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Competitive Balance Is Dead, but the Premier League Is Better Than Ever

From West Ham to Brighton to the promoted teams, the lower half of the Premier League spent the summer improving. Will anyone ever break into the top six? And does anyone have a chance of catching Manchester City?

Naby Keita, Pep Guardiola, and Harry Kane Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A year ago, PSG wanted Jean Michaël Seri. According to reports, so did Liverpool, and Arsenal, and Tottenham. But despite the potential of Paris and the promise of the Premier League, Barcelona became the preferred destination. Flush with cash from Neymar’s market-rerendering move to Ligue 1, Barça offered up the necessary €40 million to meet Seri’s unofficial release clause with French club Nice.

At 26, Seri was coming off a season that saw him become one of the top midfielders available. Coaches clamor for players who can “break the lines” or make passes through an opposing midfield and progress the ball into the final third. Barcelona claim north of 60 percent possession each season, and perhaps more than any other team in the world, they require midfielders who can consistently complete difficult passes.

The move for Seri made sense—until it fell apart. Reportedly, Nice asked for an extra €10 million after Barcelona’s offer came in, and the Catalan club gave up their pursuit rather than giving in. Seri was devastated, saying he “exploded” at the Nice front office. “They promised me one thing,” he said, “and then it turned out that they did not keep their promise.”

Seri’s performance this past season didn’t quite match his dazzling 2016-17, but come January, both Manchester City and Manchester United seemed to be vying for his services. Despite the breakdown with Barcelona, some big team would surely sign him this summer.

Ultimately, Seri ended up in London. However, he won’t be playing for Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal, or even Crystal Palace or West Ham. No, the midfielder who was moments away from signing with Barcelona has instead joined Fulham, who finished last season in third place—in England’s second division.

Seri is 12 months older, but he’s otherwise basically the same sought-after player he was a year ago. Rather than anything about the player changing, it seems like something has changed within the Premier League—even if, come next spring, the top of the table ends up looking the same.

Manchester City are gonna win it all.

Of course, maybe they won’t. Injuries happen. Bad bounces keep bouncing. Opposing keepers get hot. Star strikers go through season-long slumps. Almost every league-winner across Europe needs a bit of luck, so it’s logical to expect the defending champion to regress the following year. But how far?

City are coming off of the best single season in the history of the league. They’re the first Premier League team ever to reach triple-digits points, and they got there by dominating every single facet of the sport with a suffocating pressing-and-possessing machine that turned high-quality chance creation into rote performance, They led England in almost every conceivable statistical measure. The betting markets predict them to fall off but still take the trophy, with Sporting Index projecting City will win 88 points, seven more than second-place Liverpool. The league hasn’t had a repeat champion since 2009, but it’s never had a team as good as Manchester City.

Even with the expectations for a not-quite-as-spectacular domestic campaign, City are the favorites for the Champions League, too. It only took two years and tons of transfer fees, but Pep Guardiola currently has City on equal footing with Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich. Manchester City are what happens when one of the two richest teams in the richest league in the world hires the right manager and finally figures out the right way to spend its money.

A decade ago, 60 percent of Premier League teams were operating at a loss. In 2016-17, none of the 20 teams recorded a loss, and they all posted record revenues. In total, the Premier League brought in €5.3 billion in revenue—a record for a European soccer league, and nearly double the revenues recorded by both the Bundesliga and La Liga over the same span. The league’s massive TV deal, signed in 2015, accounted for 3.2 billion in revenue in 2016-17, which was more than double the amount of La Liga’s second-highest total.

For the past few seasons, though, it seemed like the British clubs just didn’t know what to do with all the money. Despite all of the year-to-year excitement generated by the league, none of the top teams put up much of a fight in the Champions League, while the morass of clubs outside of the top six seemed set in a risk-averse cycle of chasing slick-talking retread managers and once-competent big-name players with little left in the tank.

City’s Champions League odds suggest that the top of the league has finally caught up with the rest of Europe, and outside of Manchester United’s limp ouster at the hands of Sevilla, most of the British clubs performed impressively on European Tuesdays and Wednesdays last season. Liverpool made it all the way to the final. However, the rest of the league continued to light its financial advantage on fire. In January, both Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion made the top 30 of the Deloitte Football Money League, and in May, both teams were relegated from the Premier League.

This summer, the league has continued to outspend its competitors. As of Wednesday afternoon Premier League clubs had spent £1.32 billion on transfer fees during the current window, compared to £1.01 billion in Serie A, £1 billion in La Liga, £795.2 million in Ligue 1, and £602.2 million in the Bundesliga. However, the money flowing out of England finally seems like it has some sense behind it.

