If, three years ago, someone had spoken of an attacking triumvirate of Bojan Krkić, Ibrahim Afellay and Xherdan Shaqiri that would exist in 2015, it would have been easy to agree. There are places where you would have expected such a litany of ability to reside, places where the Champions League lives – one of the Milan clubs perhaps, or Sevilla, or Wolfsburg.
Instead, at the end of 2015, they form the axis on which Stoke City’s attacking impetus resides. In fact, alongside Chelsea and United, Stoke currently have the most Champions League winners in their squad.
It’s not just Stoke though, where some of the big names in football now reside. Dimitri Payet’s transition from Marseille to West Ham caused a stir in the market, and he’s gone on to prove his worth with his immediate impact in the Premier League. Georgio Wijnaldum is pretty much the only bright spark of Newcastle’s disappointing start to the season.
Yohan Cabaye was convinced to trade the bright lights of PSG for Pardew’s Palace project. The Ayew brothers, Andre and Jordan, have both turned out to be key acquisitions at struggling Swansea and Villa respectively.
This has all been talked about before, so I’m not going to go into the ins-and-outs of why players do this, what compels them to make these kind of decisions, because I think that’s a negative factor in terms of what the Premier League has become – players would often rather battle relegation than play in the Champions League in order to get themselves a shot at playing for one of England’s ‘big teams’.
However, what it does mean is that the Premier League is becoming a far more exciting and unpredictable affair, and that the difference in standard between the ‘big teams’ and their smaller counterparts is becoming smaller, which is a positive step in creating a more exciting and challenging English game.
Transfers are one thing, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that smaller teams are no longer playing with fear when they go up against the likes of Chelsea or United or City. There is no longer an attitude of damage limitation going on – teams are looking to exploit the weaknesses that they can see and go into these games with a ‘why not us’ attitude rather than consigned to the old ‘let’s keep it below three lads’.
Stoke tore City apart at the Britannia last weekend, and the brilliance of their attacking quartet (with the three players named above being complemented perfectly by the tireless Marco Arnautovic, yet another Champions League medal holder), was matched only by the pressing game they implemented from the back, led ably by Ryan Shawcross and Glenn Whelan.
It’s that same belief which led Bournemouth to a hard-fought victory over Chelsea on Saturday evening, and the main power behind table-toppers Leicester’s barnstorming run of form. It’s why no-one is particularly surprised that Crystal Palace, West Ham, Everton and
Stoke are all in touching distance of a European spot, and why it’s becoming ever harder to lay down a successful accumulator on a Saturday afternoon.
It’s always been said that there’s no easy games in the Premier League, but for some teams that hasn’t always been the case. We’ve seen teams stroll to the title before, but the strengthening of the ‘second tier’, if you will, is beginning to show the effect it can have on the League as a whole. The belief that anyone can beat anyone is starting to filter right through the division, and the League is becoming a richer place for it – so long may it.