Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Variable Geometry Premiership

The English Premier League, after the first couple of years (can you see Blackburn ever winning it again?), quickly developed into two leagues: one league with the 'big four' (now about six) fighting over the Premier League title and the Champions League, and another for everyone else, largely about Premier League survival. An early effect of this emerging hierarchy was the 'big four' teams' practice of resting key players in unimportant games such as FA Cup ties against weak opposition.

Now, the full logic of the balkanized Premiership has been rolled out, by Wolverhampton Wanderers' decision to rest their first 11 against Manchester United at Old Trafford. With just four days rest after a tough away game at Spurs, Mick McCarthy decided that since his team would doubtless lose at Old Trafford whichever team he fielded, he may as well rest his best players to protect them from injury and get them back to their best for next weekend.

In what at first reading appears a surreal statement, Sir Alex Ferguson supported McCarthy's decision, on the grounds that 'they've got a massive game coming up against Burnley'.

In some ways it's surprising it has taken this long for it to happen. The weaker Premier League teams have little incentive to risk their best players for almost certain away defeats against big clubs, and it is far more important for them to beat rivals in the relegation battle than to avoid cricket scores against title contenders. The Wolves' strategy has given birth to a new kind of football folk wisdom: 'yes, I'm disappointed not to play at Stamford Bridge, but of course I've got to be fresh for the KC Stadium next Monday'.

Maybe we should quit the pretence and just let the top clubs play each other every fortnight, like in Scotland. The rest of us can get back to watching English football as it used to be played -  not much skill and a few hangovers, but with players who were usually trying to win.