Somewhere near the front of the Doom-Monger’s Guide to the Football Galaxy is a lament for the competitiveness of the Premier League. “Anyone can beat anyone”, we could once proudly say - perhaps with the caveat of “on their day” - a state of affairs ripped apart by the acceleration of the elite few towards to the financial stratosphere.
In response, the top flight has slowly re-arranged itself into a number of mini-leagues, semi-fluid skirmishes that could be classified as the M62 Title Race (Manchester City and Liverpool), the London Race for Third (Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal) and, of course, the traditional Relegation Battle (everyone from Cardiff downwards). This season, though, has seen a welcome return for a fine English footballing tradition: mid-table mediocrity.
Mid-table, the precise place for which the word “languishing” was surely invented, has taken on a symbolic status over the decades. While “mediocre” might well be in the eye of the beholder, sitting comfortable in the middle of the pack can mean different things to different teams: Manchester United fans will sigh about being 16 points away from both the league leaders and the relegation zone, but Bournemouth are presumably rather satisfied with their lot, while Everton’s enduring love affair with seventh place shows no signs of fizzling out.
But what does it mean to be a mid-table team in the billionaire era? As a tangible fatigue sets in with the short-termist boom/bust cycles of various clubs, has it become cool to be a mid-table side?
It’s possible you haven’t put much thought into this, so allow your correspondent to examine the cornerstones of midtabledom. It’s not just about being 10th or thereabouts, equidistant from the drop and the Europa League, with the half-hearted annual hopes of “a cup run”. Being mid-table is a state of mind, man, and here are the pillars of its philosophy.
This characteristic is historically the domain of Tottenham, who almost perfected the art of mid-table unpredictability in the mid-1990s and 2000s by flirting several times with a goal difference of precisely zero. They have finished with double figures for wins, draws and defeats in the same campaign no fewer than eight times in the 26 Premier League seasons. If anything, Clive, they almost mid-tabled too well.
Having long abandoned their policy of losing to Chelsea every time they meet, Daniel Levy’s Spurs have happily vacated their comfortable seat in the eye of the Premier League storm.
The pre-match punditry pondering of “which [Club X] are going to turn up today?!” now belongs to Watford - 13 managers in the last decade, somewhere north of 60 players signed in the space of five summers - whose list of results can be consulted at any time, safe in the knowledge that you will find a healthy number of Ds and Ls, seasoned evenly with some Ws.
Existing in a semi-permanent state of low-key chaos
West Ham, rivalled perhaps only by Newcastle, have carved themselves out something of a Premier League niche in this regard, thanks to some classic hallmarks of mild mismanagement: stadium issues, comedy owners with big mouths, and a seemingly endless conveyor belt of anonymous strikers who have quietly turned up, quietly done very little and then quietly been moved on.
It might look it, but this precarious balancing-act of maintaining just the right amount of internal strife is far from easy. Implode too forcefully and you become a Sunderland or, worse, Do A Leeds; get your act together for too long and you might end up in the European places with a cup final to look forward to.
Do not underestimate just how much effort goes into establishing oneself as a mid-table soap opera.
Lofty but unfulfilled ambitions
“Shoot for the moon,” inspirational but low-resolution Instagram posts tell us. “Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.”
Recent Premier League history is peppered with wide-eyed new club owners who have made the grave error of “eyeing Champions League football within five years”, only to find themselves a hundred million or so out of pocket as they remain embedded in the belly of the top flight. Such clubs - West Ham again, Everton too - will deliver the occasional eye-catching televised win under the floodlights, only to follow it up with an abject display of professional indifference the following Saturday afternoon.
Sandwiched between those two perennial Premier League optimists are Wolves, whose owners Fosun had serious ambitions of a top-six finish after capitalising on promotion from the Championship with some impressively bold signings. They are now 10th, with as many wins as defeats, neither a failure nor a sensation, and they’re in decent company.
Cautious, earnest realism
For all the dreamers and the slow-motion disasters, there is always traditional room in mid-table for the proudly well-run outfit. Southampton’s ability to generate future Liverpool squad players for a handsome profit sustained them for much of the 2010s, only for their project to run gradually out of steam as they now threaten to yo-yo between progressive European coaches and proper British football men for another decade.
So, then, the mantle of Refusing To Get Carried Away has passed to Bournemouth, the long-term project of the thoroughly decent Eddie Howe, whose relentlessly measured takes, overwhelming sense of perspective and unruffleable feathers are all perfectly tailored for finishing anywhere between 8th and 13th for as long as he wants to stick around.
A solid recent tradition of averageness
A reliable hallmark of Premier league averageness has been “how likely is a journeyman Premier League midfielder to have played for you?”, to which the answer often involves Aston Villa. Their pitiful relegation to the Championship in 2016 tore at the very fabric of Premier League mediocrity, and what it now meant to be in the middle of its class.
Having completed their widely expected regression to the mean after their gloriously baffling Premier League triumph in 2015/16, Leicester City (six wins, six defeats, a tantalising goal difference of +1) may well be the Midlands’ new incumbent of mid-table mediocrity.
Let’s not forget that they have been a solid middling presence before. Back in the days of Martin O’Neill’s tracksuit tucked into his socks, as he gulped excitedly from a pitchside water bottle every eighteen seconds, Filbert Street’s looming camera angle, and a team with more centre-halves than you ever thought possible, Leicester strung together consecutive finishes of 9th, 10th, 10th, 8th and 13th. Those dubious glory days are surely back.
Being the team that people will most likely forget if you challenge them to name all 20 Premier League teams in under a minute
Derby, Charlton, Birmingham, Portsmouth, Wimbledon, Coventry - all, at some point, have been the hardy grist for the Premier League mill. Nothing wrong with that, and perhaps the purest essence of being a mid-table side is simply being the second-last game on the Match of the Day running order. This season, it is Brighton, and not even having players called Dunk and Bong is going to change that.
Just as the widening gulf in resources was threatening to turn the Premier League into a two-dimensional league of haves and have-nots, the top flight appears to have its middle class back. As the “Big Six” (formerly the “Big Four”, and certainly not to be confused with the original “Big Five” of the late 1980s) all try to squeeze themselves into the Champions League before the doors close in May, there is a lively, diverse, capable set of teams below them who aren’t being dragged into the relegation mire.
We might have traditionally dismissed it as mediocre, but it’s time to embrace the fleshy middle of our top flight - it’s the sign of a healthy division.