There’s that analogy, often inappropriately used – adapt, and survive, or don’t, and you won’t.
So how does this apply to the Premier League? I see it heading straight for an evolutionary crossroads in a state of Emperor’s New Clothes denial. Its position is similar to the one we faced when our distant ancestors starting walking upright for no other reason than they could.
The crucial difference here is that the Premier League should be looking to do the same thing, but consciously. Evolve that is, not walk upright.
Man, because it can, has now evolved to the point where he has a disproportionately large effect on shaping the environment in which he lives. There are similarities between the dire effects of man caused or exacerbated climate change and overpopulation and the effects that the creation of the Premier League has had on the way football is run, consumed and proliferated. Both are the result of man’s hubris and greed. Both cause insidious decay, eventually.
This gluttony has created a culture, a micro economy, to which English football is now entirely beholden to. At its core is the illusion that earning money equals success, and this wealth is generated on the notion that the world wide popularity of the product will be perpetual regardless of its quality. Basically years of success has created the belief that it’s the league, and not the teams or the players within it, that’s the main draw.
Evolution, appropriately, isn’t a perfect paradigm. That’s why some people reject it by calling it a theory. The idea that we have little control over our ‘destiny’, or any silly platitude you can think of, and that we are but evolution’s fleeting, interchangeable subjects doesn’t sit well with our hubris that our consciousness and intelligence are only by products of circumstance, and that were are in no way different from any other species in existence. Facts tend not to be respecters of conceptual delusions. Those smug folks who run the Premier League, that believe that each TV deal will get bigger when it’s negotiated every three or four years, are in essence as delusional as those who believe in an earth that’s only several thousand years old, one in which dinosaurs cavorted with humans.
To be fair and balanced, this belief is based on an upward trend. Each year the Premier League makes more revenue than it did the year before. By changing at this juncture the Premier League wouldn’t be looking to gain an advantage or an edge, but to maintain its position and its ability to earn the vast sums of money it craves and now needs to sustain itself.
With each passing year the importance of world wide marketability of the product increases, as this drives the ludicrous overseas TV deals the Premier League receives. That means continuing to appeal to an audience that by and large watches the product for its quality, and without any emotional attachment to one of its teams. Many local and or loyal fans follow to support their team, not because they play in The Premier League. The Premier League has them by the balls, and as such can treat them with patronising contempt, as season ticket prices rise year on year and clubs are charging £80 plus for high priority cup games, this in an economy where the average wage is rising well below inflation. Of course they’re thankful for your support. The domestic TV revenue takes care of itself. The ideal for the Premier League is for millions of Americans, Japanese, Indians, Chinese, Malaysians and Indonesians to develop an affinity for one of its teams. That means they’ve got their custom for life, cynical though that may sound, it is in essence no different from the way local football clubs view their season ticket holders.
However, as correctly pointed out here, businesses succeed through a form of altruism, listening to what their customers think about their products, and what they want from them, and the company then providing it. The Premier League needs people to want to root for one of its teams. The most likely way they will is through a league filled with sides that play attractive football and that have the quality of players with the capability to make that possible.
Last midweek there were two televised games from the Premier League; Cardiff City versus Aston Villa, and Arsenal versus Manchester United.
I made the point on Twitter, apart from fans of either of Cardiff or Villa, there was simply no reason to watch this match. Not even if you were daft enough to have money on it. It was an unsurprisingly depressing spectacle. Villa are an affront to the aesthetic. They’re the sort of atypical British footballing dredge that is masochistically lauded as being ‘necessary’ ‘at times’ ‘to survive’. Yet all of the top teams throughout Europe don’t play like this.
There is still a strong scepticism of skill and invention in British game, fans are quick to distrust skill in favour hard work. It’s easier to identify with something which you can and do, rather than something you can’t.
More worryingly for the Premier League’s ability to market itself successfully, some Premier League managers share this ideology, or should I say inability to appreciate the advantages of diversity, call it an inferiority complex, Aston Villa’s manager Paul Lambert being one. He appears to be from the Jim Jefferies school, entry to which requires placing a heavy emphasis on ‘grafting’, and players being primarily selected for their power, height and pace and not their technical ability and intelligence. Membership often requires openly scoffing at the style of football used by the likes of Barcelona or Bayern Munich, categorising it as ‘boring’. This style of play is associated negatively through a lens of xenophobic infused ignorance with foreigners and their insidious influence.
