Saturday 1 October 2016

Is the English top-flight now a second rate league?

Published 25/02/2016 | 10:37

Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez looks dejected after Barcelona defeat
Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez looks dejected after Barcelona defeat

It has long been hailed as the best domestic championship in world football, but the gloss on England’s Premier League has been scuffed beyond repair in recent seasons.

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As Barcelona strolled past Arsenal with predictable comfort to record a 2-0 Champions League win at Emirates Stadium on Tuesday night, the gulf in class between the top sides in England and the genuine heavyweights of European football was exposed once more.

While Manchester City restored a little Premier League pride with their 3-1 against Dynamo Kiev the following night, it is increasingly evident that the Premier League is no longer producing potential European champions.

Here is your Independent.ie guide to a competition that is beloved around the world and increasingly exposed as a second rate league.

CASE FOR THE PREMIER LEAGUE

Competitiveness

There can be no doubt that the Premier League remains the most compelling spectacle in world football.

FA Cup breaks of the variety we had last weekend were viewed by some fans as an inconvenience in the Premier League drama and the same is true for many fans when international games disrupt the domestic calendars.

“The reason why the Premier League is the most exciting league in world football is the competitiveness between all the teams, from top to bottom,” Crystal Palace manager Alan Pardew tells Independent.ie.

“You don’t see a team at the bottom of the Spanish or French league beating the top sides, but that can happen in England every week and the competitiveness will increase with more TV money flowing into the game.”

Global appeal

Spend a few days in Dubai, Singapore or Sydney and you will quickly appreciate that the Premier League is one of Britain’s most successful exports.

Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal shirts can be spotted in increasing numbers in the most obscure places in the world, which highlights the brilliance of the marketing team behind a sporting brand that is now very much a global enterprise.

The TV rights contracts totaling £8billion that will kick into gear next summer emphasis the demand for Premier League football in all corners of the globe. That appetite shows no sign of waning.

Spain’s La Liga is trying to emulate the Premier League model by starting games earlier in the day to try and capture a slice of the audience in the Far East, but English football now has a power base of support around the globe that will be tough to beat.

The pace

Manchester United’s Memphis Depay admitted he has struggled to adapt to the pace of English football since his arrival from PSV Eindhiven last summer and in many ways, that is the secret to its appeal.

A big part of the appeal of English football is the speed of its pulse rate. A relentless, breathless drive in a league that never stops from first minute to last. On this score, the Premier League delivers on its own hype time and again.

The dynamism that the English game exudes contributes to the defensive calamities that are so often part of its plot lines, yet admirers of its DNA would not have it any other way.

CASE AGAINST THE PREMIER LEAGUE

Quality test

It is becoming increasingly easy to appreciate that entertainment does not necessarily mean you are watching high quality sport.

“The Norwich v Liverpool game a few weeks back was wonderful entertainment, but it was also pretty awful from a football perspective,” BT Sport pundit Glenn Hoddle told Indepdendent.ie as he reflected on a crazy game that finished 5-4.

“Some of the defending in that game would not have been acceptable in a Sunday league game and we do see that a little too often in the Premier League. Excitement is there clearly, but maybe at the expense of some quality.”

It’s hard to argue against Hoddle’s observations, as not even huge investment in players and managers appears to be halting the dip in class in England’s top flight.

European record

After years of constant failure in the Champions League and Europa League, it is now clear that the Premier League elite are no longer a match for the top sides in the European game.

No English side has reached the Champions League Chelsea’s somewhat fortunate triumph in the 2012 Champions League and it was the Blues who subsequently boosted England’s UEFA co-efficient ranking position with success in the Europa League a year later.

With Chelsea’s points from their triumph against Bayern Munich in Europe’s showpiece fixture five years ago set to drop off the co-efficient ranking points list at the end of this season, the threat of the Premier League losing one of it’s Champions League places in the 2017-18 season will be very real.

Clubs becoming brands

“Turning fans into customers” was a slogan being used by Liverpool’s owners not so long ago and it summed up the ethos of the modern Premier League.

Such is the extraordinary revenue flow bulking up the clubs bank accounts right now that they no longer rely on the loyalty of their supporters to build their business model. If you don’t want to pay €118 (plus a booking fee) for one ticket to watch Arsenal at Emirates Stadium, someone else will happily take that seat. Thus is the mindset of many clubs across England.

Many Premier League players have also bought into the idea that their fans are second-class citizens.

You don’t have to dip back too far into the annuls of time to recall the days when footballers used to chat with fans before and after big games, but those more charming days have been replaced with the era of star names strolling past their adoring public sporting enormous headphones to block out the chatter from the less fortunate class around them.

The German model that sees clubs paying towards away fans travel could not be more different to the vision of Premier League owners who seem intent on finding ways to drain ever last penny out of their brand. This is the game in 2016 and it’s increasingly hard to describe it as beautiful.

VERDICT

A major change in European football could dawn if Premier League clubs use the windfall of the new broadcasting deal starting next summer to their advantage.

Too many of the players that have arrived in the English game over the last few years have turned out to be B or C list performers and clubs need to make better use of their huge resources to up their quality levels.

The fresh cash windfall will give all the top clubs a chance to re-establish themselves among the world’s elite again, but those charged with recruiting the players need to be more successful in their selection process moving forward.

This may be the most successful moment in the history of England’s top division and yet, curiously, it finds itself at its lowest ebb when it comes to challenging for European honours.

Reversing the trend of mediocrity in the Premier League will not be an easy task.

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