Our long international nightmare is over. In 2012, the year of the apocalypse, the EPL big four hegemony is finally at an end. Or so it would seem, at least. Over the last ten years, the same four teams have finished in the top four of the Premier League every single year, with three exceptions. Newcastle, who finished fourth in 2002 and third in 2003. Everton, who finished fourth in 2005, and Tottenham, who finished fourth in 2010. That’s seven teams total who’ve finished in the top four, with three of them finishing in the top four a total of four times combined. In Spain and France, 11 teams have finished in the top four in the last 10 years, with a constantly revolving cast of top four teams. In Italy, there have been nine. You could argue that Milan, Inter, and Juve have established something of a big three there, but all three of them finished outside the top four at some point, and the other six teams finished inside the top four a total of 14 times total. In Germany, eight teams have finished in the top three, with three or four different champions in that time. This is how a normal professional sports league should work. The EPL isn’t a normal professional sports league, however.
Although we still have a month of Premier League action to go, it would appear that, for the first time since the 2000-2001 season (which saw Leeds and the glorious Ipswich Town finish third and fourth), we might have two of the storied Big Four finish outside the top four. The fact that this is even a possibility is notable. For Brits who have been following the EPL since the 80s and before, the last ten years have been a unique paragraph amongst a much larger essay. For me, someone whose fandom was born within said paragraph, it feels as though a glass ceiling has been shattered.
The inevitability of the Big Four has always been a chain to choke off the enthusiasm with which I followed the EPL. It added an additional layer of excitement when Aston Villa almost broke through in 2009 or 2010 (that old David versus four Goliaths hook), but the inevitability ultimately won out. Unless you are a fan of any of the Big Four, it just seems pointless to watch the dance for position every season. Sure, there’s something in watching beautiful football by Arsenal or swift counterattacking by United, but on a meta level, it’s the same boring story every year.
Once the excitement of my first few seasons wore off (back in those innocent days before I had been infected with the inevitability bug), the Champions League became the real draw. Let’s take these four Goliaths and match them up with four or five other Goliaths and see what happens. The dynamism of the UCL shows no sign of subsiding, but I can’t let go of my first love so easily. Although yearning for some bucolic British version of the NFL or NBA, where almost every sports city gets their time in the sun once or twice at least in ten years, is irrational, I can’t help but be hopeful that the unnatural winter of Big Four paralysis is on its way out the window.
Mildly hopeful, I should say. The rea$on why the big four exi$t$ a$ $uch i$ the rea$on why it will be a tough out. The glass ceiling is nothing if not artificial, imposed by some teams being unfairly given a larger budget to buy players and pricing the smaller teams out of the market. The lack of a salary cap means that the FA has no direct way to counteract this capitalism gone wild. The MLB is another major sport without a salary cap; the presence of a draft, however, ensures that even the lowliest teams with the smallest budgets can get top young talent (compared to the Premier League, where if you are a second or third tier team, you can kiss any top talent in your youth system goodbye the moment they become top talent). Until a British version of Bill James or Billy Beane comes along, however, we can’t seriously hope that a team in the the Championship or lower levels of the Prem can mount a challenge to the perennial contenders. Whither the EPL’s Tampa Bay Rays?
On the one hand, I genuinely believe that all teams in a professional league should be given a chance to win, through whatever processes the commissioner of the league must impose. On the other hand, the Premier League represents professional sport at its purest. Having capital to buy top talent is part of the game. As far as players and coaches are concerned, the cream rises to the top. A Ferguson or a Mourinho doesn’t stay at the likes of Aberdeen or Porto for long; being brilliant saw them contracted to the highest bidder. The same could be said for any world-beating player that came up in a non-traditional setting. The Premier League is a free market, just one that’s advanced to the point where the gap between rich and poor is untenable and painful.
But that’s only a side note. The optimist in me wants to believe that either the rich and poor gap in the Prem is narrowing, or the wheel of fortune is finally restoring order to the cycles by which certain teams will be good and others will not. The pessimist in me thinks that this is merely a down year for Arsenal, Chelsea, and Liverpool, and that they have the dinero to make themselves challengers again in the next few seasons. Either way, it’s nice to finally have something to be excited about in the Prem title race. Not that someone new will win it, but rather that Newcastle and Spurs fans can get excited about the Champions League, while Chelsea and Liverpool fans get a taste of how the other half lives.
BACK TO POST
 Yes, yes. Man City finished third in 2011. But let’s be honest, is it really worth mentioning a team that bankrolled their way in? If there is a glass ceiling inhibiting all the teams in the Premier League other than the Big Four, Man City were given a pair of diamond cutters by the Saudi Oil Magnate that bought them out. They do factor in the discussion, but I don’t want to really use them as an example, for that reason.