Mid-table: The real, crazy Premier League.
This season looks like the most exciting mid-table scramble in recent Premier League history, with any of 10 teams genuinely looking towards the coveted European places towards the top end of the league.
Last year snapped up by Swansea through the Capital One Cup, relegated Wigan through the FA Cup and Tottenham Hotspur, so tantalisingly close to the Champion’s League they so desperately sought. Look at last year’s table, and you see immediately just how competitive the middle of the Premier League has become.
Just 10 points separate Swansea, widely considered to have had a vastly successful season in 9th, and Wigan, who were relegated before the final day of the season and consigned to a long grueling season in the ultra-competitive Championship, a league renowned for it’s complicated and tough nature.
Within that 10 point gap, the focus of this article, you have a variety of styles, managers and budgets, some of whom may be delighted with their season’s work (Swansea, West Ham) and some of whom who will be bitterly disappointed with their final position, such as the North-eastern duo of Sunderland and Newcastle. Factor in the vast difference in financial reward between two positions (now in excess of £1,000,000 per position), and you have a situation where a good season of surpassing expectations can lead to millions of extra pounds into a club’s bank balance, which can lead to further progress and financial gain.
Take a look, for example, at Norwich City. For large parts of last season, the East Anglians were struggling for form and finding wins hard to come by, and, but for a late season burst of good form, would have found survival tough. This run of form though, found Norwich finish in the heady heights of 11th place, and the financial rewards that such a lofty final position brings have enabled the club to engage in a recruitment spree over the summer that knowledgeable football pundits have to stand up and take notice of. Ricky Van Wolfswinkel, fantastic name aside, is a genuinely quality signing for an unfashionable club such as Norwich, and although he may need time to adapt to life in England, will likely be a regular goalscorer for the club. Add into that Leroy Fer from FC Twente, a highly rated Dutch midfield prodigy, Gary Hooper, the former Celtic and Scunthorpe hitman never shy of finding the net, Nathan Redmond, a teenager from Birmingham never afraid of being direct and explosive, and you have four exciting signings for a club looking to propel themselves further up the league.
The downside of this mid-table scramble however, is the glass ceiling that contains this medley of teams. For all of the talk of the top four not being as all-conquering as in the mid 2000s, there have only been two teams in the past five years that have cracked the usual top seven teams of the Manchester clubs, the Merseyside clubs, Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea. Aston Villa, in their recent pomp, managed 6th twice in 08/09 and 09/10, and Newcastle managed a remarkable 5th in 2011/12, but otherwise, no “mid-table” club has achieved higher than 8th. That the European places remain almost exclusively in lockdown through the league is not necessarily a negative, the cups offering a genuine alternative route in Europe’s second-tier competition, but that it remains so hard to surpass a certain point in a club’s development is surely a staunch reminder to these teams of their place in European football.
Ignore the top seven briefly, though and you have a genuinely unpredictable mini-league of 13 teams this year, all of whom would like to believe that a bottom 5 finish will be an underachievement (Crystal Palace and Hull aside, arguably, who would be happy with just survival, Cardiff, after such a large investment, today’s announcement of Gary Medel included, will surely be looking to follow in their Welsh neighbour’s footsteps of establishing their Premier League status).
Onto, then, the tricky business of attempting to make sense of the madness of mid-table, and concluding who will look to over-achieve this season and who will struggle to stay in the top tier of English football. I can see Norwich and Cardiff’s recent investment leading to some success in the following season, and I genuinely hope Norwich’s sensible approach reaps some reward, but it depends on how quickly their big money signings settle into life in England. At the other end of the scale, I can’t see Crystal Palace engineering an escape from relegation with such limited investment, and Dwight Gayle is hardly the signing that will whet the appetite of the London club’s fans. I can also see West Bromwich Albion struggling though, despite their successful season last year, purely through a lack of goals. Romelu Lukaku has left his loan spell at the club, and has not been properly replaced, which may cause trouble for the club.
Prediction from 8th to 20th:
- 8th Norwich
- 9th Swansea
- 10th Southampton
- 11th Cardiff
- 12th West Ham
- 13th Aston Villa
- 14th Newcastle
- 15th Fulham
- 16th Sunderland
- 17th Stoke
- 18th Hull
- 19th West Brom
- 20th Crystal Palace