Why the Premier League Is the Biggest Let-Down in Human History
It's an elaborate conspiracy designed to disappoint hundreds of millions of us.
Illustration: Dan Evans
"Scarcity" is a dirty word in modern football. The aim of the Premier League, especially, is to present the game as a glut, something so unrelenting and ubiquitous that you can basically live inside it, a lush and fallen Carlsberg Eden for people who really like gambling adverts and arguing about concept kits.
This is why it never stops. This is why it never sleeps. Even as you lay dreaming in bed at night, the Premier League is still at it, eyelids pinned back with sellotape in its sordid little office in a shipping container somewhere near Canning Town, inventing totally stupid and fictitious transfer gossip for you to read on your phone the moment you wake up, an elaborate conspiracy of ins and outs fantasised into being just so the Premier League can clamp itself ever tighter to your neural dopamine networks.
Let's rifle through this morning's rubbish, shall we? Laurent Koscielny might go to Aston Villa. It says here that Ravel Morrison is off to play in the Arctic Circle. And Jamal Lascelles has signed a new contract at Newcastle after eating a pizza with the owner and deciding that he's "a nice guy" and not, actually, a slavelord in Cromwell's Madhouse bootcuts. This is the pointless noise that sloshes around your brain all day, isn't it? This thick, boiling idiot soup. It's OK, though. We're all friends here. The Premier League, like spite and plastic, is everywhere and in everyone.
Which isn't to say we should rush to be pessimistic about any of this. The noise is, after all, what keeps the big show rolling on, fuelling the mania that sends the Premier League screaming infinitely into the pores of existence. There is, as well, one crucial kind of scarcity that underpins everything we know and love about the beautiful game, an ancient truth that we are still just about able to cling to. It's a scarcity that has made itself known in abundance this week, written in Comic Sans across the downcast face of trophy-broody pauper Mauricio Pochettino and framing the hilarious and utterly gripping debate between Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher after Spurs' defeat to Man City on Monday night, a debate that just kept spiralling up and up, reaching into areas far beyond football, a grand philosophical wrestling with the very definition of success that, by the end, had G-Nev and Carra squawking and spinning at each other like a pair of albatrosses locked in a mating dance. At that stage, neither of them seemed to know what it was they were arguing about, but watching it back, you get the gist. It was a tussle underpinned by that ancient truth: that in football – even super-abundant, late-capitalist, Premier League football – there can only ever be one winner.
At a time when football has never been bigger, there is simply not enough success to go around. In this sense, the Premier League could be viewed as the biggest let-down in human history, something built to disappoint hundreds of millions of people across the world simultaneously. Consider, too, that in the Premier League era there have never been as many as six teams hyped as title competitors. Leaving aside for a moment the endless, rattling arguments about how realistic those respective ambitions might be, you arrive at the same basic mathematical impossibility as Carragher, Neville, Pochettino and anyone else whose job it is to seek or gauge success in the Premier League. Six into one doesn't go. So what, in this context, does winning look like?
"It seems really strange, talking about a difficult Tottenham moment, given it's their best start ever to a Premier League season," opined Monday Night Football host and perfectly nice man David Jones, a guy who's worked his way up the Sky ladder so frictionlessly he could probably spit on your dog, slap your kids and sew his own face onto yours without you being able to get an effective E-fit together.
Yes, it definitely does seem strange to talk about there being anything other than optimism at Spurs, but as Carragher said, "It is a great start, but a lot of teams have made a better start," while off the pitch the club's money pit of a new stadium continues to swallow funds that could otherwise be spent buying some new energy for a central midfield that suddenly feels a bit too surfer dude, with time and form conspiring against Mousa Dembélé and Victor Wanyama. The accusation seems to be that Spurs have hit a kind of stasis point, a plateau on an upward trajectory that has seen them secure Champions League football for the last three years on a net transfer spend of £29 million. Forget all the arguments: this is success, and a kind that renders Pochettino arguably the outstanding coach in the division. Yet with links to Real Madrid, the planet's most grotesquely entitled football club, refusing to die, the question will persist: what could Pochettino really do, given more?
Perhaps anyone trying to gauge what modern footballing success looks like ought to train their focus not on Spurs or the vultures at Real Madrid, but the Argentinian's previous employers. There was a time, even after he left, when Southampton were the darlings of the Barclays, a club with its own coquettish sense of destiny, buying low, selling high, turning St Mary's into a floodlit debutante's ball for a carousel of starlets bred on a diet of coastal air and seagull flesh. Somewhere along the way, though, they lost their eye and their mission, and have been stinking out the division with no discernible plan or identity for what is starting to feel like a quiet eternity, loitering around the knees of the table like crisis actors in the background of the Premier League, Marco Gabbiadini screaming into his iPhone as yet another atrocity unfolds around him.
Looking at Southampton, maybe we can see that a more workable definition of modern footballing success is simply having a plan and executing it well, being able to ease the anxiety levels of a whole watching world's worth of fans with the reassurance that you know where you want to go and have an idea of how best to get there. This, of course, is the crucible from which the real drama of English football emerges; the ceaseless battle between competing ideas, a madcap billionaires' rat race with its own calamity cast of runners and riders, its weekly array of pack leaders and people who’ve crashed and blown up somewhere along the M1 (Tim Ream).
Tottenham, and Pochettino, demonstrably have their own way. So far it's been a pretty good way. Perhaps, in all the noise and confusion, it would be best to allow them to simply continue along it.