Burnley, Watford, Brighton, Huddersfield show promise in Prem
Small is beautiful in this season's Premier League. English football's "big six" are jockeying for position in the table as expected, but below them lie Burnley, Watford, Brighton and Huddersfield, clubs punching above their weight while drawing strength from having a definite plan.
Breakthrough stars of the 2016-17 season are previously unheralded players like Ben Mee and Chris Wood at Burnley, Richarlison and Abdoulaye Doucoure at Watford, Shane Duffy and Davy Propper at Brighton and Aaron Mooy and Christopher Schindler at Huddersfield.
Their successes mark a significant contrast to the bottom five, a group of clubs where direction has been lost and expensive players are failing. Four of them -- Crystal Palace, West Ham, West Brom and Everton -- have already sacked their managers, while at Swansea, Paul Clement's future is a closely monitored situation.
Meanwhile, each of the quartet from positions seven to 10 show the benefits of drawing up a sensible plan and sticking to it, even if all are very different in their approaches.
At Burnley, slow-burning progression is bearing fruit, with manager Sean Dyche operating on a limited but gradually increasing budget having been given time to carve his squad to his specifications. Continuity has been key, with Dyche in his fifth year as manager at Turf Moor.
Watford is a club where owners the Pozzo family retain absolute power. They control recruitment of players and are not afraid of making managerial changes. Marco Silva has the club playing their best football in three seasons in the top division, but is in no way indispensable, even if Everton's efforts to recruit him have been resisted.
Brighton, owned by sports betting tycoon Tony Bloom, are in the big league for the first time in 34 years, having slowly, painstakingly built up from a position of being homeless in 1999 to boasting the modernity of the AMEX Stadium. After a series of near misses they are finally up there and the careful, thoughtful management of Chris Hughton has guided them to a position of comfort.
Huddersfield, meanwhile, are built in the image of David Wagner, a mad professor of a manager who preaches a "Terrier mentality" for players, staff and fans alike. They enjoyed a fine start in their debut season in the Premier League and there's plenty of promise, although a recent slide must be stopped to consolidate all their good work so far.
Those looking up in into mid-table from the bottom five are finding the Premier League a volatile place where nothing can be taken for granted. Reach for the stars, as Everton did in a £150 million summer transfer trolley dash, and there are no guarantees, certainly so when that spend does not include the purchase of a centre-forward.
Try to protect the status quo, as Tony Pulis did at West Brom, and a club will find itself overtaken. And there will come a time when fans expect to be entertained rather than endure a grind to survival.
Merely staying up is not a goal to pursue sustainably. Down in the Championship, Sunderland lie bottom, having tried and failed to tread water, only to sink down last season. In a playoff position at present are Aston Villa, having suffered disastrous financial losses after relegation at the end of the 2015-16 season. Trying to stand still eventually proved a ruinously costly exercise.
Swansea, another outfit for whom survival now appears the sole reason for existence, was once a blueprint club, praised and fabled for lifting itself from the brink of extinction through a unified sense of purpose between fans and hierarchy. That, though, could not be a greater contrast to the civil war raging down at the Liberty Stadium these days.
Chairman Huw Jenkins, a key figure in that journey, is now barracked on a weekly basis by fans for cashing in his shares to sell to American investors Stephen Kaplan and Jason Levien, while the club's summer transfer dealings saw them trouser a near-£30m profit.
Jenkins' pariah status might serve as a warning to administrators like Mike Garlick, Burnley's chairman, Watford chief executive Scott Duxbury, Brighton chief exec Paul Barber or Dean Hoyle, Huddersfield chairman.
Recent football history is full of club suits once praised for their stewardship of a club, only for their reputation to suffer when trouble came calling, with Peter Ridsdale, now doing a decent job in keeping Preston as a going Championship concern, a prime example after presiding over Leeds United's downfall of the early 2000s.
And just as those in control might savour a moment in the sun, so should fans, though it might be difficult to remain realistic. Leicester City's title win of 2015-16 remains a miracle, not something to aspire to. That way, problems lie.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.