LONDON – The Premier League is awash with money. Middle-class clubs can afford to pay fees of £30 million. Never has the top flight been so prosperous.
It also has the best collection of coaches in its history with Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger, Antonio Conte, Mauricio Pochettino, Ronald Koeman and Jurgen Klopp a magnificent seven of the technical area.
Last season the Premier League generated £1.6 billion. It is the richest league in the world, with the top coaches, yet there is growing evidence of a dumbing down than a rise in quality. After nine games Manchester City is top with 20 points, the lowest total for the leader at this stage since 2000.
The vast sums available to all 20 clubs has seen clubs such as Southampton, Crystal Palace, Stoke and West Ham strengthen their teams as never before. Newly promoted Burnley has already beaten Liverpool and Everton and Watford beat Manchester United, Arsenal drew at home to Middlesbrough and struggled to beat Swansea at Emirates. The upstarts are upwardly mobile while the heavyweights are not punching their weight.
Despite their rich pickings, there is little sign that England’s finest are bridging the gap with Europe’s elite: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich. Next week the Champions League resumes with Leicester City and Arsenal almost certain to progress to the knockout stage. Whether they will be joined by Manchester City and Tottenham is questionable.
There was a spell when only another English team could beat an English side. From 2004, there was an English team in seven of the next eight Champions League finals. In 2008, there was an all-English final between Manchester United and Chelsea.
That was then. Over the past four years Spain and Germany have dominated Europe’s No. 1 club competition. Of the 16 semifinalists, eight have been Spanish, five from Germany, two from the Premier League and Juventus flying the Italian flag once.
This pattern seems unlikely to change this season. Apart from Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico and Bayern, Juventus has its strongest team in years, while Borussia Dortmund cannot be underestimated.
There is no single reason why English clubs are failing at the highest level. The physical demands of domestic football are greater than in Spain and Germany, where their leading clubs are rarely challenged by those in the bottom half of their leagues as City, United and company are. This means the English have become obsessed by rotation for cup competitions, including the Champions League and the Europa League.
A knock-on effect is that it is almost impossible to know what the best first XI is of the English teams. While it is relatively easy to predict the starting XI of Barca or Real, it is far more of a lottery with United or City.
The perceived necessity to rotate has meant English clubs have built squads rather than teams — quantity before quality. The English may have more strength in depth, but the Spanish and Germans have the best players and the best teams. While it is a subjective issue, this correspondent’s World XI would not include a single player from the Premier League.
With his tongue slightly in his cheek, Klopp said: “Barcelona could play 50 percent of its games with its B-team. There are games in which Messi runs only 4.3 kilometers, but scores five goals. There’s nothing like that in any English match.”
Mourinho, who has managed in the Champions League with FC Porto, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Chelsea, believes the demands of the Premier League are making success in Europe less likely for English clubs.
He said: “The Premier League and the domestic competitions create a very difficult situation for the clubs. Other countries, they care a lot about the Champions League. In this country the Premier League will always come in front of the Champions League. The intensity of every match is the same.
“In England you cannot rest players. If you rest players thinking about Europe, then you lose the match in the Premier League. In other countries you rest players. I had situations in Portugal, in Spain, in Italy of resting the whole team. At Porto we had a semifinal second leg and I rested 11 players, even the goalkeeper, the game before. In England it is not possible. It is the most difficult of internal competition.”
On Tuesday, Barcelona plays Manchester City and the 4-0 defeat at Nou Camp two weeks ago was not the return Guardiola wanted. If Barca completes the double over City, the Blues will probably have to beat Borussia Monchengladbach in Germany to reach the next stage.
Premier League leaders City go into Saturday’s game at West Bromwich with Guardiola experiencing a career-worst six matches without a win. They did not manage a single shot on target in the 1-0 League Cup defeat at Old Trafford on Wednesday, and while Guardiola selected four rookies in Pablo Maffeo (who was outstanding), Aleix Garcia, Leroy Sane and Kelechi Iheanacho, City still had Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero, Nolito and Jesus Navas on the field.
On the reasonable assumption that Barcelona will score at Etihad, City will need at least two shots on target and both good enough to beat Marc-Andre ter Stegen to win. The bad news is that Lionel Messi has scored 15 goals in his last 13 Champions League games against English opposition and Guardiola has conceded nine goals in three Champions League meetings with Barcelona since leaving the Catalan club.
Cashing in: It was revealed this week that agent Mino Raiola earned £24 million for the transfer of Paul Pogba from Juventus to Manchester United.
I would say “was paid” is more accurate than “earned.”
The fee Juve received for Pogba was £105 million, but after they had given Raiola his fee in reality it was £81 million.
Agents used to be known as Mr. 10 percent, though Raiola has upped this to Mr. 23 percent.
Raiola was paid £24 million by Juve for facilitating a transfer his client and both clubs wanted. It is very, very nice work if you can get it.
Hard to believe: It emerged this week that Barcelona is considering a bid for Stoke City defender Glen Johnson, age 32.
I have worked in the business for almost 50 years, but I still have no idea where such fantasy comes from.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5