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English Premier League

The frustration of mid-table mediocrity: How the Premier League quickly loses its novelty

Martyn Cooke

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Premier League
Photo: Reuters

When Stoke City were first promoted to the Premier League a decade ago, I distinctly remember a conversation that I had with aMiddlesbrough-supporting colleague about what life in the top flight would be like.

He explained to me that the first few years would be enthralling and exciting, facing the elite of English football, watching your team test themselves in the so-called ‘best league in the world’ and being a regular fixture on Match of the Day.

However, he also warned me that the novelty would soon wear off, the stadium would become a corporate shell without an atmosphere and that the monotony of being stranded in mid-table below a glass ceiling would become frustratingly boring and predictable.

Much of what he said has come to be true.

It may seem somewhat bizarre to other supporters of the 72 Football League clubs that a fan should bemoan his team’s place in the Premier League, but the reality is that Stoke, like a host of other mid-table clubs, are simply there to make up the numbers.

The glass ceiling

Stoke City supporters will look back on this last decade as a golden era in the club’s modern history.

Since achieving promotion in 2008 the Potters have established themselves as a top-flight club and cemented their place as one of the top-teams in the country after securing three consecutive ninth-place finishes. Throw in an appearance in the FA Cup final and one subsequent prolonged Europa League journey and it is clear to see that there has been plenty for supporters to enjoy in recent seasons.

However, the Premier League has well and truly lots its novelty for many fans and this is distinctly demonstrated in the drastic decline in atmosphere at the Bet365 Stadium. During those formative years in the top-flight a visit to the Potteries was an unattractive prospect for opposing teams, with the ground often being turned into a cauldron of noise that was as intimidating as it was inspiring.

That atmosphere is now long gone, barring the add occasion, as the predictability of mid-table mediocrity has set in.

The novelty of the Premier League is now long-gone. The Bet365 Stadium now resembles any other sporting stadium in the country and the lack of atmosphere leaves you longing to stand on the terraces of the old Victoria Ground. Stoke are consistently near the bottom of the table for the number of televised games and regularly feature as little more than a two minute highlight package squeezed in at the end of Match of the Day.

On the pitch the club are stranded in limbo. The financial power of the so-called ‘big six’ clubs means that there is a definitive glass ceiling that mid-table clubs like Stoke cannot move beyond unless significant investment is made in the playing squad.

Leicester City’s title triumph remains a once in a lifetime event whilst Burnley, despite their early season success, will still ultimately finish outside the top six. This simply leaves the vast majority of mid-table clubs prioritising survival over everything else as they desperately attempt to retain their place on the financial gravy train.

Barring a run in one of the domestic cup competitions or the odd upset against one of the ‘big six’, supporters of clubs like Stoke have little to look forward to in the limbo of mid-table.

Stranded in limbo

So is the Premier League really all that it is made out to be?

The answer to that question probably depends upon the club that you support and how long the team have retained their place in the top flight. However, the reality is that the Premier League is not the best league in the world nor is it the most competitive – since its inception in 1992 only six clubs have ever won the title, making each season relatively predictable and the only excitement for many clubs comes when the threat of relegation becomes a reality.

The Championship is everything that the Premier League claims to be, but is not. It is unpredictable, exciting and any one of a large number of clubs have the potential to achieve promotion or reach the play-offs when the season enters its closing stages.

Not that any Stoke supporters would want to see their side demoted to the second tier. Relegation is a long, drawn out and painful experience that results in the departure of good players and club employees losing their jobs. Whilst The Championship may be exciting and unpredictable, there is no guarantee that a club will immediately bounce-back and achieve promotion at the first time at asking whilst the financial rewards are significantly lower.

Top-flight clubs like Stoke are stranded in limbo: fearful of relegation and yet with no realistic possibility of breaking through the glass ceiling. Cup competitions can provide a brief respite, but early exits only enhance the sense of frustration generated by mid-table mediocrity.

My Middlesbrough-supporting colleague was correct in his predictions about life in the top flight, although it remains to be seen whether Stoke have the ambition or finances to make the Premier League experience interesting for their supporters once more.

Martyn is currently a PTA and Research Assistant in the Department of Exercise Science at the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). In addition to his teaching role he is also undertaking a PhD in Sports History that is exploring the origins and development of football in Staffordshire. Prior to working at MMU, Martyn spent a decade operating in the sport and leisure industry in a variety of roles including as a Sports Development Officers, PE Teacher, Football Coach and Operation Manager.

