We all think of the Premier League as the greatest top flight in world football – an idea relentlessly refortified in our minds by pundits and the media. Although it lacks a dominant institution like Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich, the even spread of quality throughout the Premiership creates an unrivalled level of competitiveness, and when enjoying good health, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City are all capable of competing for the title, whilst Tottennham, Liverpool and Everton are rarely far behind.
In comparison, only the recent resurgence of Atletico Madrid has stopped El Clasico’s oligopoly over La Liga, Bayern Munich have claimed one-in-two Bundesliga titles since the division’s incarnation in 1963 and Juventus are now on course to claim their fourth consecutive Serie A triumph, with a nine-point lead over second-place Roma.
All twenty Premier League clubs are currently in the forty richest clubs in the world, which tells all about the division’s global popularity and how fairly finances are divided. The new television deal, worth a record-breaking £5.14billion, could see the Premier League soon dominate the world’s top 30 or, even more scandalously, the top 25.
Yet, the Premier League’s vibrancy is becoming increasingly trapped in its own vacuum, as it’s high-intensity, end-to-end, basketball-paced philosophy struggles to impact on the other stages; an issue raised by only one of six English sides, Everton, winning in Europe this week.
Barring minor miracles from Arsenal and Manchester City to turn around 3-1 and 2-1 away-goal deficits to Monaco and Barcelona respectively, at least four will be eliminated upon the Champions League round of 16’s second legs in mid-March, with Liverpool and Tottenham knocked out of the Europa League yesterday evening.
Compare that to prior seasons and there’s a worrying decline. Between 2005 and 2012, an English side reached the Champions League final seven times out of a possible eight, whilst three Premier League clubs made the semi-finals in 2008, leaving Chelsea and Manchester United to do battle in Moscow. In the last three years however, English teams have been represented in the Champions League’s last eight just thrice, whilst only five Premier League clubs have reached the Europa League or UEFA Cup final since Tottenham’s European title in 1984.
The individual honours haven’t gone the Premier League’s way either. Since its first season in 1992-93, only 10 Premier League players have made it into the top three of the Ballon d’Or, out of a possible 66 vacancies, with none making the prestigious award’s finalist shortlist since its remodelling into the FIFA Ballon d’Or in 2010. And perhaps most tellingly of all in regards to how the Premier League has slumped in recent years, the last two PFA Player of the Year winners, Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez, jetted off to join the La Liga giants just weeks after claiming their awards.
So is the Premier League simply not as amazing as we think it is? Is its reputation as ‘the greatest top flight in world football’ ignorantly isolating us from other divisions with seemingly superior quality? That sensational record of Champions League final involvement from 2005 to 2012, all the more incredibly coinciding with Barcelona’s unprecedented domination of the tournament, suggests otherwise, but over the last few years standards have certainly slipped – especially defensively.
Chelsea fans will note that period of CL final participation coincides with Jose Mourinho’s move the Premier League, albeit with the space of a year, and accompanying the Portuguese’s arrival was a new, more pragmatic philosophy, epitomised perfectly by the Blues’ 4-3-3 formation and most particularly, the invention of what has become fabled in England as ‘the Makelele role’- after Chelsea and France’s dominant defensive midfielder.
Those tactical notions lasted far beyond Mourinho’s initial three-and-a-bit-term reign, and only recently has the extra body in midfield changed from a man behind the centre-mids to a man in front of them – what is now labelled in most teams as the No.10. Consequentially, the Premier League has seen a resurgence of attacking play over the last few years, a trend encapsulated by two clubs scoring over 100 league goals in the same season, Liverpool and Manchester City, for the first time in the division’s history during the 2013/14 campaign, making up two of just three sides, along with Chelsea, to ever reach that centenary mark.
This new impetus on attacking flair over the defensive solidarity of yesteryear is leaving the Premier League short in Europe; Manchester City’s Manuel Pellegrini is one of the few managers in world football brave enough to toy with 4-4-2 in the Champions League, let alone against Barcelona, Arsene Wenger’s intent on progressive play is infamous and cost Arsenal dearly, once again, against Monaco on Wednesday evening, and Liverpool, although a somewhat more resilient outfit in recent weeks, remain a side that use possession to pepper the opponent’s goal as much as possible.
Meanwhile, Chelsea, a team Mourinho appears to have modelled specifically to win European double-leggers through their perfect balance, compactness and organisation, recorded easily the best result of the week – a 1-1 away draw with PSG.
Such philosophical swings tend to go full-circle, and I’m certain that once again, Premier League rivals will begin emulating Chelsea’s model closer over the course of the next few years – especially if they claim this season’s English title. Until then however, the increasingly cathartic, entertaining and naively ambitious tone of the Premier League’s top sides will continue to cost them in the continent’s top competitions.