Is The Premier League In Decline?

Posted on July 24, 2011

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We’re now in the middle of July and the deadline for signing a player that will get a meaningful pre-season is barrelling nearer. (For an example of what can happen when a player doesn’t get time to blend in with his new teammates, see Torres, F. circa January-? 2011). Obviously there will be some exceptions to the rule, and we probably have yet to see the best that the transfer window has to offer. Or maybe that’s just ‘hopefully’. Because, so far, I’m not excited with how things are going. We are perpetually treated to the line that the Premier League is ‘the greatest league on earth’. Well, that’s clearly bollocks.

Which league did Ozil, Khedira, Zapata and Coentrão move to? Which league does the Champion’s League winning, best player in the world owning, Alexis Sanchez signing club belong to? It’s pretty apparent that La Liga (or at least the two clubs that dramatically distort La Liga) overtook the EPL as the league of choice some time ago. That’s not, in itself, a thing of shame. Real Madrid have thrown the kind of money around that makes Man City look like schoolboys with their pocket money (for example they’ve spent an estimated 55 million euros already this transfer window, and the common consensus is that they still need a new striker) and Barcelona are a once in a generation team. The problem for English football is that it looks like it’s part of a larger downwards trend.

2009-2010 was a decent year for English football. Despite the speculation about the future of a certain Arsenal midfielder, no truly key club players were leaving the country (as Cristiano Ronaldo had the year before). There were four particularly notable exits – Liverpool’s Javier Mascherano, Man City’s Robinho, and Chelsea’s Michael Ballack and Ricardo Carvalho. Notwithstanding that none of these were particularly likeable characters, and most if not all had clearly lost interest in their clubs, they were easily replaced (and I’d argue improved upon) in the form of Raul Meireles, David Silva, Ramires and David Luiz respectively. Not only that but the league also picked up Javier Hernandez, Rafael Van Der Vaart, Luis Suarez, Asamoah Gyan, Demba Ba and Marouane Chamakh. In addition to Silva, Manchester City were also able to bring in Yaya Toure, Mario Balotelli and Aleksandr Kolarov. If we widen the net to include promoted teams, the EPL also gained Carroll, Adam and Marek Cech. There were even some transferees who didn’t have the best of debut seasons, but still look to have a lot of potential (looking at you here Ben Arfa, Dzeko and Jovanovic).

Although, unlike Sergio Ramos, Dzeko is proficient at holding a trophy on a bus without dropping it.

All in all, a pretty definitive net gain for the Premiership. Fast forward to this summer and the picture is very different. Manchester United alone have already lost Paul Scholes, Edwin Van Der Sar and Owen Hargreaves to retirement or injury (whether Hargreaves finds a new home in the Premier League or elsewhere is a big question mark at the time of writing). Vieira has quit, Giggs’ longevity is under debate, Adebayor shows no signs of returning to Manchester and Scott Carson has moved to Turkey. Adel Taarabt, the player who pretty much single-handedly got QPR into the Premier League looks as though he might be leaving the club before he actually gets a chance to kick a Premier League football. It’s even looking entirely likely that neither of the two joint golden boot holders (Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez) will be playing in England by August. And this is without mentioning the midfielder. The one that’s been openly flirting with his boyhood club for many years. If he leaves Arsenal, then it will be a huge blow for the team, and a big knock for the league in general. It was different when Mascherano chose Spain over England because…well because Mascherano was a bit of a cunt. If this transfer goes through it will be the loss of a world class player, a club captain and the apotheosis of Arsenal’s playing strategy. Worse still, it’s the loss of him to a team that has absolutely no need for another brilliant, visionary midfielder (although Xavi is getting on a bit now, he turns 32 this season).

With both Spanish teams seemingly in a position to stockpile top players, it bodes ill for the top English sides. What’s the EPL answer to this exporting of talent? So far, De Gea who, at 20, is still too young for any comparisons to Van Der Sar to be made, and Gervinho  who is exactly the type of player Arsenal are looking for (as evidenced by the fact that they already own 5 players exactly like him). If there’s anything to the Wesley Sneijder rumours, that would go a long way towards redressing the balance, but the signs are pointing against it. This is the part where I’m supposed to say that this is a complex problem with many causes and no clear solution. And all of that is true. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t one predominant reason for this dearth of foreign talent coming to Britain.

This particular villain goes under the alias of the ‘home grown rule’. Or as we shall come to know it, the reason why clubs are spending their transfer budgets on average or unproven talent rather than invest in new players. There has always been a premium attached to British talent, but the home grown rule has meant that the top teams are trying to secure young, British talent as early as possible, and paying through the nose to do so. Between Adam, Downing, Henderson, Jones and Young, Manchester United and Liverpool have spent a combined £75 million pounds. And this is with a pretty compelling argument that few of these players are actually improvements on those already at the clubs. More importantly, it takes a big hit out of the teams transfer budgets. Old Trafford would have been the perfect location for a player like Luka Modric, who now appears to be on the way to Chelsea. If Man Utd had decided against signing Young, and instead relied on the talents Park, Valencia, Giggs, Nani and Obertan, they could have been in a strong position to sign the playmaker that they badly need. Similarly, Liverpool have one of the most crowded midfields in the premiership, but signed Charlie Adam for £7 million at roughly the same time as Cristian Zapata, a great up and coming central defender signed for Villarreal for a roughly similar amount.

An offshoot of this is that clubs have less money to even countenance buying players in from abroad. A big investment that take time to adapt can be a death knell for a manager. Premier League teams are looking inward and picking up the players that have that wonderful ‘Premier League experience’. Charles N’Zogbia’s experience consists of barely avoiding relegation repeatedly, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped a potentially 8-figure move this Summer. The aforementioned Modric looks set to move for a number close to £40 million, when players like Marek Hamsik or Joao Moutinho would likely be available for much less. Someone will probably end up paying far too much money to have Robbie Keane for 2 years. By comparison, Nuri Sahin, the vital cog in the Bundesliga winning Dortmund team and Bundesliga player of the year 2011, went to Real Madrid for an almost criminal €10 million.

Pictured: 1/2 a Jordan Henderson, or 20% of a Fernando Torres.

So, with workhorse and goal machine Carlos Tevez, sublime Bulgarian Dimitar Bervatov and long term loanee Fabregas all potentially shipping out in the next month, we have to ask whether the league will simply be worse, or if there will be replacements to help us forget about our losses. Certainly, Man City have yet to fully show their hand. Aguero seems like a possibility if Tevez goes to Milan. Tottenham are clearly looking to pick up a new striker, and there are plenty of talented forwards playing in the other leagues. Players like Mata, Lukaku or Pastore certainly have the potential to light up the league. All is not lost.

I have some sympathy for the aim of encouraging the development of British talent, but anyone who thinks that Jack Wilshere will be a better player without Nasri or Fabregas to train with is out of their mind. All I want is to be able to watch top quality football from the best practitioners in the world on a regular basis. Is that too much to ask?

Banner image: Steep Hill sign on Henside Road (Roger Nunn) / CC BY-SA 2.0
Dzeko via Wikipedia, Sahin via news-realmadrid-football.blogspot.com
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Posted in: Transfer Window