The Premier League is unquestionably the most entertaining league in the world, but has deteriorated in quality over the past few seasons...
Let me start by saying that this article is not designed to just “have a go” at Arsenal, but the North London club is merely being used as an example to illustrate the point that the Premier League is no longer the jewel in the crown of world football, as it was for much of the noughties.
Arsenal football club have certainly had a rollercoaster of a season. From the sales of Cesc Fábregas to Barcelona for around £30 million and Samir Nasri to Manchester City for around £25 million in the summer of 2011, the Gunners seemingly went into meltdown. Arsene Wenger was ultimately chasing lost causes when it came down to keeping hold of the inspirational Fábregas – who was inevitably always going to return home to Barcelona and play for his beloved boyhood team – and the dynamic Nasri – who had his head turned by the ambition and, probably more importantly, the money on offer from Manchester City. These inevitable sales had an overwhelmingly destabilising effect on the Gunners preparation for the new season, one which they took months to recover from.
The 2-0 defeat at home to Liverpool at the beginning of the season was compounded by the 8-2 humiliation at Old Trafford who, despite having a host of first-team regulars out for the trip to the Theatre of Dreams, ex-Gunner Paul Merson said in the aftermath of the match on Sky Sports, “You can talk about all these players who are out, but none of them would get in the Man United team. So how far are they behind United now?”
They sunk to an all-time low – certainly in my lifetime – with defeat at White Hart Lane to bitter North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur, putting the Gunners in as low a position as 15th in the Premier League table after having played seven games.
This has been a season where I have not known for there to be so much criticism of Arsene Wenger during his 15-year tenure as Arsenal manager, both from Gunners fans and neutrals alike. There was criticism of the players that Wenger had bought, as Mikel Arteta and Yossi Benayoun are clearly not as good as either Nasri or Fábregas were. Similarly, Wenger looked to have wasted money on two new defensive acquisitions, Brazilian left-back André Santos and German centre-half Per Mertesacker, several critics struggling to comprehend how the latter managed to be involved in a successful German World Cup campaign in 2010, humiliating the likes of England and Argentina along the way.
Furthermore, there was criticism of the players that Wenger has persisted with that even the most fervent Arsenal supporter or most loyal fan of the Frenchman would admit he has been wrong to keep faith in. Manuel Almunia, Carlos Vela, Marouane Chamakh, Sebastien Squillaci, Nicklas Bendtner, Denilson, Johan Djourou and, until recently, Tomas Rosicky, were all players who fell into this category and were, quite simply, not good enough to play for Arsenal and adequate illustrations to explain why the club found itself where it was. The boo’s from Arsenal fans reserved for when Andrei Arshavin came on for the excellent young Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 2-1 home defeat to Manchester United typified the disbelief that such a promising player should be substituted for one that is supposedly the finished article, but in reality has declined and frustrated since his remarkable four goal haul scored against Liverpool at Anfield in 2009.
So it is truly remarkable that this team now finds itself in a spot granting immediate qualification to next season’s Champions League group stages and helps to prove my point that the quality of the top sides in the Premier League has deteriorated over the past few seasons.
They are by no means alone in this crime. The current Premier League Champions and leaders, Manchester United, are undoubtedly a good team, but they are by no means a great one. This was proved by the limp and embarrassing exits United made to both the Champions League – falling at the group stage hurdle for the first time since 2005/06 and registering only two victories against newcomers Otelul Galati – and the Europa League – where United were extremely lucky to get past Ajax and then were well and truly found out by Basque giants, Athletic Bilbao. United, like Arsenal, have been in transition this season too, with youngsters being brought through to replace the old guard, but unlike Arsenal, the signs of this seem only to have been evident in European campaign’s. Nevertheless, the ineptness and outclassed nature that last year’s Champions League finalists exited this season’s competition highlighted that the best the Premier League has to offer is no longer necessarily the best in Europe.
