For anyone with a little pre-Christmas time on their hands, the top of the Premier League goal-scoring charts makes for some reasonably interesting reading.
As is currently known by every sentient being, on top of the list is Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy (15 goals), complete with his historic run of goals in consecutive league games. But second, third and fourth place are where the hopefully interesting trend begins to emerge.
Look carefully and you will note that, like Vardy, none of Romelu Lukaku (12), Riyad Mahrez (11) or Odion Ighalo (10) plays for a club that should really have any business near the top of any kind of table, unless you’re reading it upside-down.
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In Watford, Everton and Leicester (twice) the top of the league’s scoring charts hint at the rise of a slightly unfashionable, relatively under-resourced section of clubs across a wider series of Premier League rankings. Vardy and friends top the scoring charts, Leicester regularly tops the league and Bournemouth has just beaten Manchester United and Chelsea in consecutive games. Sixteen rounds into the season and this kind of thing isn’t blip; it’s an explainable symptom of broader moves within the English topflight.
Basically these teams have risen off the back of two positive movements in their favour. There’s the less-than-romantic angle that a boost in television revenue has enabled them to poach top players from other less powerful leagues, simultaneously allowing them access to new potential. This occurs while the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea have not benefitted to the same degree from the cash boost because for them the potential gained from the ability to poach from elsewhere was already in play a long time ago.
Then related to this but ultimately separate is a simpler truth: smaller teams’ success is a symptom of a season where the biggest teams have not yet managed to grasp the limelight for themselves. We have ourselves a kind of Premier League power-vacuum, a swirling, anarchic mess at the top of the table, because up until now none of the teams capable of domination has managed to avoid a mistake for more than a couple of weeks in a row.
Is Manchester City great or terrible? Is Arsenal finally going to do it? Is Manchester United going to get better? Is Liverpool capable of anything more? Is Tottenham? We don’t know these things, at all, because they’ve collectively given very little indication either way. And when they have, they’ve immediately followed it up with something that says the opposite.
And thus we arrive at the really rather enjoyable situation we have now. With the usual suspects still figuring out if they even want to win the league or not, the likes of Vardy, Ighalo, Lukaku and Mahrez seem to have just thought “well, if you’re not going to impose yourselves on the division, do you mind if we do?” The answer from Louis Van Gaal has been something like “yes, we do mind, but we can’t actually do anything to stop you.”
It’s been a pretty enjoyable run to watch, of that there can be no doubt. Variety is always somehow compelling in its own right, but the sense of confusion about who will win each week—or at the end of the season—is the bit to really grasp onto. It shouldn’t have come to this, but simply not knowing what will happen next has turned into a rare thrill, a visceral buzz that we just don’t get access to all that often, and whenever we do have access to it, it’s surely to be savoured.
With the financial dominance of the few only likely to grow in the long term, how often will this exact kind of excitement turn up?
The worry, of course, would be that Manchester City or a team like it might get its act together sooner rather than later this season and put an end to the wild ride sometime in the New Year.
“Everything tends to revert to the mean in the end” and major European football powers tend to win Championships in the second half of the season, when their superior wealth pays off in the form of superior squad depth and experience. In short, dominance always looms large in modern football.
But there is hope for a continuation yet.
While we are used to smaller teams falling away in the second half of seasons (think Southampton, or West Brom, or Newcastle in recent years), one of the core reasons behind that drop-off might not be relevant this time around. With the added cash that gave them a chance in the first place comes the sense that Leicester or Everton or those like them don’t have to sell their best players this January; in fact, with the same cash they might even be able to build on what they already have using their new-found status to add into the bargain.
For now, though, it’s all speculation.
What’s not speculation is that watching Vardy, Lukaku, Ighalo and Mahrez, and their respective teams impose a healthy bit of anarchy on the Premier League has been kind of fun.
Ethan Dean-Richards is a London-based writer. Follow him on Twitter