Are the Big Four big enough?

The Big Four — Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool — have chinks in their armour and it’s as good a time as any for the other clubs to try and unseat the giants from their perch. Who can do it, if at all? Over to Karthik Krishnaswamy.

Towards the end of Fever Pitch, his book on life as an Arsenal fanatic, Nick Hornby dwells upon the North London club’s title drought between 1975 and 1989, and what it meant to watch the ‘meaningless’ matches that his beloved team played for much of this period, title hopes having evaporated early in the season.

“There are no chewed nails and chewed knuckles and screwed-up faces; your ear doesn’t become sore from being pressed up hard against a radio…; you are not, in truth, thrown into agonies of despair or eye-popping fits of ecstasy by the result. Any meanings such games throw up are the ones that you, rather than the First Division table, bring to them,” he writes. “And after maybe ten years of this, the Championship becomes something you either believe in or you don’t, like God.”

The Premier League era and the hegemony of the Big Four has, if anything, only spawned more non-believers. Only once in the last six seasons has a team other than Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal or Liverpool finished among the top four. Through much of this decade, the question of who will come fifth has assumed a strange sort of importance.

This season, however, could be different.

It is a promise football writers have made every season, a promise players, managers, referees and the unyielding fates have conspired to render laughably void almost every time. Why exactly could this season be different?

For a start, the Big Four have added little to their squads over the summer transfer window. There is a degree of sameness to last season in Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool’s squads, and Manchester United’s, through the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo and to a lesser extent Carlos Tevez, looks weakened.

All four clubs have questions left to answer. Is the talented but injury-prone Italian Alberto Aquilani a like-for-like replacement for the Real Madrid-bound Xabi Alonso in Liverpool’s midfield? Can Eduardo da Silva fully put behind him the horrific ankle injury that kept him out of Arsenal’s first team for a season and a half, and compensate for the loss of goals that the departure of Emmanuel Adebayor may bring to his club?

Will Michael Owen ever be the old Michael Owen again, and where will Manchester United’s goals come from in the absence of the frighteningly prolific Ronaldo? Can Carlo Ancelotti slot into Premier League management seamlessly, or will his tactics, honed and perfected in Italy, implode at Stamford Bridge?

These questions must be answered early in the season, which leaves Liverpool and Arsenal the toughest possible examinations. Liverpool’s first four opponents consist of two clubs with ambitions of storming the top four Bastille — Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa — and two of the Premier League’s most physical sides — Stoke City and Bolton Wanderers — while Arsenal’s first three away games feature Everton, Manchester United and Manchester City.

United, ahead of the Arsenal game, starts its season with two relatively sedate fixtures against promoted sides Birmingham and Burnley, while Chelsea, on paper, has the least intimidating start to the season of the Big Four, with only the derby at Fulham on the second weekend of the season sticking out as a potential banana skin fixture from its first four matches.

In the event of slip-ups or even undignified slides from one or more of the usual suspects, a collection of ambitious clubs waits to enter the hitherto unexplored realm of Champions League spots.

Each of these clubs has taken a different route into the Big Four’s slipstream.

Manchester City has taken the all-or-nothing approach. Five of its players — Gareth Barry, Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Adebayor, Carlos Tevez and Robinho — feature in ascending order among the top 10 wage earners in the Premier League.

All five were signed this year, four in the current transfer window. Mark Hughes possesses a squad brimming with options in most areas, and, if he can get his signings to gel quickly and keep all his recruits happy, has enough firepower to beat anyone.

Under the glowering-eyed stewardship of manager David Moyes, Everton has finished in the top six four times in the last five seasons — fantastic returns for a club whose record signing, Belgian midfielder Marouane Fellaini, recruited last season, cost 15 million pounds, a sum Manchester City has eclipsed four times in this transfer window alone.

Moyes’s ability to work with limited resources is reflected in the fact that his most successful recruits in his time at Everton include Tim Cahill and Joleon Lescott, signed from lower division clubs, and also in how he managed to overcome a spate of injuries to his strikers last season by deploying attacking midfielders Fellaini and Cahill as focal points in a virtually striker-less formation. Despite the lack of activity in the transfer window, Everton should mount a dogged challenge, especially with the return of playmaker Mikel Arteta from a cruciate ligament injury.

Aston Villa threatened to pip Arsenal to fourth spot for much of last season, but a drop in form saw Martin O’Neill’s men finish sixth. Two of its most reliable performers from recent seasons are gone — defender Martin Laursen forced into retirement by a stubborn knee injury, midfielder Gareth Barry moving on to Manchester City after 12 years at Villa. No ready-made replacements exist for either — Fabian Delph, signed from Leeds United, is too young at 19 to realistically take on Barry’s mantle. However, in Ashley Young, James Milner and Gabriel Agbonlahor, Villa possesses some of the brightest young English talent in the Premier League, and its already solid resources in wide areas have been strengthened by the arrival of Stewart Downing from relegated Middlesbrough. Add strikers John Carew and Emile Heskey to the mix, and Villa might just have enough in attack to cover up for its depleted defence and midfield.

Which leaves the most infuriating club of recent seasons — Tottenham Hotspur, perenially tipped to break into the top four, perennially falling short, even threatening at one point last season to end up relegated. Somehow, football writers come back at the start of every new season looking at White Hart Lane with renewed hope, and it’s not difficult to see why. Tottenham possesses tremendous depth in attack — Robbie Keane, Jermain Defoe, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Peter Crouch give manager Harry Redknapp a selection of strikers as good as any in the league, and in Aaron Lennon and Luka Modric he possesses perhaps the speediest winger and cleverest playmaker in the league. While a long-term weakness in defensive midfield was plugged last season by the acquisition of Wilson Palacios from Wigan, the only problem Spurs has, on paper, is keeping its first choice but injury-prone central defensive pairing of Ledley King and Jonathan Woodgate fit.

Only so much, however, as this club has shown for so many seasons, can paper-gazing achieve.

And therefore, despite the apparent stagnation of the Big Four and the renewed hope thrown up by clubs like Man City and Tottenham, it is fully possible that we will witness yet again the Premier League’s unyielding status quo. Or, on the other hand, this could be the season that heralds long-awaited change, with the castle doors succumbing to the pounding of battering rams.