With the majority of teams having just nine games to go to ultimately decide their seasons, only eight points separate seventh place Spurs from second place Manchester City. With many of the teams in between all set to play each other, the battle for top four has become much more competitive than in recent years. But is this a sign of the drop in standards in the Premier League?
Consider Chelsea. At the start of the season, winning the first ten games in a row was a sign of a new Invincibles team, they were clinical, ruthless and physical, only dropping points in their second ten games because of late equalisers away against Manchester City and Man United. This Chelsea team never looked to be hitting top gear, yet still getting results, though it was assumed that Jose Mourinho was telling them to hold back, to make the push for the final part of the season. Ultimately, they suffered a shock draw at Sunderland in November and, once again, defeat at Newcastle, before a surprising 5-3 defeat against Tottenham on New Years’ Day cut their original 8 point lead to nothing, leading Manchester City only on alphabetical order. Since then, mostly due to City’s own incompetence and lackadaisical approach than any sort of Chelsea renaissance, they have re-opened a six point lead with a game in hand, and have already played City twice.
With the majority of games still to play at home (minus a tricky fixture at the Emirates), Chelsea could conceivably win the league with less than 80 points. Consider that for a moment. There are 114 points to play for in the course of a season. Chelsea could drop 34 of those, the equivalent of losing 11 games and drawing one, and still win the title. While winning any title is a feat to be commended, it does show how far the rest of the league has fallen behind. Chelsea will probably win the Premier League simply because someone has to, even with the decline of their most significant players, Diego Costa, Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas, in the second part of the season. Though with ten games remaining, they can still feasibly be caught.
The European places between second and seventh place are separated only by eight points. Though this is great for the neutrals, it is a sign that the elite of the Premier Leagues of yesteryear are being dragged back, rather than pushed forward. The Liverpool team that achieved second in 2014 was half of that which achieved the same fear in 2009. At the time of writing, Arsenal and Manchester City are staring down the barrel of Champions League elimination at the last 16 stage yet again. Chelsea were awful across over 210 minutes of football against PSG, 120 of those against 10 men, whilst Liverpool didn’t even make it out of the group stages. As someone with Premier League insight (my ex-housemates’ girlfriend’s family once sold a dog to Stoke midfielder Glenn Whelan), this shows that English teams have taken their foot off the pedal when it comes to Europe, but also when it comes to dominating performances.
The £5 billion plus injection into the Premier League has done little to improve our standard of play. Chelsea, who are leading the league, drop off constantly every game. Champions Manchester City have won only three of their last ten games. Liverpool, after a poor first half of the season, could easily reclaim second place. This is not good enough. A lot has been blamed on money, but massive transfer fees don’t guarantee success. Both of Manchester City’s titles have been won very late on, and not without scares along the way, due to the mismanagement of Manuel Pellegrini and predecessor Roberto Mancini. Ten years before, Chelsea won their league titles in dominant, if not beautiful, style under the vastly more competent Jose Mourinho. Ten years on, the team is much better, but the belief is lacking.
So then, has the standard been falling for a while? Liverpool last year were uninspiring until the latter part of the season, whereas City lost twice to Chelsea and at Anfield on their way to the title. The year before, Robin van Persie fired Manchester United to Alex Ferguson’s last title, which they had won virtually by February. The level of title challengers has completely dropped. In 2012, City were winners on the last day of the season, a last minute Aguero goal against QPR seeing them claim their first title since 1968. In 2005, Jose Mourinho led Chelsea to a record 95 points.
It’s hard to see any team even making 90 now. On one hand, this is a testament to the fact that anyone can beat anyone in the Premier League. On the other, it shows that no team in England is ready to grab the game by the scruff of the neck. There is no new playing style, no imitation of the tiki-taka-based dominance with which Barcelona ruled the world between 2009 and 2011. On the other hand, there is no defence-based solidarity which served Jose Mourinho so well at Inter Milan. It is about more than transfers, about fans or passion, it is about innovation.
Because in the Premier League, the top talent is becoming wasted. Alexis Sanchez is arguably the player of the season, but has the tendency to go missing in big games, such as against Monaco. Mesut Ozil is the same, but has been unfairly scapegoated. Angel Di Maria is heavily scrutinised because of his transfer fee, but he hasn’t really been put into a system to suit his unique abilities. Eden Hazard has the potential to be a Ballon D’or winner, but often will play past two or three players with no end product. Combine this with the propensity of managers to stay at clubs. Sam Allardyce is the longest serving manager in Premier League bar Arsene Wenger, and has been on the verge of being sacked multiple times.
In December, there were calls from a large minority of Liverpool fans to sack Brendan Rodgers. Jose Mourinho came back to Chelsea with dreams of building a legacy, but his paranoia and siege mentality could put paid to that. Managers aren’t given time to build a lasting dynasty, and as time goes on, a plyer that hasn’t scored for three or four games is going through a ‘drought.’ Cesc Fabregas was jeered by some Chelsea fans, unfairly, for not producing an assist. Premier League fans look at Real Madrid’s 22 game winning streak and want to emulate it. They forget that there is no way to build a lasting legacy without stability.
Finally, there is a problem with English youth coming through. In Spain, even Real Madrid have a quotient of young Spanish players. In England, current league leaders Chelsea have only Gary Cahill and John Terry as first team English players. For City, only James Milner and Joe Hart get regular games. Even at Liverpool, only Jordon Ibe and Raheem Sterling are their current young English players (Adam Lallana, at 26, cannot be called ‘The Future’ of English football).
Jose Mourinho has promised to bring English youth through the academy. Manchester City recently spent millions on a new youth training centre. Even so, it could be years before we see any development in our current game. Whilst he was at Spurs, Andre Villas-Boas suggested the creation of ‘B’ teams, such as that in Spain. Whilst this would possibly improve the chances of elite young players fulfilling their potential, it would undoubtedly cause only the richest teams to really benefit from bringing in youth.
So is the Premier League the best in the world? I believe it is going through a blip in the standard of play, but in terms of sheer entertainment, and passion, it can’t be beaten. Though many of the Premier League’s best players seem to be moving abroad, they are heading only to Real Madrid or Barcelona, teams that can market them for billions.
At the same time, the notorious fickleness of these teams supporters mean that players very rarely can sustain a long term legacy; a problem largely exacerbated by inflated transfer fees. Ronaldo was whistled after not scoring in three games. In terms of sheer passion, entertainment, unpredictability, and loyalty, you can’t beat the Premier League. But if you’re looking for a dominant team in Europe, look abroad.