Defending deep, hitting aimless long balls, running in straight lines and playing for territory was depressingly common place before the Premier League came into its current incarnation, and the accent was placed on finding modes of sophistication to appeal to a wider audience. Here a debt of gratitude must be paid to Arsene Wenger, a foreigner, who yes, was attracted to England partly through the money that he and other top coaches and managers could earn.
You imagine the Premier League’s proprietors, like that grasping cunt Richard Scudamore, would like to be dissociated with the likes of Villa, a club that’s dying a slow death through years of mis-management from the top down. It’s hard even for the best business men to sell this shite to clueless morons. Cardiff City aren’t any easier to sell. Their whole priority, like so many of the league’s bottom feeders, is survival. They’re immured into a survivalist mentality, primarily just to keep receiving the annual Premier League windfalls and the faith that next season ‘will be better’. It’s difficult to extricate yourself from this cycle of short termist desperation once you become part of it. Even worse such clubs are susceptible to the mirage of optimism that’s offered by mostly foreign businessmen, then becoming their vanity projects. In Cardiff’s case they’ve become victim to Vincent Tan, whose replica shirt wearing reminds you of the grotesque Mike Ashley, and his demeanour that of a preposterous theocratic dictator who has mirrors on every wall in his mansion. On the pitch the vista was equally depressing, as both teams had neither the ingenuity nor quality to create much. It sums up the relegation battle pretty well. It’s sold as exciting, due to the entirely arbitrary small number of points separating so many teams. It seems exciting when you look at the table – ‘oh there’s ten teams who could conceivably go down’ that’s until you watch them play each other, then it ceases to be exciting. Then you remember why they’re so shite, and it becomes a facilitator for self harm. They should use watching these relegation ‘six pointers’ at Guantanamo Bay instead of water-boarding.
More worryingly was what the game between Arsenal and Manchester United represented. This game featured two of the better sides in the league, on paper at least. United, the current champions, and with £60m plus spent on two new additions to that side, and no subtractions, currently sit seventh in the table, out of the title race and with little realistic chance of finishing in the top four, this by mid-February. They’re not a good side. Of course they aren’t good for one reason; they’re now managed by a fraud. This fraudulent ‘winner’ talks of jinxes, the inevitability of defeats, bemoans his luck in one breath, yet doesn’t want to discuss it in another, insinuates that the Premier League has it in for him and them, sends out his team with laughable tactics, see the embarrassing eight-one crosses mindlessly tossed inaccurately into the box against Fulham, and whose record away from home against other top sides since becoming a Premier League manager is woeful. He is dour, uninspiring and has an inferiority complex. Sadly for the league his sides embody that on the pitch. United are the league’s biggest draw, a club whose success and propensity for exciting football and dramatic moments has helped drive the Premier League’s expansion. Now that’s gone and has been replaced by this abject mediocrity, and mediocrity isn’t exciting.
Arsenal played their part too. Fresh off an inept and naïve spanking at Anfield they retreated, at home, against a David Moyes side, a side that has been floundering all season, into a Chicken Little-esque shell. Arsenal were second in the league going into the game, yet they played like a side who were in Manchester United’s position, managed by their manager, and having a season like they’re having. The game finished 0-0. That it finished was the best thing about it.
The Premier League prides itself, and markets itself on being the best league in the world. It’s a self appointed moniker that in reality is based on the illusion that because it’s the most popular, and as such wealthy, that it’s the best. In terms of quality of individual players, teams, managers and sides, it isn’t, and hasn’t been for quite some time now, if it ever was.
