You could pinpoint the difference in priorities between Frank Lampard and Brendan Rodgers leading up to the final match of the Premier League season by their words. With both teams competing with Manchester United for two Champions League places, Lampard spent the buildup accusing Jurgen Klopp of arrogance and hitting out against Liverpool assistant Pep Ljinders for breaking a “touchline code” in trying to get his Chelsea players booked during a 5-3 loss. Rodgers, meanwhile, implored his Leicester City side to dig deep to beat Manchester United and finish in the top four. He explained how his side not only want to get into the top European competition, but that they also “need” the Champions League financially and existentially.
“If you analyze budgets and everything else, we should actually be nowhere near the position of Manchester United. That’s the reality. This game and how it’s set up shows you how well we’ve done to be competing at that level,” added Rodgers, applying his version of The Wire-esque viewpoint of how “the game” is built upon structural inequality, with his Leicester City side as pawns sacrificed to the league’s biggest brands.
In spite of his stirring speech, Rodgers foresaw the result of the final day: United and Chelsea both inevitably in the top four, joining Liverpool and Manchester City. Rodgers struck a defiant tone when analyzing the fate of his Leicester squad without the Champions League funds or aura to attract new talent, much less hold on to key players (left back Ben Chillwell is reportedly set to join Chelsea this summer). By contrast, Lampard was able to close Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech before a Champions League place was even secured. And publicly feuding with rival managers is much easier with rumors that Kai Havertz would be willing to join Chelsea regardless of whether they were actually in the competition. While that shows the difference in branding power between the two sides, it also helps when one brand has nine figures to spend on transfers during a pandemic. Leicester City’s biggest club transfer is Youri Tielemans at $49.5 million. Chelsea have matched or spent more than that on seven different players, and maybe another should Havertz arrive.
There’s other examples in the contrasts between the top four and the rest of the league when it comes to expectations regarding this upcoming summer window. After barely congratulating Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for making the Champions League, we immediately demanded that United get down to its real business and sign Jadon Sancho (Dortmund admitted that they would accept a lower fee than initially expected before the pandemic). We thought that it would be a quiet, suppressed transfer window due to the fallout from the quarantine and a lack of matchday revenue, but we know now that the financial impact affects clubs disproportionately. With smaller sides desperate to raise funds, this summer could result in an even wider separation for the top four. Solskjaer hinted at the possibility of United “exploiting” this summer’s market this past April.
“Who knows which clubs need to sell players? There might be a situation there where you can exploit, and I know we are one of the biggest clubs, and financially well-off,” said Solskjaer, after which Gary Neville, who conducted the interview, acknowledged the poor choice of words. But the thought remained, with agents across the world recognizing that this summer would be a buyers’ market littered with bargains for those with resources.
Sensing the opportunity, City moved quickly. In mimicking Liverpool’s signing of Gini Wijnaldum and Andy Robertson, they are close to adding Nathan Ake from the relegation-bound Bournemouth. Though while picking off talent from relegated sides is a tried and tested form of uncovering value, other situations happen to fall into a club’s lap. Chelsea don’t necessarily need Havertz considering an already loaded midfield and attack. But how many times does a potentially world class 21-year-old player, who was once valued at over $106 million, become available for a relative discount of closer to $90 million? Chelsea signing Havertz at a cut-rate price because of a pandemic could be soccer’s equivalent of Kevin Durant signing with the Warriors, a transfer that shapes the league for years that was only available due to the unique, one-off economic circumstance.
City’s favorable Financial Fair Play ruling, in which a potential two-year Champions League was overturned, further solidified the hegemony at the top of the Premier League table. The decision was, according to rival managers, the last guardrail against a wild west-style approach to the transfer window. Mourinho said that the game’s governing body might as well open the “circus door” and let teams spend without any oversight or regulation. Klopp went further in foreseeing that the ruling was another step towards a “kind of world super league with 10 clubs.”
In likening City’s spending to letting a jet into Formula One, Klopp concluded that “the aeroplane will win” every race. Though for most teams outside of this current top four, those dreams of reaching the Champions League already appear impossible, and maybe even moreso after this upcoming transfer window.
“The Premier League is getting into a direction where these unbeaten records are something more and more difficult to achieve because of the level of the teams,” said Jose Mourinho about Tottenham’s ability to live up to Liverpool’s 59-match home unbeaten streak at their new stadium.
The unpredictability of the Premier League, with four different champions in the last five seasons, is part of its fabric. It provides an alternative to the clockwork domestic dominance of Juventus, Bayern, PSG, Barcelona, and Real Madrid. But having a distinct top four, like we have now with Liverpool, City, United, and Chelsea, was how the Premier League expressed its dominance in Europe between 2006-09 when three English sides made the semifinals in three consecutive seasons. The surprise team that threatens to break into the top four makes for a good story, but the Champions League rewards its signature teams creating historic matchups.
Far from a once-in-a-generation success, Leicester’s 2015 league title and run to the Champions League quarterfinals the subsequent year was supposed to be the initial step in establishing the club as a perennial Champions League brand. But as Rodgers pointed out, overachieving their eighth place wage bill by three places and finishing fifth is still a successful season. So why is there still a sense of a letdown? It could come down to how our expectations were raised considering the way they started the season. Or it could be in realizing that this is the ceiling for the club, and for the other sixteen Premier League sides no matter how sustainably or intelligently run, in the post-lockdown era. The regret must be in knowing how close they came to cracking the top four, and considering the economics of this summer, how far away a Champions League place now seems.