The advent of Sky in the early 1990s and its subsequent televised domination of English football saw the Premier League being branded as The Best League In The World, and until fairly recently this claim, though nothing more than a boastful marketing gimmick to draw in more subscribers, rang true nonetheless. For most of the last decade Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool formed the untouchable Big Four, the ultimate symbol of Premier League might. While Spain, Germany and Italy had their own heavyweights, they came in twos or threes at most; none of their respective leagues could boast a quartet of genuine powerhouses like England could.
The superiority of the English game in the early 21st Century was evident in continental competition. Although the rise of Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur and the decline of Liverpool towards the end of the 2000s led to the break-up of the Big Four, Premier League sides remained a major force in the Champions League. For seven out of eight seasons between the years of 2004 and 2012, at least one of Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea appeared in the final of the tournament. In contrast, Barcelona – the only Spanish side to make the final during the same period – appeared three times, while Bayern Munich were the sole German representatives, losing two finals in 2010 and 2012.
However, in the years following Bayern’s loss to Chelsea in 2012, the balance of power in European football has shifted dramatically. The past two Champions League finals have either been all-German or all-Spanish affairs, reflecting the emergence of La Liga and Bundesliga as the two dominant leagues in world football. Bayern, Barca and Real are reigning supreme, and one could argue that Chelsea are the sole remaining member of the long-forgotten Big Four who can realistically challenge this triumvirate on the continental stage.
A swift rebranding was clearly needed then, and English football’s top flight changed from being The Best League In The World to the more ambiguous and less prestigious Most Entertaining League In The World. A subtle demotion of the league’s status it may have been, but the bigwigs at Sky were still content with their new title, as the final-day delirium of Manchester City’s title victory in 2012 and their compelling three-way jostle with Liverpool and Chelsea for the championship last season showed that the Premier League, though lagging behind its Spanish and German equivalents in terms of quality, was peerless in the entertainment stakes.
Judging by the opening months of the new campaign, however, the boffins in charge of selling the league to the millions of armchair supporters around the world may need to arrange another brainstorming session. The title race has been more of a one-team title stroll as Chelsea – undefeated in their first eleven games – look insurmountable. The ineptitude of Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal in challenging the Blues at the top of the table means that the climax of the season is shaping up to be one of the most predictable in recent years, and it will take a major and uncharacteristic cock-up from Jose Mourinho to allow their rivals back into contention.
The lack of competition for the championship in England is in stark contrast to the situation in Spain, where just seven points separate Celta Vigo in seventh and Real Madrid in first. Indeed, the Celestes have actually lost fewer games than the ten-times European Cup winners, and have conceded the same amount of goals. For drama and unpredictability, it seems that the go-to league is now the Spanish top flight, which leaves the Premier League desperately scrambling through the bargain bucket of superlatives for a suitable title. No longer The Best, nor even The Most Entertaining, it may have to settle for The Most Watched or The Most Popular, which is great news for television companies seeking revenue, but hardly an endorsement of the league’s quality or entertainment value.
Nevertheless, it’s not all doom and gloom for the top tier of English football. Far from it in fact, as ultimately, the Premier League’s identity crisis merely highlights the fluctuating nature of European football. Just as each league goes through its period of dominance – from the Eredivisie in the early 1970s to Serie A in the 1990s – so too do they endure a lull, as these aforementioned divisions are themselves experiencing presently. English football may very well be in the early stages of decline, but this is no reason to panic as such a phenomenon is natural in the game.
The Premier League must learn to accept that it can no longer currently be considered as neither The Best, nor perhaps The Most Entertaining. This is not to say, however, that these titles cannot be reclaimed in the future.
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