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West Ham displays how the rest of the Premier League can ‘catch up’

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Everyone’ll focus on Leicester City’s achievement and what it means for “smaller” clubs in the Premier League. But it’s overshadowing (for good measure) a great season at the Boleyn Ground — and West Ham’s season tells us more about where the Premier League is heading, not Leicester’s.

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In a sentence thing I never thought I’d have to type, Leicester City are Premier League winners.

What in the world?

In the aftermath of Aston Villa’s relegation from the Premier League, I’d been spending some time watching our 1980-81 title-winning team and reading up on the opinions of the era. And while Villa’s accomplishment 35 years ago pales in comparison to what Leicester just did, there are some solid similarities between the two.

When Villa won the title, not only were they a relatively unheralded side, but they competed for the title with Ipswich Town. Sure, the Tractor Boys had some good sides during that era, but neither Liverpool nor Nottingham Forest, the top sides of the era, were able to keep pace with the two true contenders.

This year, Leicester were, of course, completely unheralded, but Tottenham Hotspur being the last viable opposition for the winners was also a pretty surprising result. Like in 1981, neither Manchester City nor Chelsea (lol) were able to stay in the race, and neither was Arsenal.

That Villa team — which had just one international appearance to its name at the start of the year — was full of unknowns playing together that meshed perfectly, while Leicester did the same this year. And perhaps most importantly, Villa’s 14-player campaign is reminiscent of what the Foxes just did in making 27 lineup changes through 36 matches, second-fewest of all Premier League winners. For comparison’s sake, Chelsea’s 86 last season marked the first time since 2004-05 that a team won the title with fewer than 100.

I’m not concerned about trying to figure out if another Leicester will ever happen — it probably won’t — and to a certain extent, I think people are going to get caught up with the buzzwords like "chemistry" that’ll convince themselves of something stupid, like that Swansea City will win the Premier League.

But the interesting question, in my eyes, is whether or not we’re entering a more competitive Premier League, one that can return clubs like Villa, Newcastle United and Everton to at least, well, being in the discussion at the top of the table if they’re smart.

As more money is set to come into the English top flight than ever, I’ve been a proponent of the idea that we’d see more "smaller" clubs fighting their way into Europe amongst the big boys, and that really came true this year. Look past Leicester’s title win and you’ll see important stories in West Ham United, who may well qualify for the Champions League, and even with a Spurs side that, while not cheap, has contended like Liverpool did two years go.

The Hammers’ story is particularly interesting to me, because it’s been fuelled by the type of player that never would’ve been available to a club of their calibre five years ago: Dimitri Payet.

He’s been absolutely fantastic this season, and aside from Leicester’s key cogs and Harry Kane has been one of the most influential players in the Premier League. But if this were 2011, not 2016, he’d probably still be at Marseille. Or maybe a move to Italy would have been in order. Regardless, it would have been hard to see West Ham being able to secure the Frenchman’s signature in a bygone era.

But as West Ham — and other Premier League clubs — move forward, they’re able to do so in an environment where they can convince top players to come be an influential force in the world’s top league. And while there’s still a gap between the top and the next tier, and there always will be, I don’t think the biggest clubs are growing at the same rate.

In my eyes, there are (generally) seven world-class clubs that compete for the signature of every top player. In Spain, you have Barcelona and Real Madrid, in France you have PSG, in Germany it’s Bayern Munich and in England, you’ve got Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea. These are the big power brokers in world football, and the clubs that are consistently linked with world-class talent.

But simply having a little more money than they did before does nothing to make United, City or Chelsea more appealing destinations than their continental counterparts, and it’s not like there’s not enough money at the Bernabeu to fend off approaches for Gareth Bale.

To make the case a little easier, there’s a finite number of world-class players in this world, and the number of clubs they’re going to isn’t going to seriously change.

It’s why I’ve always thought there’s a "cap" to how good the best teams can get — and that idea allows the lower sides to close the gap to the top fairly quickly, especially with their increased spending power. Consider that West Ham spent more on their side than Borussia Dortmund did, and you might get where this is going.

What won’t happen is clubs like Leicester or West Ham competing for the title year-in, year-out. Sorry, that’s just not a realistic world.

But for the first time in more than a decade, the "other guys" will have enough money to put together the right mix of players with the right manager and a good injury record — and maybe, just maybe, they’ll be able to compete.

That’s pretty neat, I guess.