English football is in the middle of an unprecedented transition. In the wake of the global economic crisis, the Premier League’s levels of debt have garnered substantial negative press. Leveraged takeovers by billionaire businessmen, once portrayed as every fan’s ultimate fantasy, have been unsuccessful in almost all cases, the only variable being when things go sour. The 2010 World Cup exposed the national side so starkly that several years worth of stifled misgivings have come to the fore. The idea of English football’s supremacy, pushed so aggressively by various media until this season, seems more fanciful than ever. There are several concurrent narratives setting the new era up to be one of two things: the most exciting ever, or the beginning of a steep decline. Which is it to be? This series of articles looks at the next chapter in English football’s narrative.
Part One: Where The Premier League Stands In 2010/11
Recently, I was asked for my definition of ‘a great league’. Having given the topic the consideration it deserved, the following criteria comprised my answer:
- Above all else, the teams at the top come the end of the season should be something special. Obviously, vintage sides don’t come along every year, but they should at least be worthy winners, their displays admired continentally as well as domestically.
- Matches should be of a consistently high quality. Even with weaker sides involved, they will at least be organised and of sufficient strength to be competitive.
- Standout players should not be limited to the division’s best teams. Whilst the table-toppers will obviously have more than struggling sides, talent should be visible throughout.
- The tactics favoured should be the most advanced of their time. The pushing of boundaries not only raises the bar in terms of quality, but inherently makes football more exciting.
These points were not the product of utopian thought, but the analysis of what made Serie A so strong throughout the 1990s; what La Liga had at the start of the 2000s; and what the Premier League itself had until recently.
The Premier League’s peak was in 2007/08, with the all-English Champions League final in Moscow. It had been threatened before and was nearly repeated the following year, but that season was the only time it all came together and the division’s two strongest clubs played out a memorable, high-quality and dramatic match – fitting, as it was these attributes that millions bought into with the Premier League. Thierry Henry and Cristiano Ronaldo, in particular, were the standard-bearers of a futuristic brand of football which coupled breakneck speed with immaculate control, often producing unique moments of exhilaration. May 21, 2008 was the culmination of all that had come before. May 22 saw the beginning of the decline.
For me, the Premier League definitively jumped the shark on August 5, 2009, the day Xabi Alonso joined Real Madrid from Liverpool. Loathe as I am to say it, Liverpool should have won the title in the preceding season. Rafa Benítez’s 4-2-3-1 was so obviously the best system, their rivals so clearly limited, that it was only just that they win. However, their relatively weak squad could not meet the demands of challenging for the title and the Champions League simultaneously. Cristiano Ronaldo steamrollered Manchester United to yet another title and, in response, Benítez took leave of his senses, selling his most important player. Ronaldo’s transfer may have broken the records, but it was, to me at least, Alonso’s intelligence and accuracy that would be more conspicuous by its absence. So it proved.
2009/10 was a shocker of a season, and in an effort to avoid nausea I will spend as little time on it as possible. There were several demonstrations of the Premier League’s stagnation. Winners Chelsea scored at least seven goals in a match four times, but also lost six matches – the highest number for a title-winning side since 2001. Manchester United became reliant on Wayne Rooney, who regularly excelled despite his obvious limitations. Liverpool’s slump was as graceless as it was sudden. Burnley, Hull and Portsmouth were so excruciatingly bad that West Ham lost half of their matches and stayed up. Wigan’s goal difference was minus forty-two and they also survived. In short, the standard fell through the floor. The division met none of the criteria to be declared ‘a great league’.
The 2010 World Cup also hit the Premier League’s credibility hard. Its players’ hardships have been covered in great detail, so I will not dwell on them here. Needless to say, the Premier League’s current season has begun with a noticeably more reserved tone from broadcasters. Gary Lineker’s introductions on Match of the Day, for example, exemplify the change: whereas last August he routinely described it as the best league in the world, last weekend’s programme began with Lineker half-heartedly using the day’s two six-nils as evidence of the league’s ability to excite. He did not believe what he was saying and nor should anyone else.
Let’s be clear: the situation is grim. With two rounds of fixtures played in the Premier League, we have seen four six-nil results. Chelsea and Arsenal have between them won three, illustrating that the gulf between the division’s haves and have-nots is wider than ever. With this season featuring the ultimate have-not in Blackpool, we will probably see considerably more thrashings than in any other season. In addition to the lack of competition, there is a dearth of individuals worth watching. In the 2009 FIFA World Player of the Year list, five of the top ten were based in England at the start of the calendar year. In 2008, the number was three, and in 2007, four. In 2010, it would be unsurprising if there was only one, and yet Wayne Rooney’s loss of form could still see him miss out. Following Javier Mascherano’s move to Barcelona, the Premier League has been further weakened: the only player one may nominate as the world’s best in his position is Didier Drogba, aged thirty-two.
Due to the unbalanced level of domestic competition, the tactical standard of English football will only be verifiable once the Champions League’s latter stages are underway. The group stage draw has been kind to Manchester United and Arsenal. Chelsea’s route is slightly more challenging and Tottenham’s appears veritably cruel. Nonetheless, it is not inconceivable that all four progress. If that were to be the case, the Premier League’s giants – and Spurs – will be rank outsiders behind José Mourinho’s Real Madrid and Barcelona. Last season’s finalists, Inter and Bayern Munich, have not weakened. It would take a brave man to bet on there being more than one English semi-finalist. The Premier League may have set the standard over the last few seasons, but in 2010/11, it is undoubtedly in decline.