A league’s quality is often defined by its quantity of top players. When one looks at the Premier League, it’s clear to see just how far it has fallen. Eoin Hallissey discusses the alarming trend of top footballers choosing other European leagues to further their careers.
Where have all the good men gone?
Where are all the greats?
Ronaldo went to Madrid,
Now Suarez has gone away.
Rooney’s peak seems long gone,
Bale spread his wings and flew,
Luiz proved quite clueless
Even he found pastures new.
On the 21st of May 2008, Manchester United faced Chelsea in the Champions League final in the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow. For the third year in a row, the Premier League provided three of the four semi-finalists in Europe’s premier competition. For the fourth year in a row, an English team had made it to the Champions League final and, for the first time, two of the Premier League’s teams would contest the biggest match in club football.
The Northern team would eventually triumph on penalties, their solitary goal having been scored by that year’s Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo formed an attacking triumvirate with Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez, which was arguably the most potent force in European football pre-Pep Guardiola.
The team’s foundation was provided by the centre-back pairing of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, both impervious at their best. They beat a Chelsea team who themselves were not lacking in superstars. Along with their English spine of Lampard, Cole and Terry, they held Michael Ballack, Claude Makélélé and Didier Drogba in their ranks. Premier League football, Sky’s greatest league in the world, had finally lived up to its billing.
In the mid-2000s footballers chose to come to the Premier League at their peak, eschewing offers from the rest of Europe. Of those who played at the Luzhniki Stadium that night, Edwin van der Sar, Owen Hargreaves, Nicolas Anelka, Ricardo Carvalho, Juliano Belletti, Ballack and Makélélé had all won the Champions League elsewhere before choosing to move to England before their powers began to seriously wane.
Liverpool had just missed out on their third Champions League final in four years, with Fernando Torres finishing third in the running for the Ballon d’Or. Ronaldo was Europe’s top scorer, and English football had peaked.
One year later, Guardiola’s Barcelona swept all before them, putting United to the sword with a facile 2-0 victory in Rome, signalling a shift in momentum which has seen the English presence on the European stage dwindle magnificently. England again provided three semi-finalists in 2009, with none were a match for Pep’s Barcelona.
The Premier League has not come close to wielding that type of influence on the European stage since, with a solitary representative in the last four being the best they could muster. Perhaps most significantly, the Premier League’s resident superstar, Ronaldo, left for Madrid, abandoning ship before he had reached the peak of his powers.
The Premier League remains home to many exceptional talents, but it would be remiss to suggest that the standard is equal to that of the mid-to-late 2000s. The players who once challenged Ronaldo for the status of best in the league have either stalled or regressed, while he turned into a scoring machine in Madrid.
Rooney has breached the twenty goal mark just twice in the five seasons since Ronaldo left, with his former team-mate having scored over thirty goals in the white of Madrid in each season since. Torres’ fall from grace is as well-documented as it is bemusing.
The Premier League now lacks what American sports refer to as “Franchise Players.” These are players that a club can build their “franchise” around for the foreseeable future. These are players that will win games and sell jerseys, with talent on the pitch breeding financial success off it.
They are few and far between and they either have no interest in going to the English League, or they do everything in their power to leave it having made their name there. In the business world of football, James Rodriguez is a franchise player.
Within 48 hours of singing Rodriguez, Real Madrid had recouped almost a third of his transfer fee in shirt sales. He will undoubtedly add to a strike-force spearheaded by Ronaldo. To suggest that James would choose to take his talents to England, having become the most wanted player in the world after the World Cup, would have been laughable.
Ronaldo left England for Spain, having just been declared the player of the season. In the past two years, Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez have threaded the same path. At the moment, the Premier League can be seen as a breeding ground for La Liga superstars. Like Ronaldo before them, Bale and Suarez outgrew it.
When Real Madrid and Barcelona wanted their men they got them. Established players are also rejecting the Premier League, when given the choice. When Toni Kroos decided to remove himself from the Budesliga’s vast talent pool, he chose to move to Real Madrid, rather than join his former mentor Louis van Gaal in Manchester. His decision evoked little surprise.
The Premier League remains, undoubtedly, home to players who we deem to be “stars”. Failing to shine as bright as Ronaldo, Messi, Bale or Suarez, is no hanging offence. In Sky Sports parlance, the absence of top, top, players need not see us dismiss the top, top players.
We constantly hear tale, however, of these players wishing to ply their trade elsewhere. Eden Hazard is constantly said to be following David Luiz to Paris, despite being Chelsea’s most important attacking player. Many would agree with the assumption that Yaya Toure would jump at the chance of a return to Barcelona.
If potential stars, such as Philippe Coutinho or Adnan Januzaj, become world-beaters, trends suggest that they too would jump ship. The perception in the footballing world is that the Premier League ranks below those of Spain and Germany.
Premier League teams have made notable signings this summer. Diego Costa, Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fàbregas have all traded La Liga for London. However, Sanchez and, to a lesser extent, Fàbregas, were deemed expendable by the Barcelona hierarchy, and Costa has scored over ten goals in a league season just once in his career.
It will be no surprise if these signings make a large impact upon the league, but it is unlikely that their impact will come close to equalling that of Bale or Suarez in the last two seasons.
It would be wrong to write-off the Premier League for the foreseeable future. European success has often proven cyclical, with Spanish success last year echoing their early-2000s dominance. The current trends however, are not promising. The Premier League has been acting as an effective feeder for Barcelona and Real Madrid, with their marquee players being hoovered up, whilst they are given those deemed surplus to requirements. It is difficult to see how they will challenge upon the European stage once again unless this trend is halted, if not reversed.
Eoin Hallissey, Pundit Arena.