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In his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell describes the perpetual class struggle of society within a hierarchical structure. In short, regardless of the context society divides itself into the upper, middle and lower class. Within this the lower class generally stay as they are, either due to an inability (circumstances) or unwillingness (they’re happy with their lot) to change the system. The middle class strive to improve their standing but only do so once they are fed up with the upper class, revolting and rising up to become the new ruling power. The previous upper class subsequently drop down a level and stay there until they reach the same stage and the cycle continues on and on.
The parallels of the class structure to the Premier League are clear to see. We have the upper class, otherwise known as as ‘The Big 4’ in modern football language, followed by the middle classes, with Liverpool and Tottenham residing at the top and including teams such as Swansea and Stoke, and then we have the lower class being those teams that would take a 16th or 17th placed finish right now.
It has been this way for quite a while. Without the backing of a super-rich benefactor to transform a club, as has happened at Manchester City, there has become a glass ceiling between the upper and middle classes. They simply did not have the means to overturn the existing structure.
In the early to mid-2000’s this was seemingly more evident than ever. As Thierry Henry said in the Sky Sports studio at the weekend, you could cast your eye over the upcoming fixtures of the big teams and think “3 points, 3 points, 3 points” for the majority of games. The best teams would rarely lose to those outside the elite and the title was often determined by who won the mini league table between that group.
With the gap in class between the top three sides of the time (Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal) and the rest so obvious a fear was born, probably justified, for those going up against them. Try and go toe-to-toe and you risk being floored with a bloody nose before you’ve even started. It was a result of this that we saw a lot of 4-5-1 formations, home and away, with teams hoping to keep it tight and nick a point of more on a really fortunate day. Unless you were a supporter of those at the top, it was a little dull.
Over recent seasons we started to see a mini shift in this pattern. Certain teams, generally off the back of their own momentum, realised that they were not lining up against mythical gods but mere mortals. Managers became braver and the shackles came off. We’ve seen the exciting Spurs team of Luka Modric, Rafael Van der Vaart and Gareth Bale break the mould, Alan Pardew’s early Newcastle side driven by Yohan Cabaye and Demba Ba, Michael Laudrup’s Swansea, Roberto Martinez’s new styled Everton and last year an impressive Southampton also push really close to that elusive Champions League place. Not to mention the oh-so-close Liverpool side of two seasons ago.
You can measure how much the neutral has enjoyed these stories by the amount of positive media each of these teams have received, with us all secretly hoping they can last the course until they inevitably run out of steam. It gave us an exciting narrative to get behind because, as cliché as it is, we all love an underdog.
This year, it feels like something has changed. Going into the November international break, with 12 games played, the league table looks very different to how you would expect. We are far enough into the season for true patterns to emerge and Leicester are one point off the leaders, Spurs and West Ham are further four back, whilst Southampton and Crystal Palace are just behind them.
And these standings are not by chance. Yes, Jamie Vardy may be living the stuff of dreams whereby everything he touches turns to goals (although that would be doing him a great disservice) but the team spirit that Leicester show as they fight back over and over again is not a fluke. Nor is the ridiculous talent of Riyad Mahrez. Spurs have not lost since the opening day of the season and can count themselves unfortunate to have not left the Emirates with more than a point.
In Dmitri Payet, West Ham have made one of the best signings across Europe this summer and combined with the steel and fight that Slaven Bilic has brought, they have achieved some fantastic results. Southampton have continued with their fluent yet well drilled shape, driven by Sadio Mane, whilst on Merseyside Everton look to getting back to their pre Europe League level and in Romelu Lukaku have one of the hottest young strikers across the continent.
Yes, the traditional big sides do have their weakness and Chelsea’s implosion has left a hole to fill but it feels as though there is more to it than that. There is a shift in mentality that has brought a whole new level of belief and it is so much more exciting. It may well be detrimental to the Champions League pursuits of English teams (although clearly other factors are at play) but so what. Europe’s most prized competition has become dull with the two Spanish sides and Bayern Munich so much better than everyone else that even a giant such as Juventus reaching the final seemed like a fairy tale. A more competitive domestic league is far more enthralling in my eyes.
The true test will come as we march through the hectic Christmas period and fatigue begins to play a part and squads start stretching to their limits. Will these sides have the depth and belief in fringe players to successfully keep things fresh without losing momentum? Title challenges will be too far but the question of whether they can dissect the top four remains. We shall see but I certainly hope so as it’s about time the middle classes rose up and overcame at least some of the elite.