It was another bad weekend for the three promoted sides. Luton fought gamely but were well-beaten at Aston Villa. Burnley felt aggrieved about a couple of VAR calls but, having led at Bournemouth, lost 2-1. And Sheffield United collapsed in the second half at Arsenal, losing 5-0. After 10 games each, they have just 10 points between them – and three of those came when Burnley beat Luton. Together, they have a goal difference of -50. The gulf between the Premier League and Championship has perhaps never been so stark.
This is the way of modern soccer. The rich get richer and the rest get left behind. The idea there has ever been one smooth pyramid flowing from the top all the way down to the National League and the regional leagues beyond that has probably always been slightly fanciful, but the steps between tiers are becoming increasingly pronounced. There is a shelf too between League One and the Championship, as the travails of Sheffield Wednesday (promoted last season and bottom of the Championship this), Wigan (promoted in 2021-22 and relegated last season) and Rotherham (promoted alongside Wigan and third-bottom of the Championship this season) demonstrate.
But the biggest step is that from Championship to Premier League, which is why parachute payments exist, to cushion the fall for relegated sides suddenly having to cope on a severely reduced income. It makes sense in practical terms but it is a problem, not least because those payments then give relegated sides a huge advantage – the three sides who went down last season are all currently in the top four in the Championship with Leicester already looking almost certain to go up. The payments are an understandable short-term fix that arguably exacerbates the problem. If English soccer truly believes in the pyramid model, a theoretical route for even the humblest side to climb into the Premier League, there is urgent need for greater distribution of television revenue.
That, though, is a much broader issue. More immediately, for a league that markets itself on its competitiveness, on the idea that everybody can beat everybody on their day, it’s just as big problem if everybody knows who’s getting relegated as if Manchester City win a sixth league title in seven years. The beauty of the Premier League is that it encompasses three separate battlegrounds – the title, the race for European qualification and the battle against the drop; lose the drama from one of those and the whole is diminished. Besides, City finish the season against Nottingham Forest, Wolves, Fulham and West Ham. It benefits nobody if those games are processions against sides with nothing left to play for.
But it would be wrong to be too gloomy, to suggest that relegation inevitably follows promotion. After all, the three teams who went down last season comprised the champions of 2015-16 (Leicester), a team who had finished ninth in 2020-21 (Leeds) and a team who had been in the Premier League for 11 years (Southampton). Brentford, promoted in 2020-21, show what can be achieved by a promoted side.
All three of last season’s promoted teams have specific issues. Sheffield United sold two of their stars of last season, Iliman Ndiaye and Sander Berge, in the summer. Although they did eventually secure James McAtee on loan from Manchester City for an extra year, Tommy Doyle returned to his parent club and is now at Wolves. Only one team, Sheffield United themselves in 2020-21, has ever taken only a single point form their opening 10 games of a Premier League season, and their goal difference now is -22, 10 worse than it was then. The Blades haven’t yet played Bournemouth, Burnley or Luton but with confidence waning, Derby’s record low of 11 points for a season is under threat.
Luton finished third in the Championship last season on merit, but they’re a limited squad with limited means (they are not owned by their fans as such, but their supporters trust has a right of veto), playing in a stadium that holds just 11,500. It’s a matter of fact rather than a criticism of their ambition to suggest that their best plan for this season is to enjoy the experience, learn the lessons and make the most of the income to improve their chances of a more sustainable return in the future.
Burnley are the big disappointment, given how they dominated the Championship last season playing slick, intelligent football. A tendency to give the ball away when trying to play out from the back has been their big problem, and led to both Bournemouth goals on Saturday. That result against another relegation candidate felt significant, lifting Bournemouth out of the bottom three, which is now occupied exclusively by the promoted teams.
It would be naive to think the promoted teams’ performances will suddenly jolt the richer clubs into offering a greater share of their income to the rest of the pyramid but, equally, it would be wrong to suggest any team that comes up to the Premier League is automatically doomed. None suffered an immediate return last season and, only once before, in 1997-98, have all three promoted sides gone straight back down. The struggles of the promoted sides have specific and individual causes but, equally, they are reflective of a wider problem.
On this day
In 1928, the editor of El Gráfico, Borocotó, proposed raising a statue to the inventor of dribbling, saying it should depict “a pibe [urchin] with a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb; with intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes and a sparkling gaze that seem to hint at a picaresque laugh that does not quite manage to form on his mouth, full of small teeth that might be worn down through eating yesterday’s bread”. In doing so he laid out the blueprint for the ideal of Argentinian soccer, the kid who grew up playing in mass games on the vacant lots of the city, forced by circumstance to develop both close control and a streetwise capacity for self-preservation.
When Diego Maradona was born in Lanús, just south of Buenos Aires, on 30 October 1960, he arrived with the force of prophecy. It wasn’t just that he was a brilliant footballer, it was that he was a characteristically Argentinian footballer. A harsh critic might say he only really had four or five great seasons – three league titles, two domestic cups and a Uefa Cup are a modest trophy haul – but the turbulence was part of his glory and Argentina’s triumph in the 1986 World Cup was the result of probably the greatest individual performance in the tournament, one entirely in keeping with the pibe tradition.
• This is an extract from Soccer with Jonathan Wilson, a weekly look from the Guardian US at the game in Europe and beyond. Subscribe for free here. Have a question for Jonathan? Email email@example.com, and he’ll answer the best in a future edition