Does the Premier League still remain a stepping stone?

Yaya Toure Manchester City midfielderThe Premier League is often hyped up to a ridiculous extent by the media in this country, but is it still the breeding ground for the world’s top players? Do they see plying their trade in England as the pinnacle of their careers? Or are we merely preparing them for bigger challenges elsewhere? Let’s investigate.

Sky Sports ramp up their coverage ahead of any reasonably sized big game in this country to an almost absurd degree, making every encounter between Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Liverpool, Everton and Newcastle seem like the biggest game on the footballing calendar. The obvious elephants in the room are Barcelona and Real Madrid.

The Premier League is undeniably a much richer league and there’s simply much more strength in depth here than there is in Spain. There’s currently a real financial crisis going in over there at the moment and it’s finally started to have a knock-on effect on how the clubs do their business; the fact that not one club had the money readily available to bid for Michu this summer, despite him only going for £2.5m after being the top goalscoring midfielder in the league last year says it all.

However, Barcelona and Real Madrid are certainly the two biggest clubs currently operating in Europe, if not only for the sheer volume of world-class players that each has within their fantastic squads, so you’re left with a pecking order which operates at La Liga, the Premier League and then that hegemonic duo on top of anything we have to offer still.

Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero mad something of a slip=up in a post-match interview last month stating that he would have signed for Real Madrid ahead of Manchester City had they come in for him last summer, despite the rivalry they share with city rivals Atletico. He was then forced into an embarrassing climbdown the day after, during which he went on to stress that he was perfectly happy at Roberto Mancini’s side.

This is of course not to say that he wasn’t being sincere in his commitment to City, I’m sure he is happy there at the moment, after all, he did play a crucial part in the side winning the league title last season, so it’s not like his ambitions aren’t being fulfilled in the short-term at least, but if Real Madrid or Barcelona came calling next summer, he’d probably want the move. That’s not a slight on City, they’re probably the only two clubs he’d consider leaving for, but it’s not an unrealistic expectation.

Arsenal are a huge club, but they too have found it difficult to keep some of their bigger players happy over the years, acting as something of a feeder club to Barcelona. Players like Cesc Fabregas and Alex Song has move to Catalunya once they have matured as footballers, while over at Liverpool, they were sucked dry by the two big Spanish giants with Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano both departing at great expense, but to an even greater cost to their side.

Manchester United are the only club that has proven somewhat immune to this trend over the years, partly because of the power Sir Alex Ferguson has over players and the loyalty he inspires and secondly because until the Glazers came into the club, they were on such a sound financial footing, that they never had a pressing need to sell. While Cristiano Ronaldo may have moved to the Bernabeu, it was for a whopping £80m fee, all of which was paid up front, so in that respect, the move was done on their terms, but the fact that it went ahead at all shows that the player thought that he was making a step up in terms of his career. The same could also be said of Luka Modric this summer.

There are still plenty of world-class players operating in the top flight at the moment – Aguero, Yaya Toure, van Persie, Mata, Silva, Kompany and Cole to name but a few who wouldn’t look out of place over in Spain. This is without even mentioning a whole host of fantastic players at the likes of Newcastle, Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal, but the real question is do the players themselves see England as good as it gets?

In terms of competitiveness, the grounds, the fans and the money on offer, it probably is, certainly way ahead of anything in either Spain or Italy and while Germany is an emerging league on a par with those two and as good as the Premier League has to offer at times, it’s still ranked just below in terms of prestige, even if you get more bang for your buck over there.

The Premier League has always been the place where players come to learn their trade before, if they’re good enough that is, moving back to Spain’s big two. The pace and power of the league, when allied with their technical abilities, can make them an attractive proposition for prospective clubs.

The truth of the matter is, though, that while we have a fabulous league in terms of entertainment value, it’s not the most tactically aware around and the Premier League remains a league where talents are honed rather than brought in ready-made, so much so in fact that I can’t think of a single player that has been brought to England at the pinnacle of their careers and could be said to be bracketed under the term ‘world-class’.

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