Throughout the whole of last season in English football and the beginning of this season, it has become apparent that a massive gap has opened up between the top three teams in England and the next three teams.
When Liverpool were knocked down a peg as Tottenham Hotspur snuck into fourth place and Manchester City accumulated vast sums of money and players, the gap between the previous top tier and second tier seemed to be shrinking. There was a lot of sentiment that the Premiership had morphed into a league with a top six and that Liverpool, Tottenham, and City had joined that top tier. With their early performances, squad selections, tactics, and dealings in the transfer window, that sentiment appears to be one that is patently false, but why is the gap so large?
There are a number of reasons why the gap between the top three and the next three is a wide one come down to plenty of factors, but one of them certainly is not availability of financial resources. Tottenham and Liverpool’s spending has not been much different than the top three and City have obviously spent more than everyone else. If the cost of each squad is evaluated, the differences between the top tier and second tier are minuscule and a complete non-factor.
So, are the top three ahead of the next three because the biggest players won’t go to City, Spurs, and Liverpool? Absolutely not. It has been a very long time since Manchester United or Arsenal has signed someone of such a massive stature that they would refuse to go to a team that has the current status of the second three. Two of Chelsea’s best players, Didier Drogba and Michael Essien, were purchased when Chelsea was an up and coming club, before they were firmly established as one of the biggest clubs in the world. When these players joined, Chelsea wasn’t any different than Manchester City. They were a team with a lot of money and a long history of underachieving. There’s nothing that Chelsea has done that Manchester City is inherently incapable of.
So, transfer policy aside, does the gap in the class of players have anything to do with the gap between the teams? Well, to some extent, obviously. If one team is better than another team over the course of 38 matches, it is safe to assume that they have a better team, or at least that their players played better over those 38 games. No one would say that City, Spurs, and Liverpool don’t have great players, though. By almost anyone’s standard, the likes of Gerrard, Torres, Reina, Yaya Toure, De Jong, Silva, Bale, Lennon, and King (when fit) are top quality players. All of those players have just as much natural talent as some of the best players for Manchester United, Chelsea, and Arsenal. All of those players have been considered to be world class almost unanimously at some point, even if it was only for a month or so. The reason these players don’t live up to their full potential, and therefore, their teams don’t live up to their full potential, often comes down to the way they and their teammates are utilized. Of course, that comes down to management.
The management of the six clubs in question is truly the biggest reason for the gap between the top three and the next tier of three. Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson are, beyond any shadow of a doubt, two of the greatest managers of all time. For a while, Chelsea had another one of the best managers of present day, Jose Mourinho. Guus Hiddink has proven himself to be a great manager as well, and currently Carlo Ancelotti appears to be outsmarting most of his opponents. On a more regular basis than Wenger, Ferguson, and Ancelotti, the managers of the second tier teams, Harry Redknapp, Roberto Mancini, and Roy Hodgson make baffling decisions that handicap their teams.
Joe Cole is not a trequarista. I’m not sure why anyone has ever entertained this idea for more than two seconds for any reason other than “because Joe Cole said so.” Yaya Toure is not Juan Roman Riquelme and should not be playing as a playmaker when a team has an unlimited amount of money…and James Milner. Harry Redknapp should not be making like for like substitutions, failing to make any kind of tactical adjustment when his team is struggling valiantly at home against Wigan.
The transfer decisions of both teams have been curious as well. Jermaine Defoe and Peter Crouch have been solid for Spurs, but an exorbitant amount of money was spent on both players. If one were to go down the list of Rafael Benitez signings and pick out which ones were good value for money buys, they would discover a success rate that was well under 50%. Hodgson’s transfer acumen is yet to be seen, but it seems unlikely that Raul Meireles, Christian Poulsen, and Joe Cole are the players to lead Liverpool to glory, nor or any of them likely to have great resale value. Manchester City’s exploits in this area are self-explanatory; they have wasted more money than any team in the history of football. Meanwhile, the major flops of the entire reigns of Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger can be counted on a pair of hands, easily.
Arsenal’s best player, Cesc Fabregas, was purchased as a teenager. Their most in-form player, Theo Walcott, was also purchased as a teenager. Their best defender, Thomas Vermaelen, could have easily been purchased by Liverpool, Spurs, or City a year prior to his move to Arsenal. Manchester United continues to get great performances out of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, two players who are 36 and 35 years, respectably. Darren Fletcher has morphed into one of United’s best players after struggling to break into the first team in his early 20s, and he is a player who is very limited by his middle of the road natural talents. Their best defender, Nemanja Vidic, was signed for £7m from Spartak Moscow and a player of the stature that Vidic was in 2006 could easily be purchased by any of the second three. Chelsea’s purchase of Didier Drogba and Michael Essien were already discussed above. Frank Lampard was purchased at the age of 21 before the Abramovic era.
Building a spectacular team that can challenge Manchester United, Chelsea, and Arsenal is not beyond Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, and Liverpool. All three of those second tier teams have the ability to build a team that can compete for the Premier League and Champions League titles. However, all three teams have been handicapped by their managers in the past and it appears that they will continue to be handicapped by their managers in the future.
There is hope for those teams, though. Neither Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger was a superstar in management before joining Manchester United and Arsenal, respectively. Both managers had proven at lower levels that they could win and develop young talent, but neither was seen as a sure-fire candidate to lead their team to glory. If the second three are ever going to achieve what the top three have, they are more likely to get there by finding a young version of Ferguson or Wenger than hoping another established manager can defeat them.
Roy Hodgson, Harry Redknapp, and Roberto Mancini were all safe hires by Liverpool, Spurs, and City. All three of those hires sat well with the fans and all three are likely to bring their teams respectable results, but respectable shouldn’t be good enough. The ceiling of all of these men is probably fourth place, maybe third if someone has catastrophic injuries. None of those teams will ever win the title with their current mangers. If their owners are okay with that, then so be it, but fortune favors the bold.