Ben Mabley contemplates whether England's top-flight has deteriorated in standards of play, after no English club made it to the last 16 of the Champions League this seasonAfter the failings of Chelsea and Manchester City in the round-robin stage, Manchester United and Arsenal both fell in the last 16 to leave England without a single Champions League quarter-finalist for the first time since 1995/96 – when Premier League champions Blackburn Rovers finished bottom of a group containing Spartak Moscow, Legia Warsaw, and Rosenborg.
It is a far cry from just five years ago, when Pep Guardiola was still coaching Barcelona B and the best two teams in Europe were indisputably United and Chelsea – separated domestically by just two points and continentally by sudden death penalties at the Luzhniki.
For the Red Devils, Cristiano Ronaldo scored 42 goals in all competitions to complete his rapid transition into a devastating marksman, forming one third of a near-unstoppable, fluid forward line with Carlos Tévez and Wayne Rooney.
That Chelsea were so nearly able to match them despite the bewildering folly of replacing José Mourinho with Avram Grant mid-season speaks volumes for the qualities of a playing squad at its absolute peak; from John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho at the back to Frank Lampard alongside Michael Essien in midfield and Didier Drogba up front.
Often forgotten is the fact that Arsenal, too, only finished four points off the pace in third and actually topped the league table until mid-March, when their campaign unravelled after serious injury to Eduardo da Silva. Fourth-placed Liverpool, meanwhile, augmented a squad that had reached two of the previous three European Cup finals with a fresh-faced Fernando Torres, who scored 24 goals – a Premier League record for a foreigner in his debut season – to prepare the Reds for a serious title shot the following year.
2007/08 was the second of three consecutive seasons in which three of this quartet reached the Champions League semi-finals. At no other point has English football ever had four such powerful sides all at the same time.
Undeniably, standards at the very top of the Premier League are not quite what they were, and coupled with the way in which United have been able to pull out a 15-point advantage over their closest rivals, this has led to a common criticism that the division as a whole is the weakest it has been for some time. But is that really fair? In order to make a proper evaluation, we surely need to look at how teams 5 to 20 have changed over the same period of time as well.
The Champions League contenders
Immediately striking from a glance at the 2007/08 table is just how entrenched the old ‘Big Four’, whose collective representation of England in the Champions League went unbroken for six straight seasons, really was. UEFA Cup qualifiers Everton and Aston Villa ended up 10 and 15 points behind Liverpool, respectively, after their thin squads fell away in the final two months of the season.
But while the top four have declined, and Liverpool have fallen out of it altogether, those below have now risen to the opportunity. As well as oil-moneyed Manchester City, who finished ninth in 2008 under the management of Sven-Göran Eriksson and ownership of Thaksin Shinawatra, Tottenham Hotspur now also have Champions League pedigree after flattering to deceive under Martin Jol and falling to 11th under Juande Ramos. The still-underfunded Everton of 2013, too, are making their best go at season-long consistency under David Moyes since finishing fourth way back in 2004/05. Even Liverpool are starting to look strong again under the long-term vision of Brendan Rodgers.
The Europa League contenders
There is also a clear contrast in perspective between the respective pairs of teams that complete our then-and-now top nines. Five years ago, Blackburn Rovers finished seventh under Mark Hughes, with Roque Santa Cruz top scoring on 19, while Harry Redknapp’s Portsmouth came in eighth and won the FA Cup. But Santa Cruz proved to be a one-season wonder, and the loss of his goals plus the departure of Hughes triggered a downward spiral that finally saw Venky’s-style relegation last term after two near misses in the previous three seasons.
Meanwhile, it turned out that Pompey couldn’t actually afford any of their impressive-looking squad and the club is now fighting for its very survival at the bottom of League One.
Their replacements, West Bromwich Albion and Swansea City, are both highly attractive sides that have been built up in a far more sustainable manner, with sensible recruitment policies ensuring that progress has been maintained and even accelerated despite respected managers being lured away. The Premier League is all the healthier for them.
West Ham United’s problems began after, albeit not long after, finishing tenth in 2007/08, when their Icelandic owners were hit by the banking crisis and the underappreciated Alan Curbishley departed early the following season. But the bottom half of the table contained several clubs that were already in rapid decline after success earlier in the decade. Northeast rivals Newcastle United, to whom Kevin Keegan made a short-lived return, and Middlesbrough, who spent a club record £12 million on Afonso Alves, would go down 12 months later. Bolton Wanderers finished 16th and managed to cling on until 2012, but never would recover from the departure of Sam Allardyce in 2007.
It is impossible to predict the future, of course, but more of the teams in the lower reaches today at least seem to be on comparatively positive trajectories. Newcastle are there again, but only after struggling with their European schedule after a brilliant fifth place last term. Norwich City and Southampton have achieved successive promotions and are capable of troubling the very best. Even Villa, though unrecognisable from the stable years under Martin O’Neill, have a young squad brimming with potential.
The bottom three
2013 simply has nothing to match Derby County, who broke all sorts of records in finishing bottom five years ago with just one win and 11 points. Even if Queens Park Rangers and Reading do go down this year, as has admittedly appeared likely from the outset, they will do so with plenty more entertainment value and almost certainly more points than the dismal Birmingham City and, er, Reading sides that joined Derby in 2008.
Over the 20 years of the Premier League, the presence of a strong Manchester United has come to be taken for granted. This means that when anybody else wins the title, their feat in outstripping Sir Alex Ferguson’s side is naturally lauded, but when United are champions, the achievement is sometimes regarded less warmly due to the assumed lack of worthy opposition.
But while United, and indeed their immediate challengers, may not boast the explosive, all-conquering talents of old, the argument that the entire league has weakened does not hold true. Indeed, in many areas the level of competition has actually strengthened. As such, for United to have won 24 of their 29 matches so far – despite supposedly being in transition – is a remarkable achievement deserving of high praise, not negative value judgements over the rest of English football.