Tuesday, 6 November 2012

The Premier League: The Best League In the World? Think again

The Barclays Premier League. The Best League In The World™, they’ll tell you. They’ll tell you this at every given opportunity. But how true is it, really?


Barclays Premier League
The Best League in the World?

Fanboys of the Premier League will throw forth a plethora of justifications for calling it the best – the pace of play, how the races for every position (like the title, top four, avoiding relegation) get tighter and have more teams involved every reason, and so it goes on. I must confess that I am one of them – I find England’s top league the most exciting, pacy and unpredictable league in the world. But in the broader sense, and speaking entirely in footballing terms, the Premier League, despite being the most competitive and entertaining top league, is not the best.

Corruption scandals coupled with a style of football that most consider boring have seen the Serie A fall a long way since the days of Capello’s Juventus and Ancelotti’s Milan, but there is little doubt that their top sides are more than a match for any English team, particularly given how their players did in this year’s EURO. Napoli got the better of City and gave Chelsea a right old scare last season. I doubt that half the Chelsea fans present in Moscow in 2008 or even those present to watch Chelsea lift the title two years ago knew of Napoli, let alone considered them a threat. That is the costly complacency I will speak of later.

The recent signs in Europe have been particularly alarming. Manchester United have a perfect winning record this season, but they’ve found matches against the likes of Cluj and Braga far too much hard work. These are names that the 2008 ‘Holy Trinity’ of Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez would’ve put away with ease. More such names are Basel, Otelul Galati and Benfica – the group that Manchester United couldn’t survive last season. The other Premiership clubs are just plain struggling this season, with the defending English champions in the worst position of the lot.

Basel 2-1 Manchester United
Basel shocked Man United last season, but why was their qualification in doubt by Matchday 6 in such a group anyway?

Chelsea won the Champions League this year, but that papered over huge cracks in English football. With a disciplined, defensive style of play, aided greatly by the never-waning abilities of Didier Drogba, they were able to overcome the steepest odds and win the trophy. But with new players and a different style of football, they’ve been found wanting in Europe this season (though they’ve been putting teams away domestically). Atletico ruthlessly exposed the frailties in the Blues and Nordsjaelland gave Chelsea a really good game before the Blues went on to compile a scoreline that flattered them. Shakhtar beat them in Matchday 3, a result that looked like it was coming.

There was a period in the late 2000’s when the Premier League regularly supplied three Champions League semifinalists. Now, it is a genuine struggle for one English club to get that far – it is now Barcelona and Real Madrid who are expected to make the last four every season. In fact, to get three clubs in the knockout rounds alone would be a major achievement for the Premier League - As early as Matchday 4, we are talking about must-win games for Chelsea and Arsenal, and the Premier League champions are facing almost-certain elimination after just 3 games. This is a situation that would’ve never come up three or four years ago. Why has it come to this?

Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fabregas
The outflow of the Premier League's best technical players to La Liga has been a major factor

One major, telling factor that has contributed to this decline in quality is the outflow of the league’s best and most experienced technical players to Spanish clubs. Liverpool lost Alonso, Arbeloa and Mascherano to La Liga in one fell swoop, and with them went any hopes of the club reaching the top four, let alone dominate Europe. The league was also shorn of Fabregas and most tellingly, Cristiano Ronaldo, greatly damaging Arsenal and Manchester United. Manchester United are managing quite well domestically without Ronaldo, of course, but it looks like 2008 will be last time in a long while that they’d have contested a tie against Barcelona without being considered rank underdogs. One can say that this factor had instant impact on the Premier League, who had three semifinalists in 2009 when all these players were still in England, and none in 2010 when all but Fabregas had fled.

Another factor is the advances that other leagues have made. Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho got a bunch of technically superior players performing to their potential (and God knows both clubs have the money and/or academy to keep on doing this), and have pulled ahead of the competition in double quick time. The Bundesliga isn’t far behind - Borussia Dortmund have emerged as a real force with their cheaply assembled array of talented players ready to take Europe by storm this season, while Bayern Munich now look like only one of the Spanish big two are capable of stopping them in a two-legged tie.

Borussia Dortmund
Borussia Dortmund, one of Europe's fastest rising teams, have probably left every Premier League side behind

Both at club and international level, others have left England far behind. While the British pulses get racing at the sight of physical and fast players, the value attached to The Way of the Ball in other countries and leagues has seen fixtures against foreign clubs become routine struggles for the technically inferior Premier League players.

