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Is the Premiership simply in decline?

Football Nation's Stephen Turner wonders if the Premiership is in decline.

In 2006, I wrote an article examining the exodus of Germany's top players to the Premiership. That summer saw the Bundesliga lose its top scorer and Player of the Year from the previous season (Dimitar Berbatov and Alexander Hleb) to England, as well as the captain of the German national team, Michael Ballack, who also made the move. I concluded that the Premiership had become the most high-profile league in the world, and that the trend of top players from Europe's major leagues all moving to England to play in the Premier League would continue in the coming years.

While I was right to a certain extent, this summer has been the first that we have seen the opposite, as top players migrate away from England, in most cases to Spain's La Liga. Just this week Xabi Alonso has handed in a transfer request at Liverpool and a switch to Real Madrid looks inevitable. Cristiano Ronaldo has already made the move to Madrid, and the FIFA World Player of the Year's switch is the clearest example yet that the top players do not want to play in England.

While Alonso and Ronaldo have been the most high-profile departures, they have not been the only ones. Established Premiership players such as Didier Zokora, Sami Hyypia, Jermaine Pennant and Elano have all left England over the summer, while for the first time young English players are starting to see the benefits of plying their trade elsewhere. In addition to Pennant, England Under-21 international Matt Derbyshire has moved to Greece after a successful loan spell at Olympiacos last season. Even at a younger age the pattern continues. Where once the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique were leaving Barcelona to play in England, now they are heading in the other direction; Manucho's move from Manchester United to Real Valladolid being the most obvious example this summer.

The most alarming factor in all this is that these players are not being replaced. Even Manchester City, the summer's big spenders, have not been able to attract top players from abroad, despite offering unprecedented wages and a guarantee of being the club's most high-profile player. The summer's other major moves, such as Glen Johnson to Liverpool and Luis Valencia to Manchester United, have taken place between English clubs. Kaka and David Villa have both publicly stated that they have no intentions of playing in the Premier League this year, and French duo Frank Ribery and Karim Benzema have also turned down moves to England over the summer. Instead, Man City have had to find their players from within the Premier League, and have so far not brought in one player from abroad.

The only high-profile players to have moved to the Premiership so far this summer have been Chelsea's Yuri Zhirkov, whose move probably would not have happened without the influence of Roman Abramovich and Guus Hiddink in Russia, and to a lesser extent Arsenal's Thomas Vermaelen. Without meaning any disrespect to the Russian and Dutch leagues, they are not considered to be high-profile and neither of these players can really be considered a major coup for the Premier League. After these two, the list of immigrants to the Premiership this year is a short one. Lorik Cana is the only other established player to make the move, while unknown quantities like Gabriel Obertan, Bjorn Helge Riise and Luis Jiminez are the only other players of note that are new to the league.

Instead, Premiership clubs have had to turn to the Championship in their search for new talent, with Michael Owen, Stewart Downing and Kevin Doyle being the most high-profile examples, while players such as Roger Johnson, Marcus Hahnemann, Kyle Naughton and Jason Scotland, all impressive in the Championship in recent seasons, have also made the step up to the top flight.

Two reasons have been put forward as the major factors in this. For the players themselves, the new tax rate in England has made the Premiership a relatively expensive place for top players to play as they now have to pay 50% of their wages in income tax, compared to 24% in Spain. For the clubs, the impending introduction of  FIFA's 6+5 rule has seen clubs at all levels adding English players to their squads, a factor that was surely partially behind the moves of the likes of Owen, Johnson and Downing this year. These patterns are likely to continue in coming years as players seek to maximise their earning potential by playing abroad while clubs try to add home-grown players to their squads as the 6+5 rule is phased in, a move that could start as early as next season.

The question I asked at the beginning of this article was "Is the Premiership in decline?" From what has happened over the summer, as I have described here, it is hard to argue otherwise. Top players are leaving the league for the more glamorous La Liga and for the first time young English talent is starting to move abroad in noticeable numbers. Meanwhile, these players are not being replaced from abroad, and Premier League clubs are having to find players from the lower leagues within England to make up for their absence. With the current tax laws, and the 6+5 rule looking inevitable, it is likely that this pattern will not be reversed for some time.

In my opinion, however, this is all just a sign of European football reverting to its natural order. While we all hear how the Premiership is the best league in the world on a regular basis from TV and marketing companies who have a vested interest in promoting it as such, the Premier League has never really been regarded as Europe's best. Ronaldo is the first World Player of the Year to play in England since the award's inception in 1991, while previous winners such as Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Ronaldinho have all played in either Spain or Italy. Even the top foreign players in England today, like Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas, have made it clear that they are there out of loyalty to their managers rather than a life-long ambition to play in the Premiership, and both of these players would be likely to follow if Rafa Benitez or Arsene Wenger were to leave their respective clubs.

While the Premiership did well to capitalise on the advent of globalisation and TV rights in the 1990's and the early part of this decade, the global financial crisis has put the Premier League back on level terms with the like of Serie A and La Liga. While Serie A is still recovering from the scandals that have been revealed in the last few years, La Liga is emerging as Europe's top league, and with the lifestyle and income on offer in Spain and Italy, it seems that the Premiership's time in the spotlight is coming to an end.

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