Take Fulham—one of the more fascinating promoted teams in recent memory. According to a source with the club, all of their player personnel decisions come down to 50 percent analytics, 50 percent scouting. The majority—if not all—of the clubs in the Premier League have analytics departments today, but those employees are still often marginalized and overruled by more traditional decision-makers atop club hierarchy. As such, Fulham landed Seri, and they also added Swansea’s Alfie Mawson, a highly rated young British center back, along with a loan move for Borussia Dortmund’s André Schürrle, who, although his star has dimmed since setting up the winner in the 2014 World Cup final, is still just 27. That’s three players with impressive pedigrees, either in or entering their primes, and they’re all joining a team that was in the championship last season.

Then there’s Wolverhampton—perhaps the most fascinating promoted team in recent memory. While the club serves as something like a clearinghouse for Portuguese superagent Jorge Mendes, Wolves come into the league projected by the betting markets to finish all the way up in ninth place. Their starting XI, featuring three (if not more) Portugal internationals, might be the best outside of the top six. With former Porto manager Nuno Espírito Santo leading the way, the team plays a flexible, possession-dominant style typically reserved for the upper-echelons on European soccer. And if you’ll allow for a brief moment of personal bias: They just signed your new favorite player, human Roomba Adama Traoré, from Middlesbrough. Neymar led the top five European leagues with 10.7 attempted dribbles per 90 minutes last year; Traore completed nearly 10 per 90 in the Championship.

The team-building mistakes and inefficiencies haven’t disappeared, but you can see improvements across the rest of the league, too. A year after over-spending on aging and/or plodding attacking midfielders, Everton bought the 21-year-old Brazilian winger Richarlison from Watford. They paid a lot (£40 million), but while his production wasn’t world-beating last year (0.29 goals and assists per 90), his underlying numbers were much better (0.46 expected goals and assists). Meanwhile, West Ham, who had previously seemingly only been interested in signing old or injury-prone players whose reputations far exceeded their talents, added Lazio’s Felipe Anderson, who could potentially be the best player outside of the top six. Only 25, he’s struggled with injuries over the past few seasons, but he’s an elite dribbler who also put up 10 goals and seven assists in Serie A as 21-year-old. In limited minutes this past season, he scored and created goals at a higher rate than Eden Hazard.

Elsewhere, Crystal Palace added Max Meyer, a 22-year-old defensive midfielder who has four caps with the German national team. Leicester sold Riyad Mahrez to City for a £60 million profit, and they replaced him with James Maddison, one of the most sought-after prospects in the championship, and also added 24-year-old fullback Ricardo Pereira, who played for Portugal at the World Cup and started for a team that made the Champions League’s round of 16 last year. Brighton, on a more limited budget, added a bunch of savvy signings: young players who played significant minutes for much better teams, like Alireza Jahanbakhsh, the defending Eredivisie Golden Boot winner with AZ Alkmaar, and Bernardo, the Brazilian fullback for RB Leipzig. Huddersfield spent all of their transfer money on field players aged 24 and younger, meaning they took chances on guys who will likely improve and potentially have sell-on value in a few years. The 26-year-old Erik Durm came over on a free transfer from Borussia Dortmund, and he missed all of last year with an injury, but he also won the World Cup with Germany in 2014 as a 22-year-old! For a team seemingly destined for a relegation scrap, that’s a smart risk.

With former Real Madrid managers Manuel Pellegrini at West Ham and Rafa Benítez at Newcastle, along with the likes of Sean Dyche and his magic Burnley, Roy Hodgson at surprisingly fun Crystal Palace, Nuno’s Wolves, and Marco Silva’s attacking circus at Everton, among others, the best of the rest now has a collection of unique, diverse, established, and often-effective coaching talent, too.

Last season, for the first time in league history, no team outside of the top six finished with a positive goal differential. The era of Six Teams and Everyone Else only really started two years ago, but the chasing pack promises to be better than ever this season. And yet, those teams still probably won’t come close.

While the Premier League’s broadcasting deal is essentially equally distributed among all 20 teams, a separate force has maintained the league’s inequality: Financial Fair Play. Introduced by UEFA earlier this decade, FFP was meant to prevent new owners from buying up clubs, running up their deficits, and then skipping town once they got bored or the results didn’t show. Basically, UEFA now prohibits clubs from spending more than they take in. Except, that’s had a presumably unforeseen knock-on effect of solidifying the financial hierarchy across Europe for the most part. No one else is allowed to spend as much as the big clubs because no one else brings in as much revenue. There are plenty of inefficiencies to exploit and ways to improve on the margins, but the size of your player payroll still remains one of soccer’s best predictors of success.

