By Peter Staunton
It is increasingly difficult to ignore that gnawing perception that something is amiss. It is becoming harder and harder to dutifully accept that what we are watching is an elite level of sport and to blithely acquiesce to that propaganda message. We are gathering the fall-out of a season which, all things considered, must rank as one of the most humbling in the history of the English Premier League.
The season just past could have carried with it a number of important messages to the Premier League. The twin spectres of racism and hooliganism, as well as a palpable decrease in on-field quality, should have forced the English top flight to countenance some severe home truths. But on it trundles with "talking points" dissected and analysed. On it trundles with swaggering belligerence and little accountability. On it trundles with its insularity and conceit unchecked.
|THE STARS THAT SNUBBED THE PL
|Interested: Chelsea, Man City
Where he ended up: Bayern
|Interested: Chelsea, Man City
Where he ended up: Zenit
|Interested: Man City
Where he ended up: Bayern
|Interested: Man Utd
Where he ended up: PSG
Where he ended up: Stayed with Barcelona
Where he ended up: Anzhi
English football, frankly, is lucky that its fans are not yet turning away in their droves such is the degeneration within the English Premier League. If you admire English football it is high time to ask some serious questions of it.
Manchester United, Uefa's 15th-best team based on 2012-13 coefficients, have just strolled to the Premier League title. They earned more points than their 1999 predecessors but you will not find many people claiming Cleverley, Valencia and Jones are better than Keane, Beckham and Stam.
Arsenal finished the league season in pre-eminent form but they claimed only seven points against their rivals in the top six across the campaign and, like United, could barely punch their weight in Europe. They could not, either, hang domestically with Chelsea - a team smashed to pieces by Atletico Madrid and Juventus before surrendering meekly their Champions League title.
Based on the evidence of the performance of the elite teams in the Champions League, the standard is dropping. For the first time since 1996, no English team progressed to the quarter-finals. That should be treated as a warning and not as a blip.
From 2005 to 2012 only one edition of the tournament contained no English side at the semi-final stage. Through the period 2007 to 2009, England's Premier League filled nine of 12 possible semi-final slots. At times it looked like the English would never be caught. The big four of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United were the world's big four.
Not these days. Recent interlopers to that group, Manchester City, have scarcely made a dent in the Champions League despite a wage budget about twice that size of Borussia Dortmund's - the upstart team who took four points off them in the group stage and who have progressed all the way to the final. The positive form at Tottenham, Everton and Liverpool suggests that, maybe, some other team may have a crack at it next season.
The Gunners' divergence in form against the best and the rest, as well as United's facile saunter, suggest that the also-rans in the division are no longer capable of competing to any sort of equitable standard. Plainly, the league no longer provides adequate footing for the top clubs to prepare for Champions League competition.
The teams from positions eight to 17 are the very definition of middling and were separated by only 10 points at the end of the campaign. Across the last two seasons, only Reading have been promoted and failed to stay up. That was certainly not the trend a few seasons back. Ricky Lambert and Grant Holt have taken the Premier League by storm despite playing at the lower level of the league pyramid the majority of their careers. Have these teams and players reached Premier League quality or has Premier League quality reached them?
This year there were no representatives from the Premier League in the Fifa and Uefa teams of the year. The division, patently, is bereft of the star quality which was widespread and consistent a few seasons back. Manchester City and Chelsea continue to pay exorbitant fee and salaries for players unfit to equal their predecessors in the division despite their hollow insistence on self-sustainability and development.
Even so the best players and managers are now shunning the league in a manner it is not accustomed to. Pep Guardiola and Javi Martinez preferred Bayern Munich. Willian preferred Anzhi Makhachkala. Radamel Falcao is off to the principality of Monaco. Even the players who are moving for the money are no longer flocking to these shores.
Moreover, looking around the Premier League there is very little player development going on though Aston Villa must be commended for surviving with what was essentially a youth team last season. The frenzy for short-term gains has increasingly seen clubs attempt to buy ready-made solutions from abroad. Teams are being lumbered with mammoth, unsustainable wage bills and agent fees in order to furnish the contracts of inferior players.
It is favourable elsewhere to blood a talented, even if incomplete, teenager before seeking an imported solution. A home-grown product comes through the ranks and becomes a first-team player with an immediate and traceable bond to the terraces like Andre Schurrle did at Mainz or Thomas Muller.
Perhaps most damningly of all the Premier League transmits no great sense of innovation and barely any evidence of financial husbandry. Even that proudly-worn badge of honour, the title of "The Best League in the World™", was self-bestowed. It remains a clumsy monument to the staggering hubris conveyed in the league’s heyday.
Along its path towards dominance, the Premier League lost its way. Supporters at home were shaken down for every spare penny; exploited for their season ticket money and their Sky subscriptions. Those overseas, in lucrative 'markets', were pandered to for their disposable income. Some Premier League clubs have spent so long trying to expand their brand and fortify their strategic positions abroad that they have lost touch with the communities they should exist to serve.
Foreign ownership has separated clubs from their people. Any goodwill Manchester United built up in their loyal ranks is about to be severely tested through the retirement of the club's totem, Sir Alex Ferguson.
Don't kid yourself, what we are watching is not really the English Premier League; this phenomenon could have happened anywhere. There is nothing English about it. Manchester United are playing their pre-season fixtures across Asia when three neighbouring teams are begging for their patronage.
A pre-season match might be the only chance that a kid from Stockport, Bury or Oldham has to watch United in the flesh for a price they can afford. Both the magic and the glorious accessibility of top-level English football are gone. It lacks soul and lacks affinity to anything.
Where it goes next will define its future. It must manage to sustain interest and forge renewed links with its followers. That means that safe standing, for one thing, must be seriously considered. As a gesture of goodwill, ticket prices must be frozen or reduced.
Young players all across the league must be given chances even if that means taking one step back to take two eventually forward. Indebtedness must be faced head on. Throwing good money after bad has brought us to this critical juncture. For that is where the English Premier League is right now.
So what is it to be? Continued, zealous spending and global expansion for 20 Monacos? Or an acknowledgement that things might not have been done as properly or as thoughtfully as they should?
One can only hope, for the sake of its ambition, its clubs and its fans, it's the latter.
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