, though it probably wasn’t overpriced. No, it was the sheer lack of ambition of someone who’d consider spending such an amount of money in that way. I feel the same way about the Premier League. Three quarters of the teams commit to spending considerable sums on players without having any intention of ever challenging those at the top. We’re told it’s a closed shop but no-one ever tries to break the doors down, so how would we know? Money rules, but not in the sense that only those with money have any chance of winning, though that is probably true. It rules because those also-rans have got themselves into the position of being unable to do without the money the top division guarantees, and have relinquished any hope of glory in return for merely maintaining their position. That lack of true competition means that the entertainment value of the league is also inevitably reduced. No matter how well most sides raise their game when facing up to Chelsea, it doesn’t really matter. Even if they grab a win, they won’t be overhauling them in the league, and such performances must fall a little flat even at their greatest without a genuine shot at competing over a season.
Added to this, increasing numbers of teams are playing the percentage game. Solid, dogged defence. Strong, aggressive players. No attempt at possession football. A concentration on set pieces and aerial power. Don’t get me wrong, these are perfectly valid tactics and successful within the requirements of the teams using them. But aside from not being designed with spectators in mind, they make plain the total lack of ambition implicit in their use. Such tactics are meant to screw points from more fluent sides, some would say against the run of play, and condemn adherents to struggle. To make the step up from that status, teams have to be able to control games, to dominate the ball, and the tactics they choose prevent them from ever doing that. And though these tactics themselves are as valid as any other, also increasing is overly physical rough-house play alongside them. If you like seeing creative players getting cut in two, then you will be in your element this season as assorted bullies attempt to make a name for themselves. The rest of us spend our time cringing and watching games from behind outstretched fingers.
I dumped Sky many years ago when I realised that my prime reason for paying was the football, and that I watched only a tiny number of games that didn’t involve my own team (most of which I watched in the flesh anyway). Nothing I see today makes me think I was wrong. The tactics I’ve detailed above, as I said, are as valid as any other. But that doesn’t mean I have to enjoy or pay to watch them. In fact to paraphrase Bill Shankly, if Stoke, Blackburn, or Wolves were playing at the bottom of my garden, I’d draw the curtains. If two were playing each other I’d sell the house. Others aren’t much better. Outside of last season’s top four, hardly anyone plays the kind of game that might allow them to progress, that coincidentally also being the expansive game that people commonly find attractive. In short, attractive, entertaining football between well-matched rivals is few and far between.
Contrast this with vibrant, competitive leagues all over the world. Great players, playing with the freedom and belief in themselves and their team which allows them to take on the top sides at their own game. Spain, Germany and Italy all have groups of teams just as dominant as those at the top here. Neither are they strangers to the physical side of the game. But their opponents would rather die of shame than play the anti-football so popular here. Even our own Championship, which we were so keen to see the back of, in our season there was filled with teams who tried to play the ball on the floor. It may seem strange to attempt to praise the competitiveness of a league which we tore through with barely a pause, but my recollection is that most teams out-passed us and created as many chances as we did. Team after team came and took us on only to lose out due to our superior quality in front of goal. Most games we took part in were genuine contests, very few sides getting hammered. Yes, in the end we ran away with the league, but 10 or 15 sides were good enough to have possibly ended up in the play-off places and generally they all made an attempt to get there instead of settling for safety, percentages, and the drudgery that goes with it.
When success for most of our league consists solely of maintaining income levels, Sky’s bombastic claim to be showing the greatest, most exciting league in the world is belied by the processionary nature of the progress of some clubs towards success, and the lack of interest among others in challenging them. For exciting read played at breakneck pace and mistake-strewn. Certainly a spectacle, but the greatest? That’s not even funny.