As far as Manchester City are concerned, their exit from both European tournaments they participated in this season was indeed a profound disappointment for the world’s richest football club. The Champions League virgins did unquestionably have a difficult group to get out of, with the European powerhouse that is Bayern Munich and the exciting Napoli in their group. It could be said with some conviction that City were somewhat unlucky not to progress from their group with 10 points, a total usually sufficient to allow passage into the last-16.
However, there is an argument to say that a squad containing a European and World Champion in David Silva, former European Cup winners in Carlos Tevez (before he decided for a five month long break in Argentina) and Yaya Toure, and those with prior experience in the competition such as Kolo Toure, Samir Nasri, Sergio Agero, Edin Džeko and Gael Clichy, should be doing better than crashing out of Europe at the first hurdle. Similarly, the way that this team have crumbled in recent weeks and let a good, but by no means great, United side get eight points ahead of them at one stage highlight the injury problems, defensive frailties and infighting - in the case of Tevez and the extremely erratic Mario Balotelli - that even the wealthiest in the world suffer from.
Liverpool, meanwhile, one of the greatest clubs England has ever produced, have to be content with a Carling Cup triumph as well a potential FA Cup gracing the Anfield trophy cabinet and are both notable successes. However, the simple facts are as follows: Liverpool are currently eighth in the Premier League, 13 points behind fourth placed Spurs and 36 points behind leaders Manchester United. The recent resignation of Damien Comolli, director of football at Liverpool, can in some respects be seen as an acceptance that the expectations for this season have fallen short of expectations of the owners at Fenway Sports Group (FSG). For a club that has spent over £100 million in 2011 on the likes of Andy Carroll (£35 million), Stuart Downing (£20 million), Jordan Henderson (£20 million), Luis Suárez (£22.8 million) and Charlie Adam (£7 million), with the owners at FSG believing that challenging for a Champions League spot was a genuine aim this season, the money outlayed on many of these underachievers has simply not achieved the desired aim this season. Many of the above names have been singled out by critics as, quite simply, not Liverpool players and this season proving they are not good enough to wear the Liver bird on their chest. This Liverpool team is unquestionably a far-cry from the side that regularly thrilled and entertained us on magical European nights at Anfield and have clearly been in decline.
As far as London’s other top two sides are concerned, Spurs and Chelsea, we find two clubs who have gone in completely different directions over the past few seasons. Spurs have unquestionably improved since Harry Redknapp was appointed manager back in October 2008, when the North London club had only two points after playing eight games. Since then, Redknapp has shown his quality as a manager, chopping and changing this Spurs side into, if not title challengers, serious contenders for a Champions League spot. How frustrating then, it must be for fans of the Lilywhites, that despite this being the best Spurs team that many have seen for 40 years, that it still finds itself five points in the table behind an Arsenal side which, as has been established, is probably the worst Gunners team that Arsene Wenger has ever managed.
Chelsea, on the other hand, rather than being on the up like their North London counterparts have, like Liverpool, regressed this season. The appointment of young coach Andre Villas-Boas at the start of this season suggested that there was going to be a new era at Chelsea, with a transitional phase of gradually phasing out the old guard of Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, John Terry and co. However, Roman Abramovich’s idea of transition probably didn’t involve Chelsea being 25 points off top spot in the Premier League, let alone struggling to gain a Champions League spot. This may be redeemed if Chelsea do go on and win the competition outright – a fabulous achievement by interim coach Roberto Di Matteo who can’t do too much more to get the job on a full-time basis, in my opinion – but it is undeniable that this Chelsea team has, like Liverpool, deteriorated in recent years.
Meanwhile, two of the four Champions League semi-finalists are Spanish, and whilst although many had previously written off the other 18 teams in Spain as inferior, three of the four Europa League semi-finalists originate from there, whilst the remaining team in Sporting Lisbon are the side that eliminated City from the competition.
Clearly then, those who believe that the Premier League still possesses the best quality of football in the world may wish to revise their opinion. The most exciting league? Probably. But not in terms of quality, not anymore at least.