There are few subjects more prickly in English football than the suggestion that some teams try harder in some games than in others. When Kevin Keegan exploded at Alex Ferguson in 1996 — "I'll tell you, honestly, I will love it if we beat them. Love it." — he was responding to Ferguson's suggestion that teams were trying harder against Manchester United than against Newcastle United, their title rivals.
“I think football in this country is so honest, and so, honestly, when you look sometimes abroad you have your doubts, but it really has got to me, and I've voiced it like, not in front of the press or anywhere, I'm not even going to the press conference, but the battle's still on. Man United have not won this yet, not by any means.”
Arsene Wenger's venture into the same territory this week hasn't had quite the same impact: his club isn’t in a title race, the blood isn't running quite as hot, and there's nobody as wonderfully innocent as Keegan knocking around any more. But still, his claims that …
“We have two leagues. For example we had to fight very hard at Stoke and Southampton but some teams once they are safe just have a breather, which didn’t happen 10 years ago. The league has changed mentally. Morally it has changed a lot.”
… were met with some pushback. Pep Guardiola noted that "if you don’t want this situation, you have to win more games yourself.” David Moyes called it "an insult to football.” Still, Wenger returned to his theme after Arsenal beat Sunderland on Tuesday night to keep the Race for the Champions League just about alive:
“I still think City are in it, they go to Watford, which is a difficult place to go. What you want is for everybody to fight like Sunderland did tonight. Then you accept your result, that's it.”
It is not, of course, an allegation that a player or a team has consciously decided to throw a game. That would be an extremely serious and possibly even slanderous thing to say. But at the same time, it's sort of heading in that direction. It suggests that something has insinuated itself into the minds of players, robbing them of their competitive edge. And in the process, distorting the final stages of the season.
This is not a new accusation, to the point that it even has a cliche: "On the beach." It's not a particularly pleasant one, either. At best, it speaks of a certain lack of professionalism; at worst a complete abrogation of commitment. Wenger frames this as a "moral" issue, a question not just of preparation but of duty. In this context, a duty to the sporting integrity of the league, and to the abstract principle that all 380 games must be played in a spirit of full, unfettered competition.
Is he right that this happens, this drift to the beach? Moyes rejected the idea out of hand, as did West Bromwich Albion's Jonny Evans earlier this season, but it can certainly appear so to the external observer. Naturally, the general wear and tear of a season will play a part, but the fact that this phenomenon has its own cliche suggests that at the very least there's a certain stickiness to the suspicion. In any case, perhaps the most interesting element of Wenger's thoughts is not his assertion that it happens, but that it has increased over the last 10 years.
A cynic might suggest that this same decade has seen Arsenal drift from regular title challengers to regular Champions League qualifiers, and wonder if there might not be a small amount of frustration, even bitterness, informing this opinion. But a different kind of cynic might look elsewhere, and wonder if the league itself has changed.
What can teams get from a Premier League campaign? They can win the thing, of course. They can come close to winning it, and qualify for the Champions League. They can come a little further away, and nick themselves a Europa League place. Or they can avoid relegation. Those are the prizes, practically speaking, even though only one comes with a trophy. And over the last 10 years — Leicester City's miracle notwithstanding — they have all, bar one, been slowly removed from the reach of most of the league.
This season, six teams began the season with the explicit target of trying to win the league and, if they fell short, at the very least qualifying for the Champions League. In theory that makes for an exciting title race, but one consequence is that it rather clogs up the top of the league. At least two of them have to fail, and that failure will most likely manifest itself as fifth- and sixth-place finishes. And so it has turned out: Chelsea are in first, Spurs are in second, Manchester City, Liverpool, and Arsenal will sort out third through fifth, and Manchester United will come sixth.
So the rest of the league is competing for just two things: seventh, which sometimes comes with a Europa League spot depending on how the cups go, and the much more important reward of Not Getting Relegated. Eighth through 17th are, increments of prize money aside and notions of pride aside, effectively the same position. This season's league table seems determined to drive the point home: even if Southampton, currently in eighth, beat Manchester United on Wednesday evening, they'll go into the final weekend 10 points ahead of Swansea City in 17th, but 13 behind Everton in seventh.
Over the last 10 years, the Premier League's glass ceiling has been pushed down and now seals away almost all of the league's prizes. Obviously this doesn't prevent miraculous charges like Leicester last season, or spectacular collapses like Chelsea, but the trend is there. And any club that has the temerity to have a notably good season is immediately picked clean by the teams above them, ensuring that sides can't ever chain seasons of progress together. Arsenal have played their part in this last process, of course, making occasional raids on Southampton's academy.
Whether this is sustainable remains to be seen: six into four doesn't go, after all, and winning the Europa League isn't the most reliable back-up plan when there are hungry sponsors to feed. But at the moment, for the majority of its teams, the league offers nothing much to play for beyond survival. If Wenger is right, and more teams are mentally checking out at this point, then perhaps the fault lies not with them but with their league.
Obviously footballers, just like everybody else, are motivated by more complex forces than just “box ticked, no more boxes to tick, job done.” But it would be hard to blame anybody for losing just a little intensity, even unwittingly, once it becomes clear that the season is essentially sorted. No consolation to Wenger, of course, who has his season and perhaps his job riding on the efforts of others. But it's hard to escape the thought that even if the hypemen are right, and anybody can beat anybody in the Premier League, increasingly there isn't always a whole lot of point.