If you became a Premier League fan during the 2015-16 season, you have the entirely wrong idea about the league. Leicester City won the title, West Ham and Southampton pushed for places in European competition, and Chelsea and Liverpool played out disastrous seasons that ended with finishes in mid-table. It was enough to make a newly minted fan think the Premier League was a topsy-turvy crapshoot. At the midpoint of this season, though, regular old boring order has been restored.
I have bad news for those new fans: This is how it always is in England.
Chelsea has a five-point lead at the top. The other five members of the usual six-team competitive cabal are bunched within five points of each other — Liverpool, Tottenham, Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United. Seventh-place Everton is closer to the relegation zone than it is to Chelsea.
This is how things usually work. Six teams have a chance at the title, or the Champions League. The rest of the league hopes for a good showing in a cup competition, and the possibility of sneaking into the Europa League by finishing seventh.
Once again the financial differences, between the top teams from the big cities and the smaller and poorer teams, is just too great. Last year, I was among those who openly wondered if the record-breaking TV contracts in England, which effectively turned every Premier League team into a financial giant, would upend the old order. Suddenly, outlandish transfer fees were within the reach of every team, and it didn’t seem entirely crazy to think that the league would drain every last bit of talent out the rest of the world. It made logical sense; if teams like Stoke City could afford to pay big bucks to the best players from Italy or France or Spain, why couldn’t they narrow the gap with the teams at the top?
Of course, that’s not what happened. Players still shunned smaller teams and flocked to the top sides, who readjusted their spending accordingly. Manchester United spent nearly $200 million on players in the offseason, and seems set to spend even more in the next transfer windows.
The defining move might have been N’Golo Kante’s transfer from Leicester City, the champions, to Chelsea, which had recently finished 10th. Despite the promise of playing in the Champions League with Leicester, and likely earning about the same amount of money, Kante calculated that his chances of future success were better in London, and he left Leicester’s dream season behind.
Last year in the Premier League was one of the strangest years we’ve seen in recent European soccer history. As for the rest of this season, though, expect nothing but a steady diet of the top sides. Chelsea and Liverpool, without European distractions, are the favorites. Both Manchester teams could spend big to make challenges, as well.
It’s the same as it ever was.
• Player moves are one thing, but franchise moves are another. Strangely, a move is the fate for the current National Women’s Soccer League champions, the Western New York Flash. The team has been bought by Steve Malik, who also owns the former Carolina RailHawks franchise in NASL, now called North Carolina FC. Flash fans will have to travel to North Carolina if they want to see their team’s championship banner raised.
• Next week is the annual MLS combine for college players and the MLS SuperDraft on Jan. 13. Minnesota United holds the first pick. The opening of MLS training camps is just over two weeks away. It’s hard to believe, with the thermometer seemingly stuck below zero, but it’s almost soccer season in America again.
• More worries for Woodbury native Kassey Kallman, who has been stuck with Boston, the worst team in the NWSL over the past few years. Kallman was traded to Washington this year, but the Spirit have lost several key pieces. Among them is the team’s best player, Crystal Dunn, who is moving to England to play for Chelsea.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
FA Cup: AFC Wimbledon at Sutton United, 9 a.m. Saturday, FS1. The beauty of the FA Cup is that this match, between third-division Wimbledon and fifth-division Sutton, matters as much as any of the four all-Premier League matchups in the Cup’s third round. This game will be played on artificial turf, in a stadium with just 765 seats. Short on fans but long on romance.
Liga MX: Santos Laguna at Tigres, 7 p.m. Saturday, Univision. For the second consecutive year, Tigres took home the title in the Apertura (fall) season. In 2016, though, the northern giants fell all the way to eighth in the Clausura (spring), barely squeaking into the playoffs and then losing in the first round. Can Tigres get a victory against fellow northerners Santos, and get the spring started right?
FA Cup: Aston Villa at Tottenham, 10 a.m. Sunday, FS1. One year after an ugly relegation season, Aston Villa is bobbing along in 10th place in the Championship. With little glory apparently upcoming, an FA Cup run might be the Birmingham side’s only shot at excitement this year. An away victory against Premiership giants Tottenham might buoy some spirits.
La Liga: Barcelona at Villareal, 1:45 p.m. Sunday, beIN. Barcelona’s opening game of 2017 is an away trip to Villareal, where the home side — with the delightful “Yellow Submarine” nickname — has one of Europe’s stingiest defenses, having conceded just 11 goals this season. Barca can ill afford any more dropped points, with Real Madrid looking unbeatable.