It also all but confirmed that, for the second year in a row, the title will be won by a team that went without European football. Indeed, had Liverpool not slipped up in 2014, three of the last four champions would have emerged unexpectedly from domestic shadows. As such, it might be time to review the long-held perception that missing out on the top four is a disaster.
Midway through the last decade, a tetrarchy locked itself in at the head of the table. Gerard Houllier’s last act as Liverpool manager in 2004 was to rejoin Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal at the top and, for five of the following six seasons, that quartet always claimed the first four spots. (The only exception, in 2004-05, came when Liverpool finished fifth but won the Champions League, thus retaining their place in the competition and continuing the cycle.)
From 2004-10, this elite perpetuated their advantage, sucking up Champions League revenue, spitting it back out into the transfer market and growing steadily stronger and more distant from the others. The difference that the European money made to their budgets almost made them invincible. Almost.
Liverpool fumbled first, disintegrating in 2010 under the ruinous ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillett. It took a mighty effort from Tottenham Hotspur to take advantage but, with the help of Gareth Bale and Luka Modric, they claimed fourth.
The next year, it took hundreds of millions of Sheik Mansour’s pounds for Manchester City to take Spurs’ place. But now something has happened, which has proved far more of a game changer than anyone might have expected. That is, everyone is rich!
The beginning of this season marked the moment that TV revenues, already through the stratosphere, burst clear of the gravitational pull of planet earth. Sky and BT Sport, who share the Premier League rights in the UK, went from paying just over £3 billion to more than £5.1bn.
Because that money is shared — not on an entirely equal basis, but on something approaching one – all 20 of the league’s clubs have benefitted. Champions League cash still brought an advantage, but not as pronounced an advantage as before.
And while many assumed that the difference would be felt in the quality at the top, it was further down the table that the effect was most noticeable. Clubs didn’t even feel the need to wait for the money to land in their bank accounts; aware that 2016 — i.e. before the new TV deal kicked in — was the worst possible year to get relegated, the spending spree started in 2015.
West Ham snapped up Dimitri Payet for nearly £11m and finished seventh, just four points off fourth-placed Manchester City. Southampton felt bold enough to gamble £11.5m on Celtic’s Virgil van Dijk proving good enough for the Premier League. They finished sixth.
Leicester, meanwhile, spread their bets, but it’s hard to imagine them forking out nearly £6m on an unknown French defensive midfielder by the name of N’Golo Kante, had it not been for the TV bonanza. He was a major factor in Claudio Ranieri’s side having quite a good campaign.
The pattern was repeated up and down the table, with clubs spending more on transfer fees and wages. Indeed, they almost had to, in order to avoid falling behind their rivals. The effect of all this was twofold.
First, modest clubs could pay huge wages for players that made them noticeably better. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the number of games that the biggest clubs could win comfortably shrank considerably. In other words, the gap closed.
But it wasn’t all bad news for the elite. If the relative difference between revenues for Champions League and non-Champions League teams was lower, then so too was the damage incurred by failing to qualify for Europe’s top competition. Moreover, there are considerable benefits to not being involved, as Leicester, Chelsea and, to a lesser extent, Liverpool have proved.
It was Liverpool that first showed the way, going so close to the 2014 title after finishing seventh the previous season. Without the distraction of European football, Liverpool weren’t just fitter, they were better prepared on a tactical level.
Brendan Rodgers’ side made no impact on domestic cup competitions either three seasons ago, meaning they had plenty of time to prepare for each challenge. Contrast that with recent comments from Carlo Ancelotti, who made public his frustrations with the frantic nature of football at the highest level, revealing that he’d only had one full week on the training pitch with his Bayern Munich players between the start of the season and Christmas.
Leicester didn’t adapt their tactics last season as much as Rodgers did, but their rapid-fire counter-attacks were all the more effective for the lack of fatigue in their squad. Antonio Conte’s attempts to convert Chelsea to a back three, meanwhile, were undoubtedly aided by extra time spent on the training pitch. Both teams also benefitted from a lack of injuries; players never even went in the fabled “red zone,” let alone stayed long enough to get hurt.
The logical extension of all this is to not only reassess perceptions of the top four, but to intensify long-held views of the Europa League. While Manchester United may benefit from the Champions League place dangling on a stick for the winners, you wonder if other teams may soon write the competition off altogether, playing their reserves in order to keep first teamers fit.
We may also see more patience at the top as clubs feel secure enough to invest time in managers and young players. Perhaps we already have, given that none of Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho or Arsene Wenger have been sacked for, at various times this season, sliding out of the top four.
And so as Chelsea prepare to celebrate, there is solace for the others still scrapping for a Champions League place. Missing out may not be as bad as it seems.