Allow me to make two boring, seemingly contradictory predictions. Prediction one is that Arsenal, now six points behind West Bromwich Albion, will end up securing the fourth Champions League spot in the Premier League this season. Prediction two is that once Arsenal slide into fourth, the commentary world will be set ablaze with people saying that the same old clubs are in the top four. Blech.
Rather than debating the “Big Four” problem once again for one more season, I’d like to ask a different question: must we really have this conversation? Look, we are stuck with what we have. You know how long we are stuck with the situation in the Premier League? We’re stuck with it until we are not.
But let’s be honest, most of our discussions about the Big Four over-analyse the problem. Are the Big Four going to be a Big Six this year? (Nope.) Are the Big Four really subdivided into title contenders and Champions League contenders? The Manchester teams are contenders for the league. Maybe Chelsea are a contender and Arsenal are definitely not. Great, let’s all spend time debating whether or not the Big Four is really more like a “big Euler’s number.”
The Premier League has four teams that you pretty much know are going to be in the top four every year, a couple of those teams seem more likely to win the title than the others in that group, and then there’s a difficult league behind them with few firm favourites for finishing reliably in any other particular portion of the table. If we grant that Man City and Liverpool have essentially changed club situations, I have described all of the last 15 seasons of the Premier League more or less accurately. The clubs that make the Champions League make enough money to stay in the Champions League. The teams outside the Champions League need insane levels of investment in order to break up the cabal at the top. Any team that breaks up this cabal relegates someone out of the cabal who is not likely to re-enter the cabal unless someone so rich that they simply do not care how much they are spending to get back purchases them. So, even when there is some drama surrounding Liverpool or Spurs trying to nip at the heels of Arsenal, if and when they do break the cabal one day, it more likely means the end of Arsenal as a contender for the Champions League rather than the beginning of hotly contested races for the top four.
The big four is a self-reinforcing structure due to the Champions League payouts being what they are. Breaking up the big four can only happen, as far as I can tell, by adopting one of the following remedies:
1. Create a European super league so that the big four English teams no longer play in the Premier League.
2. Eliminate all European competition so that there’s no money from European competition.
3. Populate the Premier League with more than four insanely rich people who will be willing to spend at all costs to get into the Champions League no matter where their club finished last season such that losing Champions League money in any given season means nothing to them.
4. Impose salary and transfer restrictions that level the playing field between clubs in the League but presumably chase many of the League’s best players into higher paying leagues elsewhere.
You tell me if any of these scenarios seem particularly likely. The only one I see possibly happening is 3, but one assumes if the League could have more than two ownership situations with that much amount of insane wealth to throw around, they would have them already.
So if you find the current situation at the top of the league a bit stale already, then I suggest you put away any hopes that some sort of progressive movement in football will make everything wonderful.
Instead, the best thing to do is wait and sees what happens. Sir Alex Ferguson’s strength seems to be masking a lot of institutional dysfunction at Manchester United. Arsene Wenger’s strength seems to be doing the same at Arsenal, though less successfully (whether this is because Wenger is less strong or Arsenal are more dysfunctional, it’s hard to say). Both men are not young so something might happen there. What happens to Chelsea or City if their owners get bored with their toys? What if Warren Buffett bought Everton?
Whatever the hypothetical story, there will be some event that we cannot predict now that changes things, things will get interesting, and then a new, boring equilibrium will form (another Big Four, just with different clubs who seem immovable) that people will moan about being unfair and predictable and will cook up ideas about how to break it up. Because none of the reforms make any sense, nothing will change until some other future event changes it. This is how things work. Not just in football, but also just, well, with things generally. While this might seem like a somewhat obvious insight, I guarantee that is equally obvious that people, in their impatience for something new to happen, will spill a lot of ink and fill a lot of talk radio trying to collectively forget the basic, obvious truth that history usually moves slowly and according to the buildup of large, long-term forces. Now needs to feel unique and exciting to many of us, because, well, it’s happening now.
If you want to enjoy the now, go watch a good side put in a good shift, and appreciate how they are using the narrow window of time to put their exceptional abilities on display during that shift. Shane Long is now. Anthony Pilkington is now. The existence and persistence of a Big Four is carved in stone, let it be as it is and look for your joys in the League as such.
Steven Maloney writes about football and politics. He also holds a PhD in Political Theory from the University of Maryland and is a political science lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. You can follow him on twitter here.