With the fate of its all-important fourth Champions League spot hanging delicately in the balance, the quality of the Premier League has come under more scrutiny than ever before in recent weeks.
Indeed, losing a place in Europe’s top competition due to UEFA’s new coefficient system would be a monumental blow to English clubs. The top four race would become the top three race and one of its leading powers would consequentially suffer; missing out on the Champions League’s lucrative revenues and all of the player pulling power that comes with it.
There’s no question that the quality at the top end of the Premier League has declined in the last few years. It’s peak season was 2007/08, when three English clubs reached the Champions League’s semi-finals ahead of Chelsea and Manchester United’s showdown in Moscow. That came perfectly in the middle of an eight year spell in which a Premier League side made the tournament’s final on seven occasions.
Compare that spell of dominance to the last three years. Since Chelsea’s triumph in 2012, only one English side has made it to the tournament’s semi-finals. In 2012/13 and 2014/15, none surpassed the round of 16.
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Likewise, Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez both headed for La Liga immediately after claiming the PFA Player of the Year award in 2012 and 2013, joining Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively. Spanning back even further, it could be argued Cristiano Ronaldo’s world-record move to the Bernabeu in 2009 after winning the Ballon d’Or was the first sign of unrivalled power slipping away from the Premier League. Simultaneously, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona began to emerge.
It may seem a ridiculous notion to some, considering the Premier League’s enormous revenues and global reach, but every empire eventually crumbles. During the 1990s and early 2000s, Serie A was the leading force in world football; one that spent £30million on a goalkeeper, a record fee to this day, back when £30million was still a completely ridiculous amount of money.
Yet it’s impossible to ignore the Premier League’s spending power as a barometer of its popularity, ability to entertain, it’s all-round quality and resultantly it’s success – just as it was for Serie A all those years ago. The summer window just passed was the most lucrative in Premier League history and up 4% from the year previous; it’s £870million outlay was not only a new record but also made 2015 the first ever calendar year in which spending by Premier League clubs breached the £1billion mark.
The true benefactors, however, weren’t those involved in the Champions League. Chelsea missed out on their two priority targets – Everton’s John Stones and Juve’s in-demand Paul Pogba – Arsenal failed to convince Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema into an Emirates switch, Manchester United were forced to take a last-minute £36million punt on teenager Anthony Martial due to their inability to attract Europe’s best, such as long-term target Gareth Bale, and Manchester City eventually paid what others refused for Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne and Nicolas Otamendi. Three impressive talents, but none truly within the confines of ‘world-class’ just yet despite costing a combined £132million.
Meanwhile, West Bromwich Albion, a club few would expect to finish in the Premier League’s top half this season, managed to sign a striker in Salomon Rondon who started all six Champions League group games for Zenit last season; West Ham snapped up attacking midfielder Dimitri Payet who has already demonstrated his capacity to play at a much higher level; Swansea City grabbed Andre Ayew, a Champions League and World Cup regular for Marseille and Ghana respectively, on a free transfer; whilst Crystal Palace signed a three-time Ligue 1 winner and 40-cap international in Yohan Cabaye.
In short, although those on the fringes of the European elite are flocking to the Premier League more than ever, accepting that may come at the cost of representing a team lower down the table, England’s top clubs aren’t attracting the truly stellar names.
That represents the Premier League’s eternal paradox; whilst the smaller clubs and the division as a whole grow stronger every year, its flagship sides still can’t keep up with the pace of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and most recently, PSG. Even last year’s champions Chelsea now appear miles behind their counterparts from La Liga, the Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1, following the disastrous start to their title defence.
The consequence is a division arguably more demanding than the Champions League itself – a phenomena Louis van Gaal has recently described as the Premier League ‘rat race‘. On one hand, it makes the English top flight the most exciting and least predictable in the world; on the other, it becomes too demanding for the clubs also competing in the CL, as well as the latter stages of the FA Cup and the Capital One Cup.
Especially considering English football, more than any other, has an insatiable lust for the underdog; a mentality insisting any team on their day, be they from the bottom half of League Two or the top half of the top flight, is capable of beating anybody else – provided they show conviction, enthusiasm and are prepared to veer towards the uglier side of the beautiful game.
Last March, for example, saw two Premier League fixtures, the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, the final of the Capital One Cup and the second leg of the Champions League’s round of 16 in the space of a fortnight. That’s five games in 14 days one or more of the Premier League’s flagship teams will likely be involved in. The consequences, not only during that time period but through the season as a whole, are relentless injury problems, turbulent form, chaotic results and to an extent, more attritional styles of football.
It may seem counter-intuitive to suggest clubs would suffer on the continental scene for domestic competitiveness. In theory, it should make the Premier League’s top clubs even stronger. But take Dynamo Zagreb’s recent shock victory over Arsenal, for example. The Gunners are clearly the better side on paper but the Serbian outfit entered that fixture on the back of a 44-game unbeaten streak – their confidence in each other, their game plan and their way of playing could not have been higher.
Premier League clubs can’t enjoy that luxury under the very real annual threat of being eliminated from the FA Cup’s third round at the hands of Stevenage, just as they can’t afford the luxury of resting key players domestically with the Champions League in mind – something Tottenham’s 4-1 win over Manchester City, with Vincent Kompany and Joe Hart both benched, proved last Saturday. The likes of Bayern, Barcelona, Real Madrid and PSG, however, can and often do.
Add in the pure physical intensity of the English game and the relentless pressure copious finance forces upon the Premier League, and you’re left with domestic scene which cancels out the privileges top clubs abroad continually enjoy – especially in European competitions. No top flight contains as many equalisers as the Premier League and that takes it’s toll in other competitions.
So should we continue to fear for the fortunes of English clubs in the Champions League? Yes, just as we should fear the consequences of losing a fourth qualification spot. But as a collective, is the Premier League getting worse? Far from it.