x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

The Premier League: a reality check for top tier

With failure on the big stages and clubs feeling the pinch, can England still claim to have the best league, asks new correspondent Duncan Castles.

Portsmouth only just managed to survive crippling financial burdens.
Portsmouth only just managed to survive crippling financial burdens.

"The Finest League on Earth" bellowed the splash page of London's ShortList magazine this week. "Sorry, Primera Liga. Apologies, Serie A. This year the Premier League really is the best". Over at the league's Gloucester Place headquarters in London, they are more measured. A cleverly efficient organisation that consistently puts the Football Association to shame, Premier League officials makes a point of stating that they never label their league as the best about.

They will point out that their games are watched in 211 countries and available in half a billion homes (more than any other league). That overseas television revenue, set to double this season to more than £20million (Dh115m) a club, is more generous and equitably distributed than anywhere else. That fans the world over love the competitiveness and unpredictability of the English game. And that English clubs have earned the highest Uefa coefficient three years running.

All canny, fact-based observations. What is more questionable is their chief executive's assessment of the season past. "The quality of the football and competitive nature of the Barclays Premier League marked it out as the best season I can remember," writes Richard Scudamore in his Season Review. "The intensity of the title race, the battle for that fourth Uefa Champions League spot, the shock results and the sheer number of goals all made for a compelling nine months that held the interest of the fans until the very last day of the season.

"What's more, in the teeth of the worst economic conditions in living memory, the clubs maintained attendances at the highest occupancy levels in Europe and television viewing figures were up for both live and highlights programmes." The best Premier League ever? That will be the division which had lost half of its four storied entrants by the first knockout round of the Champions League and all of them by the quarter-finals. The competition in which Chelsea and Manchester United sides palpably poorer than those that had gone before them stumbled to the finish line to be separated by an injury to the country's best player. The League which rewrote its own rules to help Portsmouth limp through the season without going defunct.

And that will be the Premier League whose national team lit up the World Cup by drawing with the United States (Fifa ranking 14) and Algeria (30), scraping past Slovenia (25), before being comprehensively beaten by Germany - the only genuine contender for the trophy they faced. Football is evolving at an unprecedented pace. It is just two summers since United and Chelsea contested a compelling Champions League Final in Moscow. Both that season and the next, the Premier League claimed three semi-final places in Europe's premier club competition and could justifiably boast of its economic supremacy. Generally, the grandest transfer fees and the most voluminous contracts were to be had in England - and every agent and player knew it.

Led by the differing methodologies of four foreign coaches in Jose Mourinho, Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and Rafa Benitez, and furnished with overseas footballers with the skills and professionalism to re-educate the best domestic talent, English club football scaled new heights. Its high-paced, intelligently coached competitiveness became too much for all but the strongest opponents to handle and the popularity of the domestic product soared.

Talking in March 2009 as the coach of an Inter Milan team about to be knocked out of the Champions League at Old Trafford, Jose Mourinho described an advantage he had helped create. "There are top players in this country, good managers, foreign players with combinations of different cultures: French, English, Spanish, Africans," he said. "And certainly a higher intensity of the game. "We don't know the result of today's game at this moment, but even if Inter wins you will see the difference of Man United and Inter. If Inter wins the game it is because Inter was successful in the way they reduced the intensity of the game - because if it is at their intensity we have no chance.

"English football has the intensity other countries don't have, and in this moment Italy can have the tactics but English football is not anymore zero at tactical level. "Spanish football, they have the talent, the technique, the skill - and Barcelona of course is a beautiful team playing football - but the intensity can be high with the ball, but without the ball it's not the intensity of English football. And in this moment intensity makes the difference.

"Football in this moment is about transitions, it's about the moment you win the ball, the moment you lose the ball, the depth you can create when the opponent loses his balance because at this level every team is very well organised, every team has a good coach, every team knows how to be on the pitch, nobody comes to a game like this without knowing what they have to do. So intensity is absolutely crucial - and intensity is in English football."

Just a season later, having been allowed to overhaul his Inter squad with younger, faster players (none of them either English or from the Premier League), Mourinho had built a team that overwhelmed Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The lessons of the English game has been learned by Inter, and with more tactically flexible players they not only achieved a higher intensity but a more intelligent football than their opponents.

