Two months — that’s all we get this year. The 2014-15 European soccer season concluded with the Champions League final in early June, but we’re already back at it, as Chelsea’s Premier League title defense starts tomorrow. Last summer’s World Cup delayed the start of the previous season and next summer’s European Championships have pushed up the start of this one, so the summer was short.
Now, if there’s been one driving narrative during our brief time off, it’s this: The Premier League has cemented itself as the most dominant league in the world. Even the league’s bottom-most of bottom dwellers can compete with some of the best clubs from the rest of the world. As Unai Emery, manager of two-time defending Europa League champs Sevilla, put it,“We can’t compete economically with Hull City. We pay less, but we compete more.” As in, Hull City. HULL CITY! With yet another huge TV contract on the horizon, that’s not changing anytime soon, either. But despite the EPL’s evident status as the richest and the most powerful, it’s still not quite clear that England’s league is the best or even the most entertaining one around.
So, why the disconnect? And in addition to all of the money, will the Premier eventually have our hearts and minds, too? Those are good questions, but in order to answer them, we have to ask four more.
How Many Title Contenders Are There?
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Last season, the title chase basically maxed out at 1.5 teams. Chelsea led wire-to-wire, and while Manchester City made a brief charge while the Blues stuttered around New Year’s, the two sides drew a month later, and the title race was all but finished before winter had melted away. Don’t let last season paint the whole, boring picture, though: Chelsea were the third different Premier League champion in three seasons. Unlike in Germany or Italy where Bayern Munich and Juventus rule unopposed, there’s parity in England; it’s just a question of whether or not it shows up across the sample of a 38-game season.
This season, there’s reason to think it will. For starters, the chase pack have all improved while the defending champs have stayed the same. Chelsea tweaked their depth — swapping the long-past-his-prime Didier Drogba for the possibly cooked Radamel Falcao in the backup striker slot, along with getting rid of their backup keeper and left back — but they’ve done about as little as a wealthy, elite team will ever do over the course of a summer. Meanwhile, Manchester City haven’t made wholesale changes, but they have brought in Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling, who provides the athletic, creative spark that this team, which relies on intricate passing and moving, was missing at times last year. Manchester United have gone out and hoovered up Dutch star Memphis Depay in attack, top-quality veterans in Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger for the midfield, and Italian international Matteo Darmian at right back. Oh, and that backup goalie who left Chelsea? His name’s Petr Cech, and he went to Arsenal, giving the Gunners their first top-level keeper since … well, since before this website existed.
In addition to the improvement all around them, much of Chelsea’s run last year seems like it’ll be unrepeatable. They spent most of the season healthy, while Manchester City spent a month with James Milner, who is now a center midfielder for Liverpool, playing as a target man. By the end of the year, Jose Mourinho’s side won the league by eight points, but that far outstripped their underlying numbers — be it goal difference (they were second), Total Shots Ratio (fourth), or Expected Goals (third).1 Now, this was still a Mourinho team, so naturally they finished with the best Expected Goals conceded tally in the league. And Chelsea did coast out the final two months of the season, playing a four corners offense (and the occasional game of kickball), so those stats aren’t definitive, but we can safely say that the Blues weren’t quite as good as their final points tally would suggest.
Manchester City was first in all three of those categories.
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In a perfect, chaos-filled world, a slight drop-off from Chelsea, combined with minor improvements from Manchester City, major upgrades from Manchester United, and Arsenal finally figuring out how to win games in the first and second half of the season, would turn the 2015-16 season into a riveting four-way battle for first. Realistically, not all of those things will happen, but at least a few of them should, which would make the title race more compelling than last season’s. And almost by default, it’d be the most compelling one in Europe.2
Is the Middle Class Growing?
Is this me throwing shade at Rafa Benitez’s Real Madrid? Yes, that’s exactly what it is.
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Much of this season’s drama hinges on a contested title race because, for the first time in a while, it doesn’t look like there will be much of a challenge to the Champions League places of the top four. Last season’s fourth-place team, Manchester United, looks dramatically better, but their competitors have to answer plenty of questions: How will Tottenham improve after barely upgrading the roster of a team that overachieved to a fifth-place finish? How will sixth-place Liverpool fit in all the new faces brought in to replace Sterling? And how will seventh-place Southampton survive the loss of its best player, Schneiderlin?
In fact, the Tottenham-Liverpool-Southampton trio better start watching its back. With all the money pouring into the Premier League, we get distracted by the spending habits of the big clubs, but the cash has an ever larger impact further down the table. West Ham have plunked down more than £20 million to bring in European vets Dimitri Payet, Angelo Ogbonna, and Pedro Obiang. Crystal Palace rescued Yohan Cabaye from the PSG bench and rented potential star Patrick Bamford from Chelsea for a year. And Stoke continued their literal rendition of the “Can he do it on a rainy night in Stoke?” joke. Five years ago, not many players of this caliber and history would’ve braved the weather — and lack of authentic regional cuisine — to play in England’s less glamorous corners.
At this point, almost every single Premier League club can afford to spend to some degree or another. Before TV money ballooned, the bottom dwellers used to keep the purse strings tight for fear of blowing themselves up. But now even Leicester City is out here, dropping £20 mil on guys like Shinji Okazaki, N’Golo Kanté, and Yohan Benalouane, who were all contributors for competitive European sides. With every team capable of improving itself, if you’re outside the top four, the fall can be sudden: Two years ago, Everton flirted with the Champions League and finished in fifth. A couple of quiet transfer seasons later, and there’s no reason to believe they’re any better than West Ham, Stoke, or Crystal Palace.
Just look at it this way: The difference between having no money and £5 million to spend is literally an incalculably high percentage. The difference between £2 million and £7 million is 250 percent. And the difference between 45 and 50, well, that’s only 11 percent. As budgets continue to increase, it brings the middle of the table closer together, and only the true financial behemoths have enough money to maintain their advantages.
So Why Doesn’t the Premier League Do Better in Europe?
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For all the complex, analytical methods we could use to compare different leagues across Europe, this says it all about the Premier League: Not one team from England advanced to the quarterfinals of either the Champions League or the Europa League last season. If we wanna get more technical about the analysis: That’s not great! It’s hard to believe that the Premier League is some destructive, fire-breathing monster of a league if its teams can’t manage to scrape by Dynamo Kiev or Besiktas.
Now, it’s extremