Massive TV rights deals, supposed best players in the world. There are lots of reasons peddled as to why the Premier League is the best in the world. But in so many ways, it isn’t at all.
With the ink not yet dry on Sky and BT’s joint £5.14bn deal to screen live Premier League games, the Champions League semi finals were decided this week without a single English representative. The “Best League in the World” has never had its self proclamation under such considerable scrutiny.
With 12 of the last 20 Champions League semi final places taken up by Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona (versus 3 from the Premier league), the salesmen who negotiated the 72% increase for the television rights must be wondering what they have to do to be even fractionally as sought after as a nitric oxide guzzling 20 year old with 8 Champions League appearances and zero goals to his name.
Brendan Rodgers’ claim last year that Raheem Sterling is “the best young player in Europe” and slapping a £50m price tag on the young winger, is a conveniently current microcosm of a long standing issue. Quite what established internationals Paul Pogba, Rafael Varane and Mario Gotze, each the same age as Liverpool’s contract rebel, make of that claim would be interesting to note. One assumes their Serie A, Champions League and Word Cup winners medals respectively, provide some comfort.
The false economy of the Premier League is not a new problem. Just ask Andy Carroll (£35m), Darren Bent (£24m) or Shaun Wright-Phillips (£24m). The added premium for being young, English and any way decent for half a season has long been accepted.
Home grown player quotas can only lead to further inflation in that regard and the ever ballooning bank balances of every Premier League club means football chairmen on the continent know they can safely add “teen” to even the most middling players valuation when they see a UK dial code pop up on their caller I.D. The same is of course true for agents who know that even if their player barely makes it onto the pitch at a Premier League club, the detrimental effect that has on his career will be more than offset by the benefits seen in both of their bank balances.
But what makes a great league? The litmus test by all accounts appears to be the performance of your leagues representatives in European competition, and by that yard stick the Premier League obviously falls badly short in recent years.
But does continental success justify a total lack of competitiveness in the domestic game? Should the Premier League strive toward the time honoured dual hegemony of Real Madrid and Barcelona in La Liga? Albeit recently interrupted by Diego Simeone’s working class hero’s last year but the regularity at which the big two stockpile talent and dish out 6, 7, 8, even 9 nil scorelines in front of sparsely filled stadiums is hardly preferable.
Or maybe the hipsters choice of the Bundesliga, Bayerns eternal dominance has been most recently threatened by Jurgen Klopps Borussia Dortmund side. Their response? To cherry pick their best players on an annual basis and ensure disparity is reinforced. There is a sense in both Germany and Spain that once the super powers show any interest in a player native to that country, the other clubs are powerless to stop them. That it is every German players dream to be wanted by Bayern Munich and every Spanish players dream to be wanted by Barca or Real.
There simply isn’t the same tribalism we so often see in the Premier League, in particular when it comes to player loyalty and fan expectations. This of course has the effect of weakening the selling clubs position in terms of negotiating the best deal possible, a position already significantly hampered by the split of their leagues television rights money being so favourable towards the bigger clubs. How much more than €14m would Jordi Alba have gone for if he had been moving from Aston Villa to Manchester City rather than Valencia to Barcelona?
One look at the Premier League’s honours list of course tells us that it does have it’s own super powers, these days a mixture of the traditional and the nouveau riche. The cream will eventually rise to the top. But on a week to week basis, there are no “easy games”, no half full stadiums, and the rare sight of a 5-0 rout stands out as remarkable. The money being pumped into the league has led to a case whereby every team in it possesses a player who could feasibly do a job for a top 6 side.
If that was the case in Germany or Spain, those players would already be there. English clubs simply aren’t in a position of having to sell. And when they do, they can name their price, as we have seen in the days before the threat of financial fair play with the likes of Scott Sinclair and Roque Santa Cruz. The World Cup last summer saw 110 players from the Premier League, compared to 61 and 42 from Spain and Germany respectively.
Former Manchester United full back and Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville spoke in his autobiography of how the ease with which they sauntered to the league title in 2000 and 2001 hindered their prospects of building on their Champions League success in 1999, as they weren’t being pushed to the limits in their domestic league that would be required in Europe.
The opposite now appears to be the case in that even the biggest clubs can scarcely afford to rest their star players and rotate their squad, even with the superior depths in quality they can boast. Thomas Muller recently suggested 11 v 11 games in training at Bayern keep the squad sharp, more so than their games against their would be league challengers and I would hazard a guess their counterparts in Catalonia and Madrid would echo that sentiment.
While many cry for the halcyon days of the mid to late 00’s, when premier league clubs dominated the latter stages of European competition, competing in finals and semi-finals on an annual basis, the fact of the matter is that since then anyone who dare stand head and shoulders above the rest in England have turned the heads of the leading lights in La Liga. Ronaldo, Bale, Suarez. Likely De Gea this year.
And as antiquated as it is to say, the pace and the harem scarem nature of the Premier League is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that there are no predictable games. And a curse in that it’s competitiveness and lack of a winter break during English footballs treasured Christmas period leaves them with a considerable extra work load when compared to those they’re attempting to conquer.
The “Best League in the World” is indeed that, but for all it’s financial riches, the strain that brings to the less tangible resources appears to be taking its toll.
Neill Smith, Pundit Arena