Welcome to the Virgin Media Midweek Kick-off! With English teams yet to make an impact in this season’s Champions League, we ask football writers Barry Glendenning and Dan Masoliver whether the Premier League has lost its status as the very best of the very best…
Yes, the league has lost its lustre
“The Premier League is not even the best league competition in England”– Barry Glendenning sports writer, The Guardian
Last December, The Guardian unveiled its list of the world's best 100 footballers in 2015, decided by a panel of 123 experts from 49 different countries. None of the top five players play in the Premier League, while only Sergio Agüero of Manchester City and Alexis Sánchez of Arsenal were able to scrape into the top ten. Of the top 20 players, only five play in the Premier League – a fairly poor return for any competition purporting to be the best of its kind, not least when it's emphatically the richest of its kind. The best league in the world ought to have the best players in the world, and so it's to Spain and Germany we must travel to see the pick of them.
In terms of white-knuckle excitement, it can be argued that, far from being the best in the world, the Premier League is not even the best league competition in England. In the past ten years, just three different teams – Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United – have won the Premier League, while no fewer than nine different clubs have shared the ten Championship titles on offer in the same period. Forecasting the winner of the second tier is notoriously difficult, while it's taken the heroics of Leicester City and – to a lesser extent – Tottenham Hotspur to turn this season's top flight title chase on its head.
Same old Arsenal
For what seems like centuries now, it's been the same old story, with Arsenal just Arsenal-ing their way through each campaign: a big win against massive title rivals here, a spirit-crushing defeat to lowly opposition there, followed by the inevitable fourth place finish that leaves their fans weeping, wailing and gnashing their teeth – but ultimately relieved to have qualified for the Champions League. Even this season, with Manchester United and Chelsea getting off to uncharacteristically awful starts and Leicester City making fools of us all, Arsenal remain a byword for consistency in the inconsistency stakes.
While consistently high attendances at almost all Premier League fixtures suggest the competition is without peer, the strangely flat atmosphere at so many games immediately puts paid to that notion. Currently in the news, exorbitant ticket prices mean a new generation of potential noisemongers is being priced out of the game, and clubs have shown little or no inclination to rectify the situation. Can any football tournament with participants that treat their supporters with such contempt truly lay claim to be the best of its kind?
If a league is to be judged on its strength in depth, then the performances of its teams in the UEFA Europa League ought to provide a fair indication of where it stands in the firmament. Despite the financial power of Premier League clubs, whose income dwarfs that of most of their continental counterparts, performances in Europe's second tier competition have been largely awful. In the past 15 years, only Liverpool and Chelsea have triumphed in the Europa League, while Fulham and Middlesbrough have made the final. In the same period, Spanish teams have contested ten finals and won seven of them. Make of that what you will.
No, the Prem still rules the roost
“It’s where the most entertaining football is played, week in, week out” – Dan Masoliver sports editor, Virgin Media
Anything can happen
Bayern Munich are a comfortable 8 points clear at the top of the Bundesliga. PSG, meanwhile, are a mind-boggling 24 points ahead of their closest Ligue 1 rivals. These two teams are arguably a darn sight better than the likes of Arsenal and Spurs at the top end of the Prem, but no-one in their own leagues can give them a game either. What the Premier League offers is genuine competition – Sunderland beating Man Utd, Chelsea losing to, well, basically everyone. Those are the kinds of unpredictable results that you just don’t get in other major leagues, where one or two teams dominate – and the BPL is all the more exciting for it.
Strength in depth
The clubs with the richest history and the deepest pockets will always attract top players – when Barcelona or Real Madrid come a-knocking, you’d have to have a screw loose to turn them down. But what sets the Premier League apart is the talent on the books at every team, all the way down the table. Dimitri Payet at West Ham, Philippe Coutinho at Liverpool, Gylfi Sigurðsson at Swansea – all players who could be playing in the Champions League if they went to Turkey or Ukraine, but would rather turn out for mid-table clubs in England.
There is one league that people across Africa, Asia, South America and even Europe want to watch above all others, and that’s the Premier League. The BPL’s foreign broadcast rights are now worth more than the global and domestic TV deals of La Liga, Serie A, the Bundesliga or Ligue 1. The market doesn’t lie: the Premier League is worth so much more than its Euro rivals because people from across the globe want to watch it, and they want to watch it because it’s widely accepted as being where the most entertaining football is played, week in, week out.
Guardiola is coming
With five league titles, three FIFA Club World Cups and two Champions League victories under his belt (to name but a few), Pep Guardiola is without doubt the most successful manager in recent history. He could walk into pretty much any club on the planet and be welcomed into the managerial hot seat with open arms – but he’s chosen to come to England. Not PSG, not Juventus, not a big money move to China or the US, but Manchester City – because the Premier League still carries a special prestige. Yes, he went to Bayern first, but he turned down a contract extension there because, in his own words, “I want to coach in the Premier League.”
It’s easy to point to the 07/08 season – where four English clubs made it to the last eight of the Champions League, with Man Utd and Chelsea contesting the final – and see it as the Premier League’s peak, from which it has been steadily declining. But every year, English teams are still represented in the latter stages of the major European competitions. Only Spain’s La Liga rivals the Prem for consistency. Take this season: between the Champions League and Europa League, six BPL clubs still have everything to play for.
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