Back in the day, the only position that anyone really cared about in the then-first division was first. Since then, as the European Cup morphed into the Champions League and more clubs were allowed through its hallowed doors, being second was no longer seen as the best loser. Third and fourth followed suit and suddenly we had a “Big Four”. Sky and talkSPORT lapped it up. The four members would change occasionally, and the new money that was Chelsea and Manchester City elbowed out the likes of Arsenal and Spurs. Gradually, over the last couple of years, things have changed again, and suddenly, with the events at Newcastle.
There is, of course, a very real plus side to becoming a regular member of the top four. Being in the Champions League brings huge additional revenue into the clubs and enables them to attract the very best talent from around the world. Just as importantly, the knowledge that a club will be in the top four is also massive, as it allows them to budget without fear of transgressing the ever complicated and changing FFP rules.
There is a flip side, however. Once you have qualified for European competition you suddenly find yourself travelling to some far flung Eastern European city midweek before having to prepare for a crucial top of the league clash on the weekend. Sides quickly discover that fixture congestion is a very real concern and something that needs to be built up for in terms of squad depth and mentality. That is not something that happens overnight or even over a season.
Assuming that the Champions League will keep its gates shut at the top four, there are a lot of teams with a genuine claim and expectation to be in there regularly. So what will that four look like in two or three years' time?
The Old Guard
Liverpool and Manchester United are the most established clubs staking a claim for the big four, and let us not forget or ignore that they are both bankrolled by mega wealthy owners. Both clubs have spent huge sums of money to get where they are. For Liverpool, that place is somewhere they would want to be, especially with that long awaited EPL trophy firmly in the cabinet. The same cannot be said for Man U, despite or perhaps because of headline-grabbing summer activity, most notably the return of Ronaldo. Solskjær appears to have weathered the recent storm, but you feel there will be more ahead and, in all honesty, their inclusion in the big four probably rests on whether they can get in a more experienced manager.
The Old New Money
Man City and Chelsea have two huge advantages over every other club in the EPL. They have big backers (Chelsea maybe not as big in relation to some others) and probably the two best managers in world football. It is hard to see another club, in the short term at least, break their grip on the title, never mind four edging them out of the top four.
The New, New Money
We all know money talks in football. It will only get you so far, however. The Qataris didn’t buy PSG to repeatedly win Ligue 1 but to win the Champions League, something they have so far failed to do. The question everyone in the EPL is asking at the moment is, how big will Newcastle become? We saw from Man City’s progression that it will not happen overnight, and there are certain stages of the evolution/revolution the club will need to go through. Howe looks like a decent call for the first stage but, to be brutally honest, he is unlikely to be there for the long term. Survival this year is by no means a given, and it is probably going to be five or six years before they will be a genuine threat to the top four.
The Other Contenders
Leicester continue to exceed expectations, which is maybe unfair as they do have money behind them and a very good manager. They have firmly established themselves as a top six side, and it is likely that over the coming seasons they will make the occasional appearance in the top four. The elephants in the room are Spurs and Arsenal. One can’t help but feel that they will be continually hamstrung by internal strife and too firm a hand on the purse strings. The addition of Conte is a very positive move from Tottenham, but in reality an occasional cameo in the top four, along with Leicester, is going to be the best they can hope for, whereas Arsenal are in very real danger of slipping through the cracks entirely with their highest ceiling being a top six finish.