José Mourinho’s need to play the underdog and the dismissal of safe-standing are among our annoyances this season
The dominance of the big six
The increased financial rewards have not stopped the Premier League’s inequality from increasing. The top six teams are almost playing in their own mini-league now and it has been impossible for anyone to break into their exclusive club. Arsenal easily saw off Burnley’s attempt to nab sixth place, Everton are well off the pace despite spending heavily last summer and teams in mid-table are far too close to the bottom three for comfort. But the league’s diminishing competitiveness does not seem to be a concern for the elite. They are motivated only by greed and self-interest. How else to explain their attempt to grab a larger share of the overseas television money? Or that they are kept apart on the first and last weekends of the season? The chutzpah is astonishing, especially as this has been the fourth consecutive season without an exciting title race. Do not be surprised if apathy rises.
You have to hand it to José Mourinho: he is the master of managing expectations. He is in charge of one of the biggest teams in the world. He broke the world record to sign Paul Pogba two summers ago, he has a £75m striker, the best goalkeeper in the world and Alexis Sánchez reportedly earns £350,000 a week. Yet Mourinho still feels the need to play the underdog. He claimed that Manchester United lacked “football heritage” after negative tactics backfired against Sevilla in the Champions League and is already getting his excuses in early before next season, saying that it will be tough to catch City if the champions earn more than 90 points again. Presumably Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Luke Shaw will be to blame if English football’s most successful team fall short, but have United’s fans considered that Mourinho might also need to buck up his ideas? Or have they drunk the Kool-Aid?
The reaction to VAR
The point here is not whether VAR will help football. It is more that people have been too quick to criticise what is obviously a work in progress. The system has struggled to win over its critics and even those who are supportive of VAR have experienced doubts about its merits during its trial run in the FA Cup. The biggest problem has been a failure to provide enough communication to people in the ground, which has led to confusion and frustration when games are held up for no apparent reason, and there was plenty of annoyance when technology dominated a farcical tie between Liverpool and West Brom in January. Yet we could at least give it a chance before writing it off once and for all. Perhaps it isn’t the answer and maybe the biggest contribution it will make to the sport is reminding us that football games are more entertaining when they are allowed to flow. But if you are prepared not to have more technology, remember not to erupt like Gianluigi Buffon when referees make split-second decisions without the benefit of a replay.
The state of the bottom half
Arsène Wenger has hinted that a European Super League might not be far off and the former Arsenal manager (that feels odd to write) has also suggested that one way to make the Premier League more interesting might be to cut it to 16 teams. Looking at the relegation battle, he might have a point. There were some poor teams in the bottom half and yet Stoke, Swansea and West Brom still went down without much of a fight. The teams who survived had little to celebrate.
The dismissal of safe-standing
Tracey Crouch has apologised for saying that only a “vocal minority” of fans wanted standing areas to be reinstated in English football but the sports minister also said that there are no plans to change the legislation at the moment. Standing is not allowed in the top two divisions and West Brom’s appeal to introduce safe-standing at the Hawthorns was rejected by the government last month. But the idea that standing caused the Hillsborough disaster has been debunked and many clubs in the Premier League have looked into building standing areas, with Chelsea, Everton and Tottenham looking into incorporating it at their new stadiums. It works at Celtic and 88% of Liverpool fans are in favour of it. Why stand in opposition?