LONDON – There is no pleasing some people. When Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United were dominating the Premier League, English football was called predictable.
Going into this weekend’s fixtures there was a top five of Arsenal, Leicester City, Manchester City, Tottenham and Crystal Palace. Now, the unpredictable Premier League is hailed as the worst in its 23-year history.
There are, of course, lies, damn lies and statistics and while Spain, unsurprisingly, has the most clubs in the later stages of the Champions League and Europa League — seven — England and Germany are one behind with six, ahead of Italy’s five.
Not too shabby by Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City, but while the trio fly the English flag in the Champions League, they are far from the forces they were a few years ago.
Between 2005 and 2012 English clubs, including Manchester United and Liverpool, dominated the tournament. Since then, they have been also-rans to the elite of Spain, Germany and Italy and it will be a similar story this season.
Apart from Mesut Ozil, none of the best players in the world play in the Premier League. It is hard to think of too many, if any, of the second tier of the world’s top players plying their trade in English football, goalkeepers apart. There has usually been a good sprinkling of true superstars in the Premier League — over the past 10 years Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, Luis Suarez, Ashley Cole, Wayne Rooney (at his peak), Fernando Torres, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Michael Ballack and Xabi Alonso have graced the domestic game. The cupboard is worryingly bare these days.
Last February, the Premier League signed a new television deal worth £5 billion per year. These revenues will be distributed fairly evenly among clubs: the champions will receive around £150 million, and the worst performer £99 million.
This will make English football the most lucrative in the world, though the knock-on effect is more likely to be that middle to lower class clubs can afford to sign better players, making the Premier League even more competitive. However Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich will still attract the cream of the world’s crop.
A personal view is that this season’s Premier League is a welcome break from the traditional heavyweights slugging it out, with Leicester, Watford and Crystal Palace unexpected challengers at the top end of the table while Tottenham, under Mauricio Pochettino, cannot be ruled out of the title race. The Premier League remains the most exciting in the world, but the best football is played by representatives of Spain, Germany and France.
Tale of two rivals: If Manchester United allows Pep Guardiola to sign with the club, Sir Alex Ferguson called the noisy neighbor, Ed Woodward, the Old Trafford executive vice chairman, may find his job untenable.
That Woodward is running United as a successful, profitable business is not disputed. However, United fans see him as the man who appointed Louis van Gaal and who has overseen five transfer windows which have been, with the odd exception, failures.
While old quotes can always come back to haunt those in football, what Woodward said about van Gaal 18 months ago has inevitably been regurgitated.
“He’s got incredible energy and very importantly he likes attacking football. If you remember the Barcelona team (he managed) in the late 90s, who played incredible, attacking football, and those games we had against them in ’98-99, that’s the kind of football that Manchester United fans love. It’s part of our DNA.”
The belatedly welcome return to an attacking style in an exciting 0-0 draw against Chelsea gave the Dutchman some breathing space. United fans will accept a degree of failure, but not the turgid stuff they have mostly seen in the van Gaal era.
At best, a continuation of the Chelsea performance will keep the supporters happier, but there is a general acceptance that van Gaal must be replaced next summer. Too much has been spent on too little with minimal return.
Despite reports that Guardiola, who will leave Bayern Munich at the end of the season, is set to join Manchester City, the Catalan has agreed nothing with anybody and is notorious for changing his mind at the 11th hour. His main consideration will not be money. Guardiola is already very rich and whether he joins City, United, PSG or whoever, he will rightly be paid handsomely. Another million here or there won’t make any difference.
Despite City’s seemingly endless supply of transfer funds from its Middle East owner, United is not exactly a pauper, the Glazers having backed van Gaal to the tune of £250 million net.
So if financially there is no significant difference, what would sway Guardiola one way or the other?
He worked with City’s director of football Txiki Begiristain and chief executive Ferran Soriano at Barcelona though this may not necessarily be an advantage given that Guardiola has not always found it easy to have a close relationship with executives.
Given that City has the strongest squad in the Premier League, it should be cruising this unpredictable campaign. Without the injured Vincent Kompany the Blues lack a true leader, Yaya Toure, who has been the heartbeat of City in recent seasons, has lost his mojo, while Sergio Aguero is struggling with fitness. Joe Hart, Fernandinho, Bacary Sagna and Kevin de Bruyne have been the Blues’ most consistent players though they have not won an away game in the Premier League for 3½ months (not including Saturday’s match at Watford) and such travel sickness may cost them dearly.
“It’s having enough points to win the title that matters,” was Manuel Pellegrini’s inevitable response to his side’s troubles on the road. The Chilean is not receiving anything like the criticism directed at van Gaal, mainly because the popular view is that Pellegrini will be replaced by Guardiola next summer.
A done deal?
We shall see.
In terms of player personnel there is little to choose between the two Manchester clubs. What United has, and City knows it cannot compete in this respect, is a tradition and history unparalleled in English football. This is what Woodward will surely try to sell to Guardiola; the stumbling block would be the possibility that United will not be in the Champions League next season.
Champions League or not, United fans will expect Woodward to make up for the van Gaal appointment and only the capture of the world’s most wanted coach will appease the Old Trafford faithful.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.