In mid-March, Manchester City looked to be on course for an uncharacteristic failure. After 30 minutes of their FA Cup quarterfinal at second-tier Swansea, Pep Guardiola’s side were 2-0 down.
However, where other Premier League sides may have relented to the pressure of a partisan lower league crowd, City turned on the jets. They eased out of third gear and ended up 3-2 winners thanks to an 88th-minute Sergio Aguero winner that seemed more casual than its clutch timing suggests.
“Manchester City almost play a different sport to what we play,” then-Swans manager Graham Potter said after the game. “They are relentless with their quality.”
It cannot be disputed that Manchester City are playing some of the most beautiful soccer in the world under Guardiola. And the concept of them playing an entirely different sport to their opponents has been mooted on numerous occasions.
This theme was clear at the FA Cup Final, where they demolished Watford to the tune of six unanswered goals. The Hornets are a quality side under Javi Garcia, who achieved their record Premier League points tally in 2018-19. But they were swatted away like flies in the biggest FA Cup final-winning margin in 116 years.
After the traditional Wembley showpiece, The Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson complained that City are simply “too good.” Their dominance, he argues, is a sign that “football is broken,” as there is little parity between the elite sides and the less-moneyed teams they devour each week.
The swathes of fans who will flock to watch these elite sides doing elite things every week may not suggest that soccer is necessarily broken, but the ever-expanding gulf in class is becoming obvious.
City’s squad is valued at just over £1 billion (as per Transfermarkt), which is approximately six times the squad value of Watford, and around 13 percent of the entire squad value of the Premier League. In three seasons at City, Guardiola has spent nearly £540 million on 22 players, which is six times the value of Cardiff’s entire squad.
And it is not just a single team, backed by a wealth fund of a foreign government, who are dominating. Liverpool were in the title race right down to the final day of the season, thanks in no small part to that fact that they were able to spend £160 million on transfers last summer. The previous winter, they had the capital to outbid City for Virgil van Dijk, whose world-record £75 million move undoubtedly played a crucial part in the Reds’ recent success.
The top two teams in the Premier League earned a combined 195 points in 2018-19, which is more points than the bottom six teams combined. Chelsea, who have not been short of investment in recent years, placed 25 points behind in third.
Perhaps this is the natural evolution of the free market system used in most soccer federations, where the richest sides can pull away to the extent that they virtually eliminate their chances of success. (After all, this situation could never happen in the American world of salary caps and draft, where an ironically socialist sporting model presides in a country that prides itself on capitalism.)
Jonathan Wilson notes that a single side had more than 70 percent possession in 67 Premier League games last season, while that happened in only a single game 15 years ago. That speaks to the low-possession, counter-attacking style that most Davids are forced to adopt to stand a chance of felling the Goliaths. It also speaks to the fact that teams like Liverpool and City operate on an entirely different level to the likes of Watford and Brighton.
It also raises an important question: If elite sides are playing in a different world, why don’t we let them go off and literally play in a different world?
The concept of a breakaway European Super League — where the continent’s best teams abandon their respective leagues to play each other in a star-studded closed system — has been floated since the late 1990s.
For the most part, the idea of an elite cartel has been met with vociferous opposition by those without a financial stake. The integrity of Europe’s national leagues would seriously be affected if the biggest clubs left. And there have been concerns that a Super League may not hold the interest of fans, due to the relatively small pool of teams. Would the novelty of seeing Barcelona play Bayern Munich four times a year eventually wear off?
However, the European Super League has grown from a controversial pie-in-the-sky idea to a serious proposal among the elite. Last November, Der Spiegel revealed that a coalition of 16 major European teams had been making secret arrangements to start a new competition. The year-long, invite-only league would reportedly feature 17 of the European teams with the strongest TV audience, along with a guest from Portugal, Russia, the Netherlands or Turkey.
Meanwhile, the European Club Association (ECA), a UEFA-recognized body representing the biggest continental clubs, are acting with much less subterfuge. The organization, chaired by Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli, have met several times to discuss changes to the Champions League format when the current deal expires in 2024-25. Those changes include an increase in group stage games (achieved by having fewer groups with more teams), staging matches on weekends, plus promotion and relegation.
These potential changes to the Champions League, however, appear to be a precursor to a discussion for a European Super League. Agnelli has admitted that top European clubs want “a new competition” and proposals to that effect will be discussed at the ECA’s general assembly in June.
Ten years ago, Arsene Wenger suggested that we may already have a European Super League by now. It seemed like an outrageous statement at the time, but elite clubs are making the idea more and more palatable for fans of all clubs.
For the first time ever, all five league titles in Europe’s top five leagues were retained. The duopoly of the Premier League is a familiar story across France, Germany, Italy and Spain, where one or two teams dominate their rivals to the extent that the title race is typically a foregone conclusion. Is it better to have those big teams destroy their domestic counterparts each week, or let them leave so that parity may be reinstated?
It would fundamentally disrupt the world of soccer as we know it, but to use Game Of Thrones parlance, now may be the right time to “break the wheel” of European soccer’s structure.
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