Southampton, the Inequality of the Barclays Premier League, and The Great Gatsby

The Saints got a brief, thrilling taste of extravagance, but they never belonged

When you bang your head against a glass ceiling, you, of course, feel dazed. And you might stoop, or lose your balance, and take a while to recover.

A headache and a dizzy spell is a likely prognosis for Southampton, the medium-sized Barclays Premier League club that has spent the summer being punished for success—for finishing a vertiginous eighth in last season’s standings, one place below Manchester United.

The team from England’s south coast have sold three of their back four, their best attacking midfielder, and their first-choice striker to bigger Premier League clubs. The manager, Mauricio Pochettino, left for Tottenham, who are now trying to sign Southampton’s key holding midfielder and top goalscorer from last season.

It’s soccer’s equivalent of vulture capitalism, where cash-rich opportunists spy a chance and swoop in for a vulnerable company’s most valuable assets. True, the sales have so far brought in about $150 million in transfer fees, some of which has already been reinvested in the squad. But in a market inflated by ever-expanding TV income, it now costs $40 million or more to buy a single reliably-excellent player in his prime. Romelu Lukaku scored 15 goals last season, as did Jay Rodriguez, one of the two Tottenham targets, and Everton just paid Chelsea $47 million for the Belgian.

So Southampton will have to scour the market for relative bargains, and hope they turn out as well as recent signings before they are cherry-picked again: an inevitable cycle of discovery, development, and departure.

Since Luke Shaw (who joined Manchester United), Adam Lallana (Liverpool), and Calum Chambers (Arsenal) were all Southampton trainees and the club plays an attractive style and reached the Premier League in 2012 via two successive promotions, their rise felt organic. Or at least, less genetically-modified than most: It was made possible by the wealth of their former owner, the late Swiss-German billionaire construction magnate, Markus Liebherr.

Watching the stripping of Southampton feels like seeing the planet’s natural resources get plundered by Big Oil. If we are honest, we know this is an inevitable part of how our society functions and prospers, and we are all complicit in the continuation of the system. But we still regret the scarring of an attractive landscape and we wonder if the practice could be made less harmful by tighter governmental regulation, more public outrage, a less rapacious corporate philosophy.

The unusual number of departures and some club-specific boardroom soap operas aside, what is notable about the case of Southampton is its normality and inevitability. Steady growth can propel a club within sight of the EPL’s top four, if they have a good manager and shrewd owners who have bought wisely from smaller teams. This is not new. But income inequality has created a barrier, like a bouncer at the VIP entrance. Clubs such as Southampton can get a brief and thrilling taste of the extravagance but they do not belong, like Nick Carraway at one of Gatsby’s parties.

Great wealth at the apex makes the summit of the pyramid impossible to scale, meaning it is the most stable part of the structure. These clubs can offer an irresistible package: the realistic prospect of frequent Champions League soccer, trophies, and very high wages. Precisely because the same sides achieve these every year, the best players join them and the lesser clubs have no credible sporting arguments or financial power to dissuade them, perpetuating the rigid hierarchy.

Yet the Premier League title race remains exciting because, unlike in, say, Spain, it feels as if any of five teams could win the championship in the upcoming season. But the focus on this narrow unpredictability ignores the truth that the overall structure is ossified. Joining English soccer’s existing elite is all but impossible without the kind of overspending that is now forbidden under UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules.

Stability at the top creates dynamism and turbulence below, as clubs like Southampton rise, bump against the ceiling, and fall. Then a few successive mid-table finishes no longer seem acceptable to fans or owners, so managers and players change and the turnover causes a spiral of instability that prompts a steep decline.

Last season the teams who comprised the top seven were the same as the year before, which had never previously happened in the Premier League. But in the league’s 21 seasons, only seven teams improved their position the year after finishing eighth, 13 sides worsened, and just one ended up eighth again. Ten of those 13 finished at least five places lower than the year before. Two were relegated, including Reading, a similar-sized club to Southampton.

In the past decade, Charlton Athletic, Bolton Wanderers, Fulham, Birmingham City, Wigan Athletic, Blackburn Rovers, Middlesbrough, Reading, and Portsmouth all enjoyed at least one top-half finish. None are still in the Premier League. Relegation seems a more realistic scenario for Southampton in the coming years than breaking into the top six, let alone the top four. Even last season their points total put them nearer to last place than to first.

Capitalism tends to sell promises of unlimited growth and endless potential. But for most teams in this league upward mobility is limited, fleeting, a siren call.