Manchester United currently sit top of the league, having lost two of their ten games, slightly ahead of title rivals Chelsea and Manchester City.
The explanation for this, we are often told, is that competitiveness within the Premier League has increased, but could another reason be that the elite in the top flight simply isn’t as strong as it used to be?
Chelsea have perhaps been the most impressive team in the league this season, with summer signings Eden Hazard and Oscar settling in superbly alongside the magnificent Juan Mata behind Fernando Torres. However, they remain a flawed side, which is part of what makes them so exciting. When we take a look at their European form, they were out-classed twice by Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk in this season’s Champions League as they seek to retain their European title, even if they managed to win their latest encounter at Stamford Bridge.
Credit must go to Roberto Di Matteo for moulding a new style in the aftermath of last season’s success and he really has done an excellent job considering the circumstances and pressures placed upon him. However, they are far from the finished article and in 18 games this term, they’ve kept six clean sheets, but let in 27 goals. That they’ve scored 46 goals of their own has largely covered up the fact that they remain an unbalanced outfit and against true quality, as they’ve shown against Manchester United, Atletico Madrid, Shakhtar and Juventus so far this campaign. They are not alone, though.
Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson invested heavily in the summer on both Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa and while they may have already qualified from a weak Champions League group after just four games, the sense that they may struggle against greater challenges persists and they’ve been bailed out time and time again by the quality and strength of their forward ranks.
They were outplayed by Liverpool at Anfield, even with the opposition being reduced to ten men following Jonjo Shelvey’s red card and against Tottenham, Southampton and Chelsea they’ve also looked worryingly fragile at the back, even if the Everton loss on the opening day can be attributed to a somewhat makeshift defence, which continues to cause problems. While last term they were bordering on an embarrassment in Europe, crashing out of both competitions in quick succession, making a mockery of Ferguson’s rebuke that his team weren’t struggling and that the mere suggestion that they were was laughable.
Roberto Mancini’s side this season have looked a shadow of the one which won the Premier League last term, in part due to a failure to really strengthen the starting eleven over the summer and the manager’s needless tinkering with the side’s system, which has caused more harm than good.
The fact that they’ve had two difficult groups in Europe two years running hasn’t helped matters, coming up against Bayern Munich and Napoli last term and Real Madrid, Ajax and Borussia Dortmund this. They’ve barely displayed even half of their ability in this competition and that’s how you truly judge the elite, by how they fare against what other countries have to offer and whenever the occasion has called for a performance, they’ve come up short.
Cast your mind back to the talent that was on offer in this country just a few years ago – Chelsea had Arjen Robben, Claude Makelele, Hernan Crespo, Michael Essien and Ricardo Carvalho. Manchester United had Ruud van Nitelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo and Edwin van der Saar. Arsenal Thierry Henry, Roberto Pires and Cesc Fabregas. Liverpool had Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano.
Yet each side, due to economic reasons and top players either being pursued by the Spanish duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid or simply coming to the ends of their careers, haven’t replaced their outgoing stars with players of the same quality. There’s not quite as much depth or talent at the top in the Premier League these days, which allows those teams below to become more competitive. The league has undoubtedly levelled out more, which has only seen standards slip, particularly in terms of defending.
Standards are certainly slipping, which makes it a much more difficult league to predict for the most part and it makes fabulous entertainment. Most of us can agree that Chelsea’s Champions League win, much like Liverpool’s back in 2005, wasn’t a showing of strength, more an acceptance of both teams limitations and neither were the best teams in the final, let alone throughout the competition.
Ask yourself this, how many truly world-class players does the league possess this season? Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero, Juan Mata, David Silva and Robin van Persie may come into that bracket, but there’s not a whole lot else to choose from. Then contrast this with the number that was in the Premier League say three years ago, or five.
Each title challenger these days has an obvious weakness for the opposition to exploit, whether home or abroad, and as competitiveness increases, the quality across the board has spread, meaning our best is now no longer comparable with what the rest of Europe has to offer. For many this is good news, it all depends what you want to take from the league, but when looking back at what the league was like when English sides were the teams to beat, a gradual decline has most certainly set in.
Do you think the Premier League is as good as it has been in the past? Do you prefer it the way it is now? Follow me on Twitter @JamesMcManus1 and let me know what you think.