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Burnley

Burnley 0-1 Manchester United: Three talking points from Turf Moor

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

Anthony Martial scored the only goal of the game as Manchester United recorded their third consecutive victory by seeing off Burnley at Turf Moor. In a game devoid of end-to-end entertainment, the Frenchman struck in the 54th minute when his right-footed shot found the net via the underside of the crossbar.

Burnley tried in vain to force a leveller but could not find a way past David de Gea, as their winless run extended to seven Premier League matches. United, meanwhile, have maintained their grip on second spot but remain 12 points drift of runaway leaders Manchester City. Here are three talking points…

United pass another away-day test

Despite rumours of unrest at Old Trafford, United are now unbeaten in eight Premier League matches. While their hopes of reeling in Manchester City may be remote, Jose Mourinho’s men are red-hot favourites to finish as runners-up. That would be a huge improvement on last season – their first under Mourinho – where United finished sixth. It was only their success in the Europa League that guaranteed them a place in the Champions League.

The Red Devils are definitely progressing and the expected arrival of Alexis Sanchez would give them another dimension. In particular, their away form will please Mourinho. This was United’s fifth victory in their past six Premier League games on their travels, a run that is helping to keep the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool at bay.

Burnley is a notoriously tricky place to visit, but United withstood the physical threat of the hosts and just about had enough to claim all three points.

Burnley are feeling the effects

When looking at the table, Burnley’s position appears to be very comfortable. In eighth place and with 34 points to their name, the Clarets are all but guaranteed to be playing Premier League football again next season. That would have been manager Sean Dyche’s priority and he can feel satisfied with the job he has done.

Nonetheless, this is a difficult period for Burnley, who have not tasted victory since they beat Stoke City on December 12. Scoring goals has been their biggest problem, having drawn a blank in four of their seven-game winless  run. The Clarets are not renowned as being free-scoring – they have found the net only 19 times this season – and rely on a solid defensive foundation.

Perhaps the exertions of their promising start have taken their toll on a settled side. The challenge for Dyche, who had been linked with the Everton job during the height of Burnley’s success, is to ensure his players do not fall into the trap of thinking they have nothing to play for.

Martial is making rapid progress

The Frenchman began the campaign out of favour at United, but he has regained his place in the side thanks to a series of consistent performances. His output has been productive, too. His goal against Burnley was his third in a row, taking him to 11 for the season. Allied to his seven assists, Martial is beginning to fulfil his immense potential.

He cut a frustrated figure at being kept out of the starting XI by Marcus Rashford – there was even speculation he might be on his way out of Old Trafford. But Martial said all the right things publicly and is no longer in the ‘supersub’ category. Competition for places will only intensify if and when Sanchez’s switch from Arsenal is completed.

But the former Monaco starlet should not fear the Chilean’s arrival, but relish it. He has proved he can be a trustworthy player for United. Like Luke Shaw, he is another to have benefited from some stern words from Mourinho, who will soon have an embarrassment of attacking riches to call upon.

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Bournemouth

West Ham 1-1 Bournemouth: Three talking points from the London Stadium

Rob Meech

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Hernandez
Photo: Reuters

West Ham United and AFC Bournemouth extended their respective unbeaten runs with a 1-1 draw at the London Stadium. Both clubs have climbed away from the relegation zone in recent weeks and this was a keenly-fought encounter between two evenly-matched sides.

Following a goalless first half, the Cherries broke the deadlock through Ryan Fraser after a breakaway, only for Javier Hernandez to equalise for the hosts 64 seconds later. A share of the spoils was a fair reflection and means West Ham and Bournemouth, 11th and 12th respectively, have identical records from the past six Premier League matches. Here are three talking points…

Future looks bright for both clubs

Just a month ago, the outlook was markedly different for both West Ham and Bournemouth. At Christmas, the Cherries were in the bottom three and the Hammers were not much better off. But the eventful 3-3 draw between these two teams on Boxing Day proved to be the start of an unbeaten run for each, which has given both real hope of avoiding relegation.

Such is the congested nature of the bottom half that it only takes a couple of victories to change the complexion on the table. Both clubs have won two and drawn three of their previous five fixtures, which has been enough to put clear daylight between themselves and the drop-zone.

This game, much like the corresponding fixture at the Vitality Stadium, suggests neither West Ham nor Bournemouth should be in serious trouble at the end of the campaign – if they can maintain their form. Equally though, David Moyes and Eddie Howe will be aware that complacency is not an option.

Impressive Fraser continues his resurgence

Bournemouth’s upturn in results since Christmas has coincided with a revitalised Fraser. The Scottish winger, affectionally known as ‘Wee Man’ by Cherries supporters, now has three goals and one assist in his past four appearances. His finishing has noticeably improved this season and he took his goal against West Ham with aplomb, firing the ball past Adrian after a defence-splitting pass from the returning Junior Stanislas.

