Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Why the Premier League IS The Best in Europe

The last few weeks of European football have seen the top Premier League sides humbled on the continental stage. It was Manchester United’s lame defeat to Champions League minnows Olympiacos that prompted Roy Keane, former United captain and ITV pundit to proclaim that we, the viewers, had been brainwashed into believing the Premier League was the best in Europe. It may not have the best teams, but is there a better league? I don’t think so.

You can define best by two different aspects:
  1. The quality of all the teams, not just the best ones.
  2. The competitiveness of the league.

When the two aspects are considered together, the Premier League surely comes out on top. It does not have the best teams in Europe and cannot boast any in the elite class that is Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal do however belong in the next tier of teams alongside the likes of Juventus, PSG and Atletico Madrid.

Keane was highly critical of the Premier League

So who has the best teams? The Bundesliga has the best team in Bayern Munich but La Liga boasts two of the top three in Barcelona and Real Madrid (arguably three of the top four). The top ten (in my view) are listed below. La Liga can also indisputably claim to boast the best players with both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo currently plying their trade here. They've won the last six Ballon d'Ors between them.

Top Ten Teams in Europe
  1. Bayern Munich – GER
  2. Barcelona – SPN
  3. Real Madrid – SPN
  4. Atletico Madrid – SPN
  5. Manchester City – ENG
  6. Paris Saint Germain – FRA
  7. Juventus – ITA
  8. Chelsea – ENG
  9. Arsenal – ENG
  10. Dortmund –GER

As you can see, the Premier League boasts as many teams as any in this list, more in fact, than the league boasting the leading team, The Bundesliga.

The Bundesliga, which is home to current European and World Champions Bayern Munich is no doubt the most well run league in Europe. The 50+1 rule dictates that 51% (and thus a controlling share) of each club must be owned by the fans. This prevents nasty, evil tyrants like Malcom Glazer and Venkys from destroying clubs and would probably have saved Portsmouth. Attendances are higher and ticket prices are lower than at any other of the major leagues. In terms of fan-friendliness, the German division has no rival, it’s just not very competitive. Bayern’s dominance is stronger now than it ever has been. Bayern have not lost in 48 games, stretching back to last October and have a 20 point lead at the summit. They have dominated the last two seasons and now that they are signing probably the best player in the league outside their squad in Robert Lewandowski, it’s hard to envisage this dominion ending any time soon.

Lewandowski at Bayen is ominous for the Bundesliga

Schalke lost 1-6 at home to Real Madrid in their last 16 first-leg. Bayer Leverkusen lost 0-4 at home to PSG. Dortmund are promising but, given that they are now selling their best player to Bayern every summer, they are unlikely to wrest the crown from Bavaria in the near future. The Bundesliga boasts one elite team and is not competitive this season

La Liga suffers more from a duopoly rather than a monopoly but it’s been threatened this season by the excellent Atletico Madrid. Only once in the past nine seasons has a team other than Real or Barca finished in the top 2 (Villarreal in 2007/08) but Atletico stand a real chance of breaking that this season. The problem lies with the rest of the league which is fairly poor. The Clasico clubs are free to negotiate their own TV rights in Spain, allowing them to sell their matches for millions, creating a huge financial imbalance. Last year Barcelona won 32 out of 38 games on their way to the title. In 2012, Madrid did the exact same. One or both of them frequently break the 100 goal barrier due to the number of hidings they give to the smaller teams week after week. The league consists of two absolute superpowers, one plucky underdog whose rise may not last beyond this season as they may have to sell their best players, and seventeen mediocre teams just there to make up the numbers.

Sundays Madrid derby was one of LL's 5/6 top clashes each year

La Liga has three absolutely quality teams but the competitiveness of the league overall is a joke. Real Sociedad managed just one point in the Champions League group stage this season, in a favourable enough group.

