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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Is Football Truly Broken

There was this very intriguing article about Man City's dominance of football demonstrating how and why European domestic leagues are broken. Jonathan Wilson, usually one of the best pundits when writing about football tactics, goes on to say that this is why you should be forming a super league in Europe.

I'm not sure about that. In fact I think it is pretty wrong headed. There was another article in the Economist that recently said that if you were to tell people in 2004 that the top 3 teams in England would be Man City, Tottenham and Liverpool, they would laugh you off. That was a time when Manchester United and Arsenal had a duopoly of the premier league, and Chelsea was starting to benefit from a massive injection of oil money that would see them dominate the league indefinitely.

Yes, unfortunately the English league, especially after the formation of the Premier League, tends to have power concentrated at the top. That was the time when the champions could have an advantage so strong that challengers could barely shake it off. But even in previous periods of domination, you could see some challengers coming up. During the Liverpool dynasty, Nottingham Forest, then Aston Villa, then Everton, Arsenal and Leeds mounted good challenges, and even Ipswich and Southampton managed to get up to the exalted heights of second.

In the early years of the premier league, Man United had challenges from Aston Villa, Newcastle and Blackburn, but slowly it became an ogilopoly with Arsenal, then a Man U – Arsenal – Liverpool – Chelsea ogilopoly.

However, the retirement of Alex Ferguson heralded another change. Not only would that ogilopoly extend to 2 more clubs – Man City and Tottenham, but at the moment, the old ogilopoly of Man U, Chelsea and Arsenal are back down, trying to chase for European places. Man City might be in for a period of dominance as long as Man United's – and that lasted for 20 years. But there would always be interesting challenges, and Pep Guardiola has hardly dominated the Champion's league as much as his crushing wins over Man U in 2009 and 2011 would have suggested. And let's not forget that the Premier League still has the ability to produce a genuinely left-field champion every once in a while: Leicester in 2016, Leeds in 1992, and Newcastle came pretty close to winning the league in 1996.

Money helps you to win leagues, but having a great manager is as important. At the moment, Man City, Tottenham and Liverpool are the top 3 because they also happen to be the top 3 most well managed clubs. Man City is the club that's spent the most money, but Tottenham had Liverpool haven't spent all that much at all, except Liverpool in the last season, when they took that great leap from being a surprise champion's league finallist to being a team that is, domestically, almost as great as Man City. In comparison, Arsenal and Man U have spent more over the last 5 years than those two and have had relatively little to show for it.

But golden generations will not last for long. Tottenham seems to be overperforming now, but how much longer will they be great, without the ability to bring in big players? Liverpool is also overperforming, but that's because of Jurgen Klopp, and even he was burnt out from having to make Borussia Dortmund overperform year in year out. And let's not forget that Pep Guardiola himself achieved periods of domination with Bayern Munich and Barcelona, but never stayed with either club for more than 5 years. Yes, Man City may be untouchable at the moment, but don't forget that this is the second great Man City team: stalwarts of the first great team, Yaya Toure, Joe Hart, Zabaleta are gone, Kompany, David Silva and Sergio Aguero are just playing bit parts. In between the first and second great teams, Chelsea and Leicester have taken advantage of the fallow period to snatch league titles. Man City may be very dominant, but their dominance is hardly guaranteed to last forever.

Previously, it seemed as though Chelsea would win league titles every year, after their repeat in 2004-06. But then Man United stormed back, and Chelsea went through a period where, for all their financial dominance, they could only manage 1 league title and 1 champion's league between 2006 and 2014. And the coaches that won 2 league titles for them – Mourinho and Conte – could not be persuaded to stay.

Similarly, it seemed that Man United's dominance of the premier league would never end, that Man United were either at their best and all conquering, or else they were fallow and just biding their time before their next great team would emerge. But now the narrative is either that it depends on there being an Alex Ferguson around, or even Alex Ferguson would have to cede ground to a new style of manager – the new Pochettino / Klopp / Guardiola model, who was kinder / gentler and took care of his players emotionally, rather than building them up to be utterly ruthless machines, the way that Mourinho and Ferguson did. Who played an utterly athletic, pressing and control freakish game based upon irrepressible attack rather than impregnable shields. I think this new reality dominated football in the second decade, and the dominant teams – Spain, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Germany, Man City, Liverpool and Tottenham were in many ways like this.

So teams can still rise and fall in the EPL, because of the natural rhythms of dynasties, because the nature of game changes and make old managers obsolete, and because even managers who are great don't stay great indefinitely. So there's no real danger of any permanent domination.

And here's the thing: even if the patterns of domination in EPL never changes, and it permanently stays an ogilopoly with teams joining that ogilopoly every once in blue moons, the champions change. The only complaint is that the best teams always seem to be that much better than the rest of the teams.

I don't know how people achieve equality in games like baseball and football, but in basketball, it also seems to be the way that great teams achieve a kind of dominance over the rest that makes it hard to break. The Houston Rockets seemed to be the closest to breaking the Warrior's hold on the NBA crown, but they faltered. And previously it was the Cleveland Cavaliers who were the perennial runners up. It is entirely plausible that even if an European breakaway league were to be formed, then you might have the problem of a few teams dominating that league. At least, at the moment, the elite teams have to divide their effort between the UCL and the domestic leagues, and that makes the UCL seem a little more egalitarian, never mind that in the past 10 seasons, it seemed that there was a Bayern Munich / Real Madrid / Barcelona ogilopoly going on. Plus what is going to happen to teams that used to dominate the champion's league – like AC Milan, Red Star Belgrade and Ajax, and who fall by the wayside? How are you going to kick them out of the superleague?

What it seems to me is that the current system is not broken, and it shouldn't be fixed.


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