FOR A LONG time, England’s top flight has been trumpeted as ‘the best league in the world’ by many of its supporters and advertisers.
And for several years, this claim seemed dubious at best.
Even relatively recently, there was a strong case to be made against the argument. Between 2012 and 2018, there were seven appearances for a La Liga side in the Champions League final compared to just one for an English team.
But the past three seasons suggests a shift in power, with four Premier League teams contesting the climax of Europe’s premier club competition, compared to zero Spanish sides, including last year’s all-English final between Man City and Chelsea.
Even some of the most high-profile European outfits outside of England are looking unconvincing at best, with the coronavirus pandemic partially explaining their decline.
Barcelona are the most obvious example of a club who are a shadow of their former selves, as anyone who watched their dismal 3-0 midweek defeat at home to Bayern can attest and as Simon Kuper explains the reasons behind in detail here.
The deterioration is certainly not as significant elsewhere, but there are at least question marks with other superclubs.
They may come good yet, but PSG have made an underwhelming start to life in the Champions League this season — a forward line that comprised of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe laboured to a 1-1 draw with Belgian outfit Club Bruges.
When you also consider that Mauricio Pochettino is a manager who wants his players to press intensively — something which none of his high-profile front trio tend to do regularly — coupled with the fact that PSG failed to win the league last year for just the second time in nine seasons, you start to the suspect that more problems could lie ahead.
Equally, Juventus also surrendered their crown after nine successive title triumphs last season and have just one point from their opening three Serie A games.
By contrast, all the sides expected to challenge for the Premier League title have started this season relatively strongly.
Man United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Man City currently make up four of the top five places in the table and all bar United had good wins in Europe during the week (the Red Devils’ continuing struggles on that front remain one obvious outlier).
But more so than standalone European performances, the best way of judging the most elite league is looking at where the money is being spent, and while nearly every team appears to be tightening their belts to a degree, it is obvious that the Premier League is where the financial might currently lies.
According to Deloitte’s findings, in the latest transfer window, Premier League clubs spent €1.3 billion. This tally was down 11% from the previous summer but still dwarfed the fees of the rival ‘big five’ competitions — Bundesliga (€415 million), La Liga (€295 million), Serie A (€550 million) and Ligue 1 (€375 million).
And these figures are in keeping with recent trends, so it’s no surprise that the Premier League’s dominance is becoming more noticeable, and it is likely to be even more pronounced in the coming months.
Moreover, many of the world’s best managers and coaches — Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel — are plying their trade in England.
And one fact that summarises the discrepancy is that the top-two scorers in Serie A last season — Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku — both were snapped up by Premier League clubs in the summer.
But there are of course different interpretations as to what constitutes a ‘strong’ league and the degree of competitiveness is another factor that should be examined.
In this regard, the Premier League clearly could be healthier. Last season, there were 63 points between champions Man City and bottom side Sheffield United ultimately. That figure was arguably lessened because of the coronavirus and its effects. In the last pre-Covid season, 82 points separated champions City and relegated Huddersfield.
By comparison, in the inaugural 1992-93 Premier League season, a 42-game campaign, there was only 44 points between top and bottom.
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This lack of competitiveness is not solely an issue with the modern Premier League though. Last season, there was a similar gap between top and bottom in the other elite leagues — Serie A (71 points), La Liga (56 points), Ligue 1 (62 points) and Bundesliga (62 points).
With crowds returning, and Covid-inspired freak results no longer as much of a factor, this gap between top and bottom is only likely to increase across the board again.
Football and sport, in general, is at its best when it is unpredictable. The financial dominance of an elite few makes surprises increasingly rare, to the point where something like the much-maligned European Super League idea feels almost necessary to keep many people interested. So currently, for every occasional enthralling Champions League clash, it feels like there are about 20 exceptionally dull, one-sided domestic encounters.
So the English top-flight is probably now the strongest it has ever been in comparison to other European leagues, but the game itself feels increasingly broken.
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