It may seem a little hasty to wring hands and shake heads about the domination of English football’s big six. It is a little over two years since Leicester City secured arguably the most unexpected title victory in football history, and certainly in the history of the English game.
Leicester did not just break through the glass ceiling, they shattered it into a million fragments. Here was proof of the tagline: The Premier League, where anything can happen.
And yet you would have to be an optimist or a fool to ignore the widening gap between the Premier League’s haves and have-nots. In 2014/15, Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea finished in the top six positions.
In 2016/17, the same six. In 2017/18, the same six. If Leicester’s gatecrashing of the party came as a seismic shock, such shocks are rarely repeated. They were the glorious exception to new rule.
Last season, Arsenal produced their worst season under Arsene Wenger, leading to the manager’s departure after 21 years in the job. They won four away games all season and conceded two or more in 17 of their 38 league games.
This was a disaster. Arsenal still finished nine points clear of seventh place and scored 18 more goals than any team below them.
In fact, there is a strong argument to say that Leicester’s 2015/16 overachievement fuelled this new Premier League order. Claudio Ranieri and his team took advantage of the complacency within the established elite but also an arrogance.
In a table comprised of Leicester and the big six in that season, only Manchester United took more points than them. Elite club managers continually refused to adapt their way of playing to counteract Leicester’s, and paid the price.
Being humbled by a provincial club not only extinguished any notion of complacency within the established elite, it also provoked them into a period of high spending to ensure that a repeat would never again be possible. Between June 2016 and January 2018, those clubs spent a combined £1.8bn (€2bn) on transfer fees alone.
As broadcasting deals grew exponentially, so too did spending. More bad news for the rest comes in changes announced this summer regarding the allocation of overseas broadcasting rights. The big six clubs put forward a case that they merited a greater share of the revenues because they were the prime attraction for global viewers.
Even if the retort is that the league would not even exist without all 20 clubs, the cabal’s point is difficult to argue against.
Any increase on the current overseas revenue figure will now be weighted according to finishing position in the table. The obvious conclusion is the strongest will get stronger and the richest richer. Removing any measure intended to ensure financial and sporting competition contains inherent risk.
This season, Arsenal are the longest odds of any big six club to finish in the top six places, at 1-4. Of those outside that group, Everton have the shortest odds to make the top six at 5-1. According to the bookmakers at least, this is a done deal.
It would be remiss to blame the big six for their improvement — and why shouldn’t they improve? — without also scolding those outside of that select group for their inability to challenge. This is not just a case of the biggest and best sprinting off into the distance — a number of established Premier League clubs have suffered self-inflicted injuries.
Everton are a traditional pillar of the English game, and finished in the top six six times between 2004/05 and 2013/14.
But after the success of Roberto Martinez’s first season in charge, the club squandered all goodwill by failing to invest as Bill Kenwright began to flounder in the company of oligarchs and multi-billionaires.
When the club was eventually sold to Farhad Moshiri, the proceeds of the sale of Romelu Lukaku were squandered and Everton flunked in mid-table.
At West Ham, Everton’s stagnancy looks positively celebratory. A club that consistently talks a good game rarely backs up such bravado.
With a stadium virtually handed to them on a silver platter, West Ham spent £120m (€133.5m) on their playing staff and yet somehow got worse. Last season brought on-pitch protests, deep-rooted anger finally spilling over.
For their part, Leicester continued the fairytale into 2016/17 with a run to the Champions League quarter-finals, but bottled lightning is always likely to run out fast. With Ranieri unable to halt the slide back into ignominy and sacked with Leicester hovering close to the relegation zone, the final chapters of a wonderful tale had been written.
And then there’s Newcastle, a club with the fanbase, stadium, heritage and means to compete towards the top of the Premier League but a social institution suffocated by the parsimony of its owner.
If Mike Ashley cannot be persuaded to loosen his wallet by fan protests and the best manager the club could wish for, nothing will work. Newcastle stay submerged in apathy.
In a purely business sense, you could argue against anyone outside the big six even bothering to try and break into the cabal, instead settling for seventh or eighth place and a decent cup run. In 2016/17, Tottenham’s revenue was £306m (€340.6m) and the sixth highest in the Premier League.
The revenue of West Ham and Everton combined was just £351m (€390.7m). That gap is only likely to increase.
But that would go against the very essence of sporting competition, and thus be deeply unpopular. Supporting a football club is supposed to provide the escape from everyday rigour, not reinforce it.
Even one league season in which your club has no aspirations to strive for better and higher and it becomes stale. Over an extended period, the club drifts into inertia. Just ask Newcastle supporters.
And so Everton and West Ham have tried to make amends for past mistakes. The former have appointed Marco Silva as manager, recruited the well-regarded Marcel Brands from PSV Eindhoven in a sporting director capacity, broken their transfer record to sign Richarlison and also persuaded Lucas Digne to join from Barcelona.
West Ham have done more still, preferring to sign ready-made options rather than players for the future. The appointment of Manuel Pellegrini — a former Premier League title winner with Manchester City — demonstrated their ambition, while Jack Wilshere, Felipe Anderson, Ryan Fredericks and Andriy Yarmolenko are all aged between 25 and 28.
Leicester have suffered the blow of Riyad Mahrez getting his move, but have spent all that and more on James Maddison, Rachid Ghezzal, and Ricardo Pereira.
It’s impossible not to be a little negative about the whole thing, and surmise that we are scratching around for possible competition rather than watching it bang angrily on that glass ceiling.
The Premier League might have gone longer than any other league in Europe without the title being retained, but two years after Leicester’s triumph the top-six shop hangs up a sign that says ‘closed’. It may remain there for some time.