Serie A has been glorious in the past but right now it is in a bit of a lull, reflected in the fact that it only receives three Champions League places each year, the same amount as the Portuguese League. The league has seen better days in terms of quality and will again in the future no doubt. The least it could be now is competitive which sadly it is not. Roma made an excellent start to the season winning ten on the bounce but they have slipped up since and now trail champions and runaway leaders Juventus by eleven points. Juve, by rights, should be aiming to compete at the business end of the Champions League. They underperformed in the group however and find themselves in the Europa this spring.

It is dominated, this season, by one excellent team but there are a number of capable challengers which will make the league more competitive next year hopefully. Compared to the rest of Europe however the Italian league is sub-standard and their poor showing in Europe back this up. One example to look at is Adel Taarabt. He excelled in the Championship with QPR but couldn't make it in the Premier League. He's moved to Milan on loan and is tearing it up in Serie A. So few players who do well in Italy can hack the pace of the Premier League, Dani Osvaldo and Erik Lamela being the best recent examples.

Taarabt failed in the PL at Spurs, QPR and Fulham. Not at Milan.

Ligue Un is the only other league with a team in the European top ten listed above. Again, this league isn’t competitive at all and is dominated by the super-rich PSG. The only foreseeable threat they have will be from Monaco, once their lavish investment reaches similarly ridiculous levels. Marseille are currently 3rd place in this league. Luckily, for our comparison, they were drawn in a Champions League group with an English, German and Italian team this season. They lost all six games. They have one excellent team in PSG who will win every title for the foreseeable future. The league is not up to much.

This leaves the Premier League. The end of the Sir Alex Ferguson dynasty has instilled a new competitiveness in the Premier League this season. With just over ten games to go, four teams are now in with a genuine chance of title contention. Spurs would be joining them if they had a decent manager for the season, as would Man United. Both will surely be in the hunt next year. Recently Swansea (14th in PL) held Napoli (3rd in SA) to a draw in Wales before running them close back in Naples. The best teams are not as good as the top teams in Europe but the strength in depth of the Premier League is better than anywhere else in Europe which is what makes it the best. There are seven teams in the Premier League who could compete in the Champions League and probably five or six more who would do well in the Europa.

Everton would make the Champions League in Spain or Germany. 7th place in EPL.

In Europe, Man City and Arsenal both finished as runners up in their Champions League groups (both by virtue of away goals in the head-to-head match-ups) and as a result were paired with the two favourites Bayern and Barca. Both gave credible shows, both gave away red-cards and penalties, both lost 0-2 at home and both are facing elimination. The parallels between the two teams are amazing.

Manchester United were beaten in Athens by minnows Olympiakos and also face elimination. This was a bizzare result from a side desperately out of form and out of their depth in the later stages. Liverpool, Everton and Spurs would probably give a much better account of the league were they in the competition than this current United side. Chelsea are the only Premier League side who look like they will progress to the last eight this season.

While this season, the likes of Barcelona, Real and Bayern are likely to contest the European Cup, next season looks brighter for the top English clubs as they aim to bridge the gap. City's seeding will be higher and Chelsea will have improved under Mourinho. Both these sides can target next season as a feasible time to overthrow the likes of Bayern and bring the title back to England. Liverpool are likely to be involved too although their attempts to win a sixth European title will not likely bear instant fruit.

To sum up:

  • The Bundesliga hosts the best team in Europe in Bayern Munich. The league might as well not be a competition.
  • La Liga hosts the best teams in Barcelona and Real Madrid. The league is slightly more competitive than in Germany but the gulf in class between top and even 5th/6th place is phenomenal. This league also hosts the best players in Europe
  • Serie A and Ligue Un are not of the same quality and really don't belong in this discussion.
  • The Premier League has a selection of teams whom, despite not being as good as the likes of Bayern and the Clasico clubs, are among the best in Europe. The competitiveness and strength in depth of the league exceeds that of its rivals and for that reason it can be considered the best in Europe.

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