“The unintended consequence [of FFP] has been to reduce the competitive balance of the league, and that has meant an effective lockdown of the top 6 places,” Rob Wilson, an expert in football finance at Sheffield Hallam University in England, told me. “That means the clubs will simply get richer and the gap even bigger.”

Last year, the top six’s combined revenue exceeded the combined revenue of the other 14 teams:

Per Sporting Index, Arsenal are projected to finish in sixth with 71 points this season, while Everton have the seventh-highest total at just 52. That gap is larger than the gap between seventh and 20th.

The bottom of the league may rise, but the same may happen with the bottom of the top tier. In Arsène Wenger’s final season, the Gunners were a legitimately great attacking team—their expected goals numbers were third best in the league—thanks to a sometimes suffocating possession approach that enabled them to completed more passes within 20 yards of the opposition goal than all but two teams in Europe. Except, their defense allowed the eighth-fewest goals in the league. Most of their summer signings have been questionable at best—Stephan Lichtsteiner is 34 years old, Sokratis is 30 and won mixed reviews at Dortmund, and Bernd Leno has consistently been one of the worst shot-stoppers in the Bundesliga. However, the 22-year-old Lucas Torreira gives the club their first real modern defensive midfielder: someone who makes tackles and intercepts passes while also being able to move the ball up the field vertically with a dribble or with a pass. And new manager Unai Emery offers a history of building strong defensive teams. Even if they still finish sixth, Arsenal should improve.

The same can’t necessarily be said for Manchester United. They have the squad of one of the best teams in Europe, but despite their second-place finish last season, they performed more like a team that would be lucky to qualify for the Champions League. Little has been done to improve the team through the transfer market, José Mourinho is mad as hell again, and it seems like regression is coming. Chelsea, meanwhile, have swapped keepers and added one of the truly great passers in midfield with Jorginho joining his former Napoli manager Maurizio Sarri at Stamford Bridge. In Naples, Sarri pulled off one of the best coaching jobs of the past few years by turning the Neapolitans into breathtaking, legitimate challengers to Juventus’s now-seven-year run atop Serie A. However, he’s only been in the job for about month, and he’s taking over a team that was built to the demands of Antonio Conte, Sarri’s managerial polar opposite. Elsewhere in London, Tottenham have been the most consistent team in England over the past three years—finishing third, second, and third—and led by Harry Kane their young core is starting to age into its prime, but they still haven’t added a single new player to last year’s team! Daniel Levy strikes again; any improvement will have to be internal.

Last year’s fourth-place finishers, Liverpool, are the market’s clear second-place team, sitting five points ahead of third, and that’s because they’re the only big Premier League club to sign multiple Champions League–quality starters this offseason. Alisson was one of the top keepers in Europe for Roma last year—a modern sweeper-keeper who doubles as an impressive, acrobatic shot-stopper—and he replaces a ... yeah, it’s better if we just don’t talk about what happened against Real Madrid. Naby Keïta signed last summer, but didn’t officially join until a few months ago, and he comes in as an all-around dynamo, able to shatter any attack before it begins and break through whatever the defense presents. He’ll immediately be one of the 10 or so best players in the league. From Monaco, Fabinho adds depth to the midfield, and hell, even the Power Cube himself, Xherdan Shaqiri, looks like he’s going to add solid backup minutes in both the attack and the midfield.

Per FiveThirtyEight’s world soccer rankings, Liverpool currently rate as the fifth-best team on the planet. (Tottenham sits ninth, Arsenal 12th, Chelsea 13th, and United 18th). But they’re still not as good as City, who rank third. For Liverpool to catch the champs, they’d have to make up a full 25 points from last year. Maybe they will, but even though they took three of four games against City last season, it doesn’t seem likely that they will improve enough or City will decline enough to close the gap completely. The Premier League, then, has reached a point where one of the top five teams in the world is an outside shot for the domestic title.

Still, a club other than City winning the Premier League seems way more likely than an outsider breaking into the league’s upper tier. Leicester won the Premier League through a confluence of good luck, bad luck, once-in-a-lifetime scouting, and savvy tactics; now it feels like that’s what it’d take for one of these teams to just finish in the top six. But even if the table looks broadly the same from afar come May, the rest of the league is taking some of the right steps to improve. Last year, as shown by our Watchability Rankings, the bottom half of the Premier League played some of the most dire soccer in Europe. With Seri and Co. now in tow, this year they should at least be more fun. With the gap in resources still so vast, that’s all we can really ask for.