This past week that impression was rammed home by the performances of oligarch owned Manchester City, and Arsenal in the Champions League. Aside from Chelsea’s unbelievably spawny run two years ago this has been indicative of the recent performance of England’s top clubs in Europe when they come to face the best European sides. Both Arsenal and Manchester City, Premier League title contenders let’s not forget, were schooled, by Bayern Munich and Barcelona respectively. Ironically their approach in those games mirrored that used by many of the smaller Premier League sides when facing them. Both English teams sat off, at home, allowing two sides brimming with classy players, who are used to teams adopting this approach against them in their domestic leagues, looking to grind out a result. It smacked of being reduced to doing this in hope rather than expectation. Gary Neville calls this tactic ‘waiting to drown’, and against this level of competition, you tend to.
Thankfully for the top Premier League sides they return to the safety of their Premier League bubble, where their flaws, and the league’s lack of overall quality aren’t exposed. Why? While the disparity between the financial haves (oligarch owned Manchester City and Chelsea) and the have nots continues to widen in the Premier League, its current nadir of overall talent has created a greater sense of parity. Using such an overarching characterisation is of course partly disingenuous. The clubs with the greatest resources and largest fanbases tend to finish near the top, but within each subdivision of the league – those contending for European places, midtable mediocrity and the bottom feeders – competition is fierce.
It’s apt that the Premier League mirrors the cutthroat Thatcheresque mores and structure of our society so accurately, there’s the super rich, the rich, a struggling middle class and the heavily derided working class at the bottom. What this disparity has created is a complete lack of upward mobility in the Premier League. It’s nigh on impossible for sides to build conscientiously as say Bill Shankly or Brian Clough once did, twice. You need an obscenely rich benefactor who is completely at ease with losing a small percentage of their misappropriated fortune to turn you from an also-ran into a club that can. The top sides already have the infrastructure and resources to compete. But the rest do not. Outside the top six, practically everyone else is a potential bottom feeder. As of now, there are more bottom feeders than ever, half the league to be accurate.
The argument against contraction is that the games are nearly always spirited and competitive despite whatever gap there may be between sides, and that’s the appeal to its hardcore fans, and more importantly gambling websites; the idea that anything could happen, that anyone could beat anyone else, on any given day. Which is all well and good, but in truth upsets rarely happen, usually the lower rung sides are cannon fodder that are there to be beaten, often soundly. The emphasis now between the top sides is too often on not losing when they play one another. Who is crowned champions is so often decided on how many wins they gain by beating the weaker sides.
Which brings us back to evolution, what traits its subjects no longer need it discards. To put it simply the Premier League doesn’t need Hull City, Aston Villa, Norwich City, or Cardiff City to maintain its success. In fact it’s more likely to maintain it if it finds a way to shed them.
I do feel slightly ashamed. Why am I willingly offering up a plan to save the current incarnate of this league, built primarily on hype and superficiality, which I often ridicule? This plan essentially discards the weaker members of the league like some heartless Tory bastard would. But this is football, we’re not implementing the Bedroom Tax or selling off the NHS, letting ATOS close hundreds of assessment centres, and privatising other public services and yer nan’s undies. It’s entertainment, it’s a sport. In the grand scheme of things it’s just not that important. It’s not a necessity. You can either consume it or not. It’s your choice.
It’s my choice to watch though. And if I do want to watch I want to watch something that’s likely to be good. Watching football, especially football of a high standard, can be aesthetically pleasing form of simple escapism. I suspect most other people see it in similar terms.
When I was younger I could watch most levels of football, from non league, to the Scottish Premier League to the highest standard, that being the World Cup, European Championships and the Champions League. Not anymore. I’m a far more discerning customer.
I want to see the best sides face each other as often as possible, especially when deciding who the best side actually is. That’s why the Champions League has become such a monolith. It’s the best versus the best. So I feel that my interests as a fan align with the Premier League here. As one its customers I would like to see more matches between quality teams, and the Premier League would like to keep ripping off its customers.
So I’m here to help, despite my misgivings. Will they listen? Of course they won’t, I’m just some bloke on the internet, but at least I can say I tried.
Of course the Premier League members aren’t going to vote to further concentrate the wealth, all twenty teams have an equal say, so it would be akin to Turkey’s voting for Christmas. Yet in the ultimate of ironies, the massive wealth division already exists within the current format. By cutting the number of teams to fourteen, the cut of the revenue each team gets goes up. This won’t have much of an impact on Chelsea or Manchester City, but tens of millions more going to West Brom or West Ham per year would likely make them better, or at the very least give them more scope to improve.