The final, and possibly the most telling factor, is the complacency of England’s big clubs – the belief that reputation will rescue them, that they are ‘too good to fail’. At least that’s the impression one got when watching repeats of the English clubs’ games of Matchday 3 – the teams didn’t seem to have half the energy or desire, or indeed the technical ability, to match that of their opponents. Why are we shocked that Manchester City lost to Ajax? Just because Real Madrid schooled them in Matchday 2? That is a misguided way of thinking. Manchester City shorn of David Silva lack the technical aptitude and energy to take on a club like Ajax who, unlike City, are often the prey rather than the predators in the transfer market, but have no dearth of quality players dedicated to the cause.

The media and City themselves looked rattled - some seemed utterly shocked, even - when Napoli outclassed them last season. What did they expect? This was a young, energetic and technically gifted Italian side that feared nobody. It was absolutely to be expected. City rightly didn’t get away with thinking Napoli would be the easiest team of the group just because they came from a perceived inferior league.

Napoli 2-1 Manchester City
Napoli's conquest of Manchester City wasn't as big a shock as it seemed to Premier League fans

It is not enough to be named Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester City. It is not good that English clubs prefer pace and physicality (claim that you’d rather have Iniesta on the left than Bale, or David Villa as striker than Rooney, and see the looks you get), and give defence and technical aptitude lower priority. In order to truly become the best league in the world, every top English club must treat avoidable loss of possession as equivalent to sin, cut down on defensive errors and play with the same energy, hunger and desire that clubs like Ajax do with no assumption of superiority. The national team might soon reap the benefits of such an approach as well.

The mistakes, the physicality, the to and fro nature and the pace of the league probably make for good entertainment, but definitely make for inferior football. It is now almost comical to talk about how difficult competition is in the Premier League, about how tough it is to win away at Stoke when Manchester United are inferior to Bilbao, on the same level as Basel, and barely better than Braga (all at Old Trafford).

This is something that the Premier League, no longer The Best League In The World™, has to do something about, and fast.

2 comments:

  1. Interesting but I disagree. The semi-finalists and particularly winners of the CL are generational teams who do it several times. Look at the list:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_European_Cup_and_UEFA_Champions_League_finals

    Juve, Milan, Madrid, Valencia, Barca, Man Utd, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Ajax, Bayern Munich, Dortmund, Leverkusen.

    All of those teams have one thing in common - success (2 semi-final +) over one or more short periods in recent history. Ajax is the odd team out and of course their best players went on to play for Milan, Barca, etc.

    It's all about players. Can u be the best team without Messi or Ronaldo? Bayern Munich have a squad without weakness. Man United/Barca/Ajax had incredible generations but otherwise u can only buy the best if u can guarantee fighting for league titles and CL football - i.e. Madrid, Barca, Bayern.

    Never will you see Bayern, Madrid or Barca in 14th place in December. While the premier league doesn't have the best individual talents (spain does) it certainly has the most depth. On any given premier league match it's treacherous to predict the result whereas if Barca/Madrid are at home to Elche/Almeria it's a foregone conclusion.

    Premier League teams are less likely to attract the very best Spanish and Portuguese-speaking players because of linguistic and climatic challenges. These players are arguably the best in the world so when Ronaldinho, Messi, Romario are at Barca and C. Ronaldo, Ronaldo and di Stefano are at Madrid, it's no coincidence they win the CL.

    When Man Utd had Giggs, Scholes, Beckham, Keane, Ronaldo, van Nistelrooy, they were more than a match for anybody. When Arsenal had Vieira and Henry, Liverpool had Gerrard and Torres, Chelsea had Terry and Drogba, Leverkusen had Ballack and Neuville, Valencia had Mendieta and C. Lopez.

    It's true that PL teams are arrogant towards smaller European sides but it's also true that PL teams have to compete harder and more often domestically than Continental rivals. It makes a huge difference having 7-10 days (like the Italians and Spanish) preparation before a big CL match. The English teams can never play their reserve squad in the PL and never get 1-2 weeks to focus on just one match. THAT is why the PL is better than other leagues - because "ordinary" league matches are a higher priority for the teams and the players in England than elsewhere.

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    Replies
    1. You're right, it's all about the players, so there's no shame in admitting that they aren't in the Premier League. Money only gets you so far - top players today would much rather play for Barca, Real, Bayern and PSG.

      The Premiership is the most competitive top league for sure, but it's not good on the league that Man City, Arsenal and Utd are struggling to leapfrog Leicester, or that Eden Hazard's team is 14th. Sure, it makes for a good story, but what does it say about the quality of the teams?

      In the days of The Big Four, the quality of the top teams was absolute, as it is now in La Liga or the Bundesliga. Their qualification was assured year on year, as was the depth to which they would penetrate Europe as well - you see Bayern, Barca and Real in the semis pretty much every year now. I don't think it's fair to say the PL was the best when it was Chelsea, United and Liverpool in their place, as well as now when they are not.

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