Premier League preview week: One year after Leicester's uprising, the league is as stratified as ever

Henry Bushnell
A year ago, Leicester City had us thinking the Premier League had changed forever. Now it’s seemingly as stratified as ever. (Reuters)

Welcome to FC Yahoo’s Premier League preview week. We’ll take a look at each team in our aggregated predicted table, counting down from No. 20 to No. 1, and also reflect on some issues surrounding the league as kickoff approaches on Friday. Follow along with everything here.

If there was one earth-shaking moment, one revolutionary development, or one landscape-altering season during the first quarter century of the English Premier League’s existence, there is little doubt what it was.

The league is fundamentally different nowadays than it was 20 or even 10 years ago, but much of the change has been either gradual or below the surface. Only one season has turned everything we thought we knew about the Prem on its head. Only one team has overcome 5,000-1 odds to win the title. Leicester City detonated English soccer’s sense of reality in 2015-16, and disrupted a power structure that seemed set in stone.

In the unstable aftermath of Leicester’s uprising, thousands of words were written and uttered about a sporting world forever changed. The byproducts of Leicester’s success were difficult to predict, but there was a certainty that there would be some; that in the coming years, business as usual could not possibly resume; that the tumult would have long-lasting effects.

And yet, 12 months after those proclamations, 12 months after the uncertainty, the Premier League’s earth is no longer shaking; it’s still. The league’s landscape looks just as it did prior to the supposed seismic shift. The concrete of English soccer’s hierarchy feels as solid as ever. Everything is the same.

Or is it? How do we know?

If there is a legacy of Leicester’s title, it lies in that question. The uncertainty the Foxes’ run inspired still lingers, even if only in microscopic amounts. The whole reason Leicester was Leicester is that two offseasons ago, the Premier League felt just like it does now. Only six teams had any real shot to win the league, just as only six teams are contenders this time around. It’s just that in 2015-16, none of those six teams won it.

But it is not difficult to see which of the two most recent seasons is the fluke. The past 15 years brought multiple top-four finishes to only six clubs — the same six that currently occupy the league’s top tier. Leicester’s miracle was the exception. Last season, which ended with more distance between sixth place and eighth than between eighth and 20th, is the rule.

And so here we are, with the Premier League as stratified as ever, only one year after its social structure was seemingly torn apart. The elite — some here by blood, others by money, others by shrewd maneuvering — are Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool. The middle class is fluid, with ambitious Everton and savvy Southampton in its upper reaches. The working class extends from the Burnleys and Bournemouths of the top flight down to the lower leagues.

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And we are not only here heading into 2017-18; we will be here for the foreseeable future. There are a multitude of factors keeping the hierarchy as is. Financial Fair Play prevents another Man City-esque, foreign investment-fueled rise. Champions League money and the commercial power of the big six widen the revenue gap, and thus the spending gap, and thus the on-field quality gap. It’s a positive feedback loop, a vicious cycle that hasn’t shown any signs of abating, despite Leicester’s surprise.

The influx of TV money has enabled lucrative mid-table spending. But the tens of millions of pounds in transfer fees haven’t given upward mobility to the middle class, because the spending of the elites has risen proportionately, or maybe even disproportionately, as well. Plus, the superior infrastructure (scouting networks, analytics departments, and so on) in place at those elite clubs theoretically improves their return on investment.

The top six all achieved some degree of stability last season, and their now-ingrained advantages have upped the buy-in for a spot at the Premier League’s competitor’s table. The heightened bar has sent the game’s middle class into a tizzy. Teams like West Ham and Leicester must fork over several eight-figure sums just to keep up. Last season, Everton spent roughly £75 million, benefited from youth breakthroughs, solid coaching and considerable luck, and managed to hang onto a star striker worth £75 million himself; the Toffees still finished eight points outside the top six, and are unlikely to replicate last season’s success in 2017-18.

None of this is to say that teams should not try to break into English soccer’s ruling class. That’s exactly what Everton is attempting to do, and who knows, it might eventually work. Others are following that lead, too, with 14 transfer fees of at least £10 million already shelled out by non-top-six clubs so far this summer, and plenty more to come.

The attempts aren’t futile. They’re even admirable. The issue, as Everton can attest, is that so much must go right to turn top-six dreams into reality. There must be top-down buy-in, starting with an owner and his investments not only in the playing squad but behind the scenes. The recruitment staff must excel year after year. The manager must work magic. And of course, Lady Luck must be in a good mood. Still, though, if the top six hold their ground, all of that might be insufficient. And even if it is sufficient, the reward is likely nothing more than a one-year venture into the Europa League.

The stratification of the league always seems more permanent than it actually is, so perhaps this is all an overreaction. And, as Leicester proved, nothing is impossible.

But the big-picture impact of Leicester’s landmark 2015-16 season appears to have been negligible. The Premier League has fallen back into definitive years.

As former Blackburn and Newcastle striker Alan Shearer said a few months before that 2015-16 season kicked off: “Whoever you are, whatever you are, you need the finance to challenge, so the dream [of a title] has now gone for the vast majority of the clubs. … A team the size of Blackburn? It’s impossible.”

Twelve months later, Leicester made that statement sound foolish.

Twenty-four months later, in an odd way, it rings truer than ever.

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