THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

19 February ~ The Premier League's dominance of the Champions League appears to be over. A few years ago, England, along with an admittedly superior Barcelona, dominated this competition, producing three semi-finalists each year between 2007 and 2009. Though the relationship has dragged a little since then, England can still boast seven finalists in as many years. This year, however, following Arsenal's comprehensive first-leg defeat to AC Milan, struggling Chelsea are the Premier League's only remaining hope.

However amusing this all may seem to rival club supporters, watching the bully-boys of the Premier League getting a taste of their own medicine, it did force Roy Keane to make a rather uneasy suggestion at half-time in Milan. Of the Premier League, he said: "The brand is great, but maybe we're not as good as we think."

Keane has a point. Commentators and pundits constantly assure us – though it is not hard to imagine what their motive might be – that we are watching the best football in the world, but how can this be true when we consider our best teams' displays in Europe?

In terms of the more successful teams, Keane is right. Manchester United – who were given one of the kindest group-stage draws they could have hoped for – were arguably masters of their own downfall, but Manchester City and Arsenal have been simply outclassed. Although Chelsea are still in the competition, they were looking the least likely to advance from the group stage three months ago.

Whether Keane is right, though, depends on how you define "good". Perhaps understandably considering his background and the occasion, Keane is thinking about Premier League teams in the Champions League. But these are just four teams out of 20. Compared with the rest of Europe, their quality has declined. But what about the rest of the league?

Since peaking in the 2004-05 season, the disparity between the teams at the top and bottom of the Premier League has been shrinking. The difference between Jose Mourinho's Chelsea and Gary Megson's West Brom, who just beat the drop, was 61 points; the gap between Alex Ferguson's champions and Roberto Martinez's survivors was just 40 points last season.

Statistics aside, supporters of Premier League clubs can instinctively sense the reduced inequality. Were the unbeatable Arsenal of the 2003-04 season or the 95-point Chelsea side any better than today's Manchester City? I would argue not. The reason City have not gone unbeaten and the reason they won't achieve 95 points, is that the teams down the league have improved.

Quality aside, the real reason the Premier League is every bit of good as it has always been is because of its entertainment value. Top of the table ties are no longer cagey, less successful clubs believe they can beat their more illustrious counterparts, and there generally seems to be a lot more to play for.

This season, three teams are going for the title, four are going for fourth place and five teams at the bottom of the table are separated by two points. Maybe the top four are not what they used to be. The overall quality of the league may have declined a little, but the Premier League has never been as good for entertainment. William Turvill

Comments (13)
Comment by shadsworth cloud 2012-02-19 10:28:53

Maybe so, but back in 04-5 it was exactly that dominance by the top clubs that was taken as proof the premiership was so superior. So to claim that the levelling out is now (again) proof of the quality is a little disingenuous.
Personally I see the "top" clubs just not being as good as they were in the past. An ageing Chelsea, a rebuilding Arsenal and Man United, "new" teams like Man City and Spurs. None of them are as imperious as Mourinho's Chelsea or Wenger's invincibles were.
As a supporter of one of those 5 teams at the wrong end of the table, I am amazed that there are another 4 teams equally as bad as my own. It may be entertaining for a fan of one of the teams but somehow I know it will leave me feeling a bit humdrum.

Comment by geobra 2012-02-19 11:43:26

We can either have leagues with a few outstanding teams, many of whose games, when they are not playing each other, are a foregone conclusion. Real Madrid and Barcelona, for example. Or we can have leagues where the quality of the top teams is not so much greater than that of the others as to give the supposedly weaker clubs no chance. In other words leagues in which nearly every game has the potential to be a genuine contest. Surely this is the scenario that we should go for. Apart from anything else, it probably means that the best players are still there, but they are spread more evenly among the participating clubs. One of the most depressing aspects of modern football is the number of top class players that we don't get the chance to see because they're warming the bench (if they're lucky) of a club that doesn't actually need them. In footballing terms, it's little short of a crime, as well as showing little or no respect for the fans who pay to see the best players perform.

Comment by nastynip 2012-02-19 15:25:22

While the days of 3 English sides in the CL semis may be over for now, the domestic competition is a far more exciting, unpredictable and competitive affair. This is a more than worthy trade off in my book, is it not preferable to watching the mind numbing target practice sessions of the Spanish league?

Also, watching English sides stroll past Continental opposition (Barcelona excluded) for 3 straight seasons was getting a little predictable. I firmly believe an English side will be making their first CL final appearance within the next few seasons, though can't see any of the old Sky Sports "Big 4" making it back there any time soon (never write Sir Alex off though). This may hurt national pride and "the brand", but for the sport as a whole, it's good that such periods of dominance don't go on too long.

