The Premier League is changing. It has changed. I feel like that’s a given and something that now gets said over and over and over again. But it’s true, and we see those changes when we look week by week, month over month, season to season, and back at past decades. There is more money, more talent, and more parity than ever before.
The money stands out more clearly than ever before, and is never clearer than on Deadline Day when they tally the world’s spending to announce the Premier League has matched the entire rest of the world. And one only needs to look around the league at the names and prospects and talented players that are being enticed to join mid-table sides.
Gone are the days in which the league is so distinctly separated into tiers with a near-insurmountable gap between them. Mostly, gone are the days where the top teams wipe through the bottom 14 sides with ease, almost as nothing more than a formality, while they prepare for their next “big” matchup. The saying, “there are no easy points in the Premier League” has never been more true than it is today. And chances are it will be even truer-er next season.
I think everyone has been impressed by — if not a little irritated at times — the rise in challenging sides produced by the likes of West Ham, Wolves, Leeds, Leicester, Brighton… The list goes on. Because every year it seems there are sides on the rise, putting together coherent, cohesive, and comprehensive projects. We’ve heard of Brentford’s adoption of “moneyball” principles, although mostly they have heavily invested in data-driven scouting and decision making to find the right profile fits wit in an overlooked, talented player pool. We have seen the effects of Jorge Mendes at Wolverhampton and I, personally, believe West Ham recently put together a nice project of players around the same age profile — all within their primes — but those windows of opportunity may be coming to a close.
And this concept of opening and closing windows of opportunities, and the changing landscape of the Premier League, brings about a few thoughts I have had in recent months, maybe even years. It’s one about how clubs will have to change to be successful, but it’s also a change that fans are likely going to have to accept as well.
There is a phrase that used to be used for Arsenal: perennial top 4 finishers. And it was true under Wenger. But as the league changed and became more difficult to navigate, Arsenal fell behind, but were hardly alone.
Aside from a few ‘special’ clubs, gone are the days where the PL Giants can more or less pay their way to success. There will always be some element of that in a league with no salary cap — not that I’m advocating for a cap to be introduced immediately — but teams that have clung to that “pay to win” mindset have struggled: Manchester United, Arsenal in our years of aimless band-aid buys, Chelsea at times — although they flirt with being able to get away with it.
I wrote before the Liverpool game about their project feeling like a benchmark and test for Arsenal’s progression, even a roadmap to follow. Why? Because Liverpool are a club that put together success on the back of some savvy moves, a little bit of luck, and the backing of a managers vision. It feels replicable in a world in which many top club’s projects aren’t, or they simply feel unsustainable.
No, we are entering a period of time where unless a club has a clear plan and vision for moving their team forward, one that fits their club’s spending and managerial vision, they are likely to find themselves underachieving. This notion also comes with a dose of reality: being a perennial top 4 finisher may not be feasible anymore for most clubs. And with this movement comes “windows of opportunities” and as windows tend to do — they open and they close.
How long they stay open before they close will depend on a lot of factors — the foundations, the moves made by the club to sustain along the way, and some unpredictable aspects that come with the territory of sport (injuries, departures, etc.). But fans of clubs like Arsenal are going to have to adjust themselves to life within these windows, and life when these windows are closing and closed. It’s going to be a far more cyclical fan life and far less “like it used to be”.
We can sit here and demand the club promise to put out a league-title-competing team every single year, but that’s becoming more unrealistic by the year, and even nearing impossible. Look at Liverpool who sustained their project for as many years as they have under Klopp which seems to be coming toward its end. They will still compete, still win games, but as a club may need to come to terms with their window closing and adjust for what that means. And what does that mean? Firmly closing the window, going through a rebuild, and reopening that window down the line.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Arsenal were just in a position where they did themselves no favors trying to hold onto a dying way of life and those decisions certainly played a role in the time it takes to get the next project up and running. Now Arsenal find themselves being rewarded for that decision and the window is wide open for years to come.
The average age of Arsenal’s XI vs. Liverpool: 24.6
The average age of Arsenal’s goal contributors vs. Liverpool: 21.6
It’s not a mystery or surprise to see these numbers anymore, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that Arsenal are in the earliest stages of a project that could reap real rewards for the next decade…IF navigated well.
- Aaron Ramsdale: 25
- Kieran Tierney: 25
- Ben White: 25
- Gabriel M: 24
- William Saliba: 21
- Takehiro Tomiyasu: 23
- Bukayo Saka: 21
- Martin Ødegaard: 23
- Emile Smith Rowe: 22
- Fabio Vieira: 22
- Albert Sambi Lokonga: 22
- Oleksandr Zinchenko: 25
- Gabriel Jesus: 25
- Gabriel Martinelli: 21
- Eddie Nketiah: 23
And this list doesn’t even count the fringe players or up and coming talents like Marquinhos, Patino, Reiss Nelson, Balogun, Matt Smith. That list continues. All young prospects that will be used in one way or another — played or sold — to keep this project moving forward.
It’s a foundation that allows Arsenal to get creative with their upcoming transfer windows. They can buy for depth, take chances on players like Marquinhos, and hopefully pick and choose the right moments for adding serious talent in key areas. Topping that list for most fans is probably a Thomas Partey backup or replacement. And all of this can be done without the concern over ‘who this project is built around‘.
But fans may have to come to terms with that fact that this isn’t a sign that Arsenal will be a great team for the next 50 years. Sport rarely works that way, and Arsenal are unlikely to be a club that pays to ensure greatness every year for 50 years. No, Arsenal are a club with decades of brilliance, streaks of slumps or poor years, followed by another decade of brilliance. And while there was an elongated streak during this modern era, it seems like the league is catching up — or at least the TV money is being distributed evenly, and clubs like Newcastle are getting major buyouts which creates serious competition.
Arsenal’s window is very much open. The game is afoot. And capturing this time and making the most of it is important, albeit not easy. But when the time comes to close this window, it’s in the club and fan’s interest to definitively close it and navigate toward that next project as best as possible. I firmly believe that many clubs will have to come to terms with cycles like this. West Ham and Leicester seem to be on the cusp of this exact thing in their current state, but clubs their size are more used to this world. Liverpool may have a little more life in their window if they make the right moves, but another example of a cycle hanging on a knife’s edge, and suggests big clubs will soon enter this world of cycles as well.
The league is changing and windows will open for teams, and big teams will have to close their windows. Unless more Champions League spots are extended to the Premier League, it’s likely that a big name club or two finds themselves on the outside looking in every year and these clubs will have to be aware of that. It takes cohesive projects now to win in this league, and those without them will fail, but complete projects aren’t born over night.
But for now, we can appreciate the onset of our glorious opportunities, enjoy the rewards for struggling through the tough times and sticking by the club and simply acknowledge or brace ourselves for what lies in out future. If all goes well, that’s still over ten years away and a few major pieces of silverware would likely make the whole things a lot easier to swallow.