Pushing on to an unprecedented treble, they took Barcelona and Bayern Munich apart - two more teams that had reached the summit of their domestic games by incorporating Premier League pressing into their tactical plans. Mourinho's assessment of the English season past is telling. "Please don't compare this Man United with my Man United," he said after Chelsea regained the title. "Don't compare this Arsenal with my Arsenal. My Arsenal was a team that won the league without one defeat in 2003. Don't compare this Liverpool with my Liverpool. And don't compare this Premiership with my Premiership. Don't compare because you cannot compare."

From a national team perspective it has not helped England that the flow of talent in and out of the Premier League rarely carries its own internationals abroad. Steven Gerrard declined the invitation to become the fulcrum at Real Madrid after Mourinho took over this summer, while Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard were stymied in their desires to move. In the analysis of one player who recently exchanged top-level Premier League football for similar status in Spain, all three are limited by playing just one form of the game.

"Since I joined Real a year ago, I've been watching a lot of Premier League games and I think to myself, 'My God, what a rhythm they play at! And I was playing like that, too?'" Xabi Alonso said during the World Cup. "And yet, here's the funny thing, which I must confess I am unable to explain: during my first months playing in Spain I'd be more tired than I was in England. There might be a clue here as to what happens to the England players in big international games. The rhythm at that level is not like the rhythm in the Premier League and maybe it's hard for the English players to adapt to. My impression was that they struggled to enjoy the game."

The quality at the top end of the Premier League has diminished, and that is not just a product of foreign competitors catching up. The game's best coach was lost to the division when Roman Abramovich took the absurd decision to sack Mourinho. Chelsea and United have ceased to be major players in the international transfer markets since their owners reined in the spending and economic conditions moved against them.

The weakening of sterling has increased the real cost of buying and meeting the salary demands of overseas players - and it remains the case that the very best footballers are foreign. A new 50 per cent income tax rate and the efforts to clamp down on tax avoidance schemes ranging from image rights deals to salary payment by dividends have done the same. Elite agents continue to negotiate deals after tax, and if Chelsea and United cannot make the best offer they take their clients elsewhere.

A year on, United have yet to fully reinvest the £80m they collected for Cristiano Ronaldo and instead of signing established players have concentrated resources on potential to be developed. Javier Hernandez, Chris Smalling and Bebe all commanded significant fees relative to their profile in the game, but their wage packages are manageable. For a third summer running, Chelsea have talked about making a major signing if the right player became available for the right price; and promised their manager such a recruit. Yet none arrived in 2008 or 2009, and this close season they have dispensed with Michael Ballack, Joe Cole, Ricardo Carvalho and Deco; stripping upwards of £17m from their wage bill.

In their place has come Yossi Benayoun, a player who never guaranteed himself a first-team jersey in an imploding Liverpool side and whom Carlo Ancelotti did not know had been signed, plus a couple of youngsters. When Ramires ultimately joins from Benfica his salary will be no more than Cole's. Ballack, meanwhile, was offered just a single-season extension, despite Ancelotti's desire to retain him. Both Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg quickly presented him with longer, more lucrative deals to return to the Bundesliga.

Elsewhere, Martin O'Neill has walked out on Aston Villa after Randy Lerner asked him to claim a Champions League place without additional funding, while Liverpool are desperately hoping to rid themselves of owners only interested in their own profit. Arsenal are sticking to their prudent ways, Harry Redknapp is pushing Tottenham to spend on players rather than a new training ground and stadium, and David Moyes has spent the summer fighting to hang on to the squad he has.

Only Manchester City are buying with alacrity, exploiting the largesse of Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed's ambition as they attempt to force themselves into a weakening elite. If much of what City are doing is laudable - their attitude to their support and their efforts to improve the club's infrastructure especially so - the sums spent on transfers and a standard policy of doubling a new recruits' wages have set the league a kilter. Making Yaya Toure, a high-quality, but not quite stellar holding midfielder, the best-paid player in England while handing Patrick Viera a contract extension typifies the approach.

"I think it makes it difficult," Phil Jagielka, the Everton defender, said. "It happened a little bit when Chelsea came in but I don't think it was quite as bad. It has a strange kind of air about this season, where no one else seems to be allowed to spend and they've got an open chequebook." The season ahead will be enthralling. It will be madcap, manic, dramatic, replete with controversy, and compellingly presented by its various media. City should get closer to the Chelsea and United, and the scramble for European place will be more intense than ever before. But will the Premier League deliver the finest football on Earth? Unlikely.