Furthermore, Fraser’s improved stamina has enabled him to be effective for longer. Previously, the 23-year-old began to flag towards the latter stages and he was often replaced. But a better diet has paid dividends this campaign and he is rapidly becoming a key figure for Howe. Fraser has pace to burn and a directness that gives the team something different. Now though, he is having a real impact in games and his five Premier League goals are second only to Callum Wilson in the scoring charts.

Can West Ham afford to let Hernandez leave?

Speculation has surfaced in the past few days that Moyes may be willing to sell Hernandez, who only joined the club last summer. His arrival under Slaven Bilic was hailed as a real coup, but he has fallen down the pecking order since Moyes took the reins, with the former Manchester United supremo preferring Marko Arnautovic up top.

Hernandez though, has a creditable career goalscoring record and underlined his predatory instinct at the London Stadium. Only a minute after the Hammers had gone behind, the Mexican popped up in the right place to poke the ball past Asmir Begovic. It was Hernandez’s fifth Premier League goal of the season, all of which have been scored from inside the penalty area.

With Andy Carroll expected to be sidelined for a month through injury, West Ham’s striking resources would be depleted further if Hernandez is allowed to leave. While he may not offer much outside the box, as he illustrated against Bournemouth that he is the ideal man to call on when a goal is needed.

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Arsenal

Arsenal 4-1 Crystal Palace: Three talking points from the Emirates

Rob Meech

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Arsenal
Photo: Reuters

A barnstorming first-half performance against Crystal Palace saw Arsenal record their first victory of 2018. Nacho Monreal, Alex Iwobi, Laurent Koscielny and Alexandre Lacazette all scored in the opening 22 minutes to stun Crystal Palace. Arsenal could not add to their tally as the visitors stemmed the bleeding and replied with a late consolation through Luka Milivojevic.

This was a much-needed victory for Arsenal, whose ambitions of qualifying for the Champions League have taken a blow in recent weeks. Palace meanwhile, have been in impressive form since Roy Hodgson took charge, but this defeat has checked their progress. Here are three talking points from the Emirates…

Mesut Ozil steps up in Alexis Sanchez’s absence

With Alexis Sanchez’s move to Manchester United rumoured to be nearing completion, this was a chance for Arsenal supporters to see how the team might shape up without him. Sanchez was excluded from the side that lost to Bournemouth last weekend, but his absence was hardly felt here.

That might have had something to do with the return of Mesut Ozil from injury. The Germany international was influential throughout, particularly in partnership with the rejuvenated Jack Wilshere. Ozil is sometimes accused of drifting in and out of games against top-quality opposition, but when he is given licence to express himself without defensive responsibility, there are few better players to watch in the Premier League.

Although he failed to get on the scoresheet, Ozil showed Gunners fans that there can be life after Sanchez. It should not be forgotten that Ozil is another Arsenal player in the final six months of his contract. Tying him down to a new deal must be a priority for the club.

A reality check for lacklustre Palace

After losing their first seven Premier League matches – without scoring a goal in the process – relegation seemed nailed on for Palace. The appointment of Hodgson was largely derided, but the former England boss has had a remarkable impact in a relatively short space of time at Selhurst Park.

Survival is by no means guaranteed, but such has been their upturn in form that it is hard to imagine the Eagles being sucked back into trouble. It says a lot about their progress that many thought an upset might have been on the cards. Palace, however, were left shell-shocked after Arsenal’s four-goal burst.

When the Gunners click, they can be irresistible. Palace fans need not be too alarmed, even if their defending was lax. In fact, they should be heartened that their players did not capitulate in the second period, with the game effectively over. Although Milivojevic’s goal was too, little too late, it was just reward for a much-improved second-half performance.

Lacazette issues a timely reminder 

With a 3-0 advantage after just 13 minutes, Arsenal were in cruise control. But it was Lacazette’s goal, rounding off a superb team move to make it 4-0, that would have provided the biggest cheer. After hitting the ground running following his big-money transfer from Lyon last summer, the 26-year-old had endured a goal drought that stretched all the way back to December 2.

With questions being asked about his form, amid speculation that Arsenal are set to launch a raid for Borussia Dortmund striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, this was a timely reminder that Lacazette has plenty to offer. His overall record of nine Premier League goals from 24 appearances is more than respectable for a newcomer to the English game.

Lacazette will hope that his goal against Palace can be the catalyst for another scoring run. Without Sanchez, the burden rests more heavily on the France international and if a move for Aubameyang does not materialise, he will have a big part to play in Arsenal’s push for the top four.

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