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Shipped from Abroad: Finding mid-table significance on an English Premier League weekend

Manchester City's Italian manager Robert

Manchester City’s Italian manager Roberto Mancini (R) talks with West Bromwich Albion’s English manager Roy Hodgson (L) ahead of the English Premier League football match between Manchester City and West Bromwich Albion at The Etihad stadium in Manchester, north-west England on April 11, 2012. AFP PHOTO/ADRIAN DENNIS RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or “live” services. Online in-match use limited to 45 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications. (Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)

AFP/Getty Images

If they don’t have anything to play for, something should tell them, because clubs like West Bromwich Albion and Swansea City are ruining it for clubs fighting for their Premier League lives.

At least, that’s what happened this weekend when two clubs scrounging for every point (Queens Park Rangers, Blackburn) travelled to face clubs mired in that oft-criticized (from this side of the pond) middle ground. Neither the Baggies nor Swans are going to make Europa League, and neither is in danger of being relegated to the second division. So what are they playing for? Were this baseball, every player under 26 years old would have been called up from AAA to play out September.

But since this not Major League Baseball, Roy Hodgson (West Brom) and Brendan Rogers (Swansea) put out their full teams. And, to the chagrin of their opposition, they won. West Brom’s 1-0 win over Queens Park Rangers left another Fulham escapee (Mark Hughes) only two points above the drop. Blackburn, 3-0 losers at the Liberty Stadium, are much worse off, three points back of a survivor’s spot.

Amazingly, nobody asked Hodgson and Rodgers why their teams tried so hard. While clubs do get more money the higher the place in league, how could those managers justify risking their talent in games that mean nothing?

The most obvious answer is probably the correct one: They do mean something. While it’s probably true to say these late season matches only have competitive significance for about half the league, that doesn’t mean they’re insignificant in all regards. The standings are only one small reason why these matches are played.

The main reason these matches still matter is again the most obvious one: Highly skilled people, paid to play them, want to perform to the best of their abilities in front of thousands who bought tickets to see them. From the beginning of sports as business, that’s what these games have been about. Just because we’ve put a lot of importance in some meta-representations of these games (standings, leagues, trophies, etc.) doesn’t mean the individual matches mean squad when they don’t matter in our tables.

And even if players and coaches did buying that logic, there’s still huge incentive to play hard. It’s possible players may really like playing soccer, want to secure their jobs, and not know how to play in neutral.

For West Brom, Saturday’s match obviously mattered. Likewise, Swansea. While the significance argument is applicable one talking about competition format, it usually doesn’t matter when we’re talking about the 34th round of Premier League soccer.

It’s not September, yet.

Elsewhere in England

All results: Premier League: Norwich City 1-6 Manchester City; Sunderland 0-0 Wolverhampton; Swansea City 3-0 Blackburn Rovers; West Bromwich Albion 1-0 Queens Park Rangers; Manchester United 4-0 Aston Villa; FA Cup: Liverpool 2-1 Everton; Tottenham 1-5 Chelsea.

Stuff that stuck out

  • Another weekend, another Manchester United penalty kick controversy. Ashley Young apparently dived against his former team. Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t. I’m over it. I’m just tired of this sport getting disproportionate scrutiny for its players stretching the rules.
  • Sunderland drew at home to Wolves, a team that’s conceded their Premier League future. I can’t help but wonder if the end of the Black Cats’ FA Cup run also marked the end of their Martin O’Neill boost.
  • Both West Brom and Queens Park Rangers are behind Fulham in the standings. Neither Hodgson nor Hughes need to be reminded of this, and while Uncle Roy is probably perfectly content in the Midlands, Hughes gets to live with his choices while running the worst first division team in West London.
  • Arsenal and Wigan kick off in minutes, with the Latics only loss in their last four coming controversially in their last visit to London (at Chelsea). Don’t be shocked if Wigan either gets blown out or makes it four wins in five. It’s their annual late-season push.

Up next: Next weekend, Manchester City, still five back but with only four to play, visit Wolves. That’s three points, whereas Manchester United host Everton. In the race for fourth, Spurs are at QPR, Newcastle hosts stoke, while Arsenal can knock Chelsea out of the race when the Blues visits North London.