Remember when the Premier League was good? The days when two or three of its best teams would be in the semifinals of the Champions League, and the best of England was a match for the best anywhere? Ah, those were the days.
The premiership is still “good,” obviously, in broad terms – just not as good as it was, or as good as its rivals in Europe. Despite another year of spending ludicrous amounts of money, not only have the best in England fallen behind their counterparts, but they are yet to show signs of catching up anytime soon.
It goes without saying that the current cream of the crop in Europe – Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, and Bayern Munich – would win the Premier League at a canter. Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, and Manchester United are all trying to keep up with each other, but all are at least a level below the continent’s best. The Premier League may be as competitive as ever, but that is arguably because the top teams have sunk closer to the level of the teams below them.
Whichever least rubbish side eventually claims the title would still be handily beaten by the champions of Spain, Italy, Germany, and France. Increasingly, England’s big clubs are feeding off the scraps that the European superclubs leave behind. The cumulative result is a group of teams that are roughly as good as each other, but not nearly as good as the true elite.
The reigning English champion, Chelsea, neglected to properly address its weaknesses in the transfer window and has stumbled out of the blocks. José Mourinho has started his inevitable meltdown ahead of schedule, and his team looks as joyless on the pitch as he is off of it. Chelsea is still a good side, but it won the league last season in a relatively weak field, and evidence so far suggest that the team has regressed rather than made the expected step up.
Arsenal has become so stagnant under Arsène Wenger that it didn’t even sign an outfield player this summer – the only club in Europe’s major leagues not to do so. This fact is even more mind-boggling when you consider that this is a club for which Laurent Koscielny is a first choice defender, and Mikel Arteta (who is 33, but plays with all the vigor of a man twice his age) is still regularly in the matchday squad. Compare the Gunners’ strength in depth to their counterparts in the other top leagues, and the results are unflattering. Arsenal is the third or fourth best team in England, but would anyone in their right mind consider them better than Atlético Madrid?
Manchester United should be better than it was last year, but that is hardly an achievement of note given that the Red Devils were largely unimpressive outside of a single good run this spring. Louis Van Gaal’s team has improved significantly in midfield and defense, but its attacking options are far too limited to challenge seriously in Europe. It’s bad enough that United’s lead striker (Wayne Rooney) is washed up, but the first options off the bench in attack are a teenager (Anthony Martial), a crap midfielder-cum-forward (Marouane Fellaini) and whatever Ashley Young is. Hardly the attacking force to strike fear into Europe’s powerhouses.
Manchester City, so far, look to be the best of a flawed bunch. Yaya Touré looks reinvigorated, and the attacking trio of David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, and Sergio Agüero are all genuinely world class. City recruited well over the summer, and although the season is still brand new, the Blues are already being looked at as title favorites.
That said, the fact that City looks a level above its peers is a damning indictment of the (lack of) quality currently in the league. City’s midfield is painfully thin, and its defense is still suspect. In the peak Premier League era – the latter half of the previous decade – this City team would be in a battle to secure a top-four finish. In today’s watered-down version, it may well stroll to a title win.
Fittingly, the most recent major European league to enjoy a period of dominance followed by a dramatic fall — Serie A — is now in a position to overtake the Premier League. There is an easily foreseeable scenario in the coming season or two in which England loses its fourth Champions League spot to Italy. Conventional wisdom holds that the Premiership is simply too rich and too attractive to players for it to suffer a similar extended decline to the one Serie A endured, but even that is not beyond doubt now. The Best League In The World™ is in serious danger of being left behind.
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