Here are the rough outlines of the plan, and my reasons why each change should be enacted:
First, cut the Premier League to fourteen teams. I’ve given the reasons why this would be beneficial above, the abbreviated version is that means less dross, and those who do remain will receive a larger portion of revenue with which they could improve and compete. With fewer teams they will need to. If they don’t or are incapable, with a larger share of teams relegated given the size of the new league, someone else will take their place and give it a go. And people still don’t believe in evolution?
To cut the league to fourteen teams we need a way to get rid of six, fairly, of course. This is easy, increase the number relegated from the Premier League to four, and decrease the number promoted clubs from the ghastly Championship to two. Do this for three straight years and we’re down to fourteen.
Yes the Football League will probably complain about there being less promoted places, but the carrot to be dangled is this; that after the changes are implemented, the money goes up for any promoted club that reaches the Premier League. The pot for relegated clubs, aka the parachute payment, could also be sweetened. During the three year contraction period there would be one automatic promotion place given to the champions of the Championship (also while we’re at it get rid of that daft name it’s given itself). The second automatic promoted place given to the team that currently finishes second is scrapped in favour of expanded playoffs. The teams that finish in the second and third places get a bye into the semi-finals, meaning there’s still merit in finishing in those positions, while the fourth to seventh place clubs battle it out in the quarter finals. That means one more Championship team has a chance of being promoted through the playoffs than they do currently. The second placed team then plays the lowest league placed team that gets through the quarter final, while the third placed team faces the highest placed finisher to get through. The second and third placed teams get the advantage of having the home leg of the semi-finals second. The winner of the playoff final gets promoted as they do now. Simple.
Now we get to the structure of the new Premier League. At the start of the season each team plays each other home and away, that’s twenty-six games. After that the league is separated into two halves – the top seven and the bottom seven. The points accumulated to that point still count when the two mini-leagues are formed. The top seven then play each other home and away again (twelve games) to decide who finishes where in each mini league. In the top mini league, the top four qualify for the Champions League, while the remaining three sides all gain entry to the Europa League, this means that the difference between seventh and eighth after the twenty-six game point is guaranteed European football and no threat of relegation whatsoever. The same applies for the bottom seven, with the bottom three being relegated. This means that both the relegation battle and the league title are decided by games, in the run in at least, between your direct rivals for the league title, European football, or relegation. At the top that means, once David Moyes is sacked, you’re virtually guaranteed to get four Manchester derbies a season. Or Chelsea facing Arsenal four times, or Liverpool facing Manchester United four times. If one of theses sides badly under-performs at the very least they will face the other top sides twice as they do currently.
One more suggestion, after the new format is firmly established the team that finishes third from bottom in the Premier League could play the winner of the playoffs in the Championship to decide who plays in which league next season. This could either be a one off game, or it could be a two legged tie, as they have in the Bundesliga, with the Championship side getting the home leg second. Don’t forget when coming up with these ideas you have to think as these bastards would, and do. Don’t forget that awful thirty-ninth game idea that was floating around a couple of years ago. More games equal more money, money is everything, greed is good, greed works.
The Einstein definition of insanity is thus: to do the same thing the same way and each time expect a different outcome. Within its own context the Premier League is putting that logic to the test, as it is doing the same thing the same way and expecting things to remain as profitable as they are. This is insane when you consider our culture, as mirrored by the Premier League, is a ghastly concoction of selfishness, disloyalty, vainglorious gluttony and where superficiality rules over constitution. The Premier League exacerbates the worst characteristics of its followers; fickleness, impatience and ill tempered self loathing. It taps into the sense of self entitlement that many people in the first world exhibit. The illusion that by having relative wealth we are owed it because it’s ingrained in our cultural groupthink that this is the way things are and should be.
Given this, perhaps the Premier League is vindicated in putting their faith in the vices of man, after all, it’s why the Premier League exists. So yes, perhaps the Premier League should just let evolution take its course.