The Premier League has a very clear top 6 teams, although Leicester and Everton are forcing their way into that group by exploiting the decline of Arsenal. Below that top cluster of teams, however, is a pack of clubs who are playing out every season with the primary aim of not being relegated. What is the ambition of teams like West Ham, Southampton, Crystal Palace, Wolves, Newcastle, Burnley and Brighton who are all fairly established as Premier League clubs? How about Aston Villa, Sheffield United, Leeds United, West Brom and Fulham? Survive, or thrive?
I thought that following Leicester’s incredible Premier League success in just their second season back at the level in 2015/2016, all clubs would believe in their ability to do more than just get by from season to season. Of course, there is always the lingering threat of relegation and the season after their success, Leicester fired Claudio Ranieri when they were floundering and that was a dose of reality to end their fairytale. Clubs are only ever a bad run away from being relegated, like Bournemouth in the 2019/2020 season. They weren’t seriously in the discussion for relegation pretty much throughout the first half of the season, but a series of injuries and a loss of form and identity all combined to doom them. The signing of Dominic Solanke was also fairly dooming. The combination of a defence terrified of clean sheets and a striker terrified of scoring goals (pre-relegation) needs to be avoided at all costs.
Leicester’s Premier League-winning team was a long way short of being incredible or the most expensively assembled. With the explosion in fees over the last few seasons, most Premier League teams cost more than their team did. But there hasn’t been a serious 3rd party run at the title until the 2019/2020 season when Leicester themselves flirted with being Liverpool’s runner up before they got scared and dropped out of the Champions League positions. Brendan Rodgers’ insistence on changing tactics also snookered them and cost them the top 4 which would have been a massive achievement to match Everton’s 4th place finish under David Moyes in 2005 (despite Richard Wright’s 7 Premier League appearances).
Southampton have been in the Premier League since 2012. They were promoted from the third tier in back to back seasons under former physio Nigel Adkins and have been managed by Mauricio Pochettino (highly in demand during his spell at Tottenham and a fan favourite of most clubs fans), Ronald Koeman (luckiest man in football, currently managing Barcelona having left the Dutch national team after dumping Southampton for the riches of Everton), Claude Puel (a practical manager with a resistance to attacking football), Mauricio Pellegrino (he might sound like Pochettino, but he’s got none of the ability), Mark Hughes (you talk about a struggling Premier League club and you’ll get to Mark Hughes’ spell in charge eventually) and the current manager, Ralph Hasenhüttl (a man who has survived a 9-0 home walloping in the days before zero attendances). They’ve regularly teased Liverpool into signing their players for incredible fees, but also used that connection to bring in Danny Ings who kept them up alone last season. Other than 8 seasons in the league, what do they have to show for them? What do they hope for at the start of each season?
The domestic Cup competitions are rarely fully attacked by clubs outside the top 6. Manchester City have won the League Cup (with various main sponsors) in 5 of the last 7 seasons to satisfy their jackdaw manager, Pep Guardiola. Arsenal have picked up the FA Cup in in 4 of the last 7 seasons. There has been a rotating cast of clubs beaten in the final, including the likes of Watford, Aston Villa and Hull (who blew a 2-0 lead against an Arsenal team desperate to end their trophyless run).
Considering the investment into every Premier League squad, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect clubs like Everton to have a proper run at winning at a Cup. Tottenham, having bridged the gap to the top 4 under Harry Redknapp and then Mauricio Pochettino, haven’t made an FA Cup final since winning the competition in 1991 but did win the League Cup in 2008 and lost the final in 2009 and 2015. It was very clear that a Cup competition was the target under Pochettino especially, but never more than under another jackdaw manager in Jose Mourinho who also wants to disprove the commonly held belief that his best days are behind him.
Both Tottenham and Arsenal, along with Leicester, will be targeting winning the Europe League this season as a Champions League place is the prize. But how can it be that only 7 or 8 teams in a 20-team league, the richest in the world, have a realistic ambition to win a Cup competition? Why shouldn’t have Brighton’s hundred-million-pound squad wanted to attempt to win the League Cup? A home defeat to a largely disinterested Manchester United is no disgrace, but would it have been unreasonable to have expected the club to take the Cup more seriously? Everton and West Ham (despite frequent noise from the supporters to the contrary) have regularly pumped large sums of money into transfer fees without any suggestion of tangible success.
Will this season be any different? Possibly for Everton, who won the clash of that pair 4-1 in the Fourth Round of the League Cup. Everton play Manchester United in the Quarter Final. The other ties are Arsenal vs Manchester City, Brentford vs Newcastle United and Stoke vs Tottenham. Two of Brentford, Newcastle, Stoke and Tottenham will be in the Semi-Finals. Newcastle and Tottenham should both, surely, be aiming to win the trophy. If they get to play each other, it’ll be a chance for Tottenham’s revenge following the least justified penalty ever awarded in the last minute of a Premier League game (I’ve decided that as any great Dictator would, with no input from others or thought to other candidates).
Despite the chance of a different name being added to the League Cup, this will probably be the usual few clubs hoovering up the titles and everyone else just happy to survive. When it comes to the Premier League, the chase is better than the catch.