Comment by Diable Rouge 2012-02-19 19:06:15

Even in the period of so-called "dominance", the EPL's European success rate was actually appalling - three continental trophies in the new millennium, level with Portugal but far behind Spain's eight. Some humility that financial doping has been found wanting mightn't go amiss.

Comment by Lincoln 2012-02-20 10:25:58

One should never make a trend from one result.

Comment by Analogue Bubblebath II 2012-02-20 11:42:23

The Spanish league is increasingly unwatchable. The Premier League is riddled with faults but it's a lot better to watch than that pile of shite.

Comment by Soccer_Nobody 2012-02-20 12:55:53

It seems that two different arguments are being made here; the first concerning the quality of the EPL and the second concerning how "good" the league is, based on parity. It's a funny thing because parity has been something Major League Soccer has offered since its inception, yet many bemoan MLS' lack of a "top" club and quality. But are the two mutually exclusive? Probably. If you yearn for a league where the teams are evenly matched and results aren't predictable, you won't have that dominant superclub because if that superclub performs up to its standard, it should outclass the opposition. It might be true that the EPL is tighter than ever, and perhaps it's better for fans of the smaller clubs, but part of this comes from the teams atop the table not being particularly good. Some rely on aging stars, other lack the depth they once had. Is there really a comparison between the Manchester United of the late 1990s with today's incarnation? Or Mourinho's Chelsea to this current squad? The quality of these top teams has declined as evidenced by their poor run in the Champions League and uninspired performances against subpar EPL competition. You can call it parity, but this is the defense fans of the Championship and MLS have long used to defend the balance of their respective leagues. It sure makes for excitement and unpredictability, but it can also reek of mediocrity.

Comment by Adam Wilson 2012-02-20 13:16:38

perhaps it's the phrase 'EPL' that makes me turn off this debate, or the fact that in the 'Champions' league we have Manchester City, Tottenham and Liverpool (of recent CL vintage) that rack up 100 years of non-English championship success between them. Or maybe I'm wrong - Wenger, today, seems to think so: "The first trophy is to finish in the top four," he says.

Comment by trickydicky 2012-02-20 14:59:15

There is another way you can show the premier League's decline in standards; teams who get promoted no longer go straight back down, or survive by their finger tips, but often in fact compete in the top half the League.
That the Premier League's top clubs have declined cannot be denied. Chelsea still rely on the same spine Mourinho had, its just 7 years older. Arsenal have not replaced their top players with ones of anything like the same quality. Man United have not replaced Ronaldo or Tevez (or Giggs or Scholes) and Liverpool, have lost Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano and Fernando Torres without bringing in replacements even half as good, and Steven Gerard has, inevitably, aged. Spurs are a good side, but not up to the standards those 4 set when in their prime in the last 7 years (slightly longer for Arsenal), even if Liverpool only briefly flirted with that standard. Man City have been built along similar lines as Mourinho's Chelsea, but their flop in Europe and increasing caution and lack of goals has shown them up to be not in the same class, despite what it looked like at the start of the season.

Comment by nastynip 2012-02-20 15:40:30

An interesting note to point out. During 2007-2008 and 2008-2009, the only European side to put an English team out of the CL was Barcelona, and even they needed a 91st minute wonder goal to prevent a second consecutive Chelsea - Man United final.

I'm glad that things have changed as the competition was in danger of becoming a "Big 4 and Barca" yearly procession, but that's a pretty impressive statistic.

Comment by santos_l_halper 2012-02-20 17:31:46

The EPL has it just about right, I think. It strikes a good balance between competitiveness and having superior (though not massively dominant) teams. This season has been pretty good at the top, with exciting games and lots of goals when the top four or five face each other, and Norwich, Swansea, Newcastle and a few others are making it exciting in the middle, and I always love observing the strugglers.

Obviously its much better than La Liga, as others have already said, a league in which my interest has seriously flat-lined over the last two years. I'd much rather watch a Bundesliga game these days, or actually pop outside and watch a live game in the (frankly terrible) Czech Gambrinus league.

And who cares how English clubs do in the CL anyway, save for fans of the relevant teams - personally, as a supporter of a non-EPL team, I couldn't give two figs how far Manchester United or Chelsea get in the competition. Also, having so many English teams in the CL semi-finals and finals back in the day was tedious, not just because you were watching a game you'd already seen twice that season, but because the games were often, well, tedious.

Comment by geobra 2012-02-20 19:02:27

Doesn't the title of this piece contain some assumptions which should at least be put to the test? Like 'Europe's superpower', for example. What exactly does it mean? A league should be judged not just by how it performs in the Champions League, but by its overall quality. Are we sure that the overall quality of the EPL was so high as to merit the 'superpower' label?

Comment by Coral 2012-02-21 10:09:38

Perhaps the number of players from the leagues that went to the World cup in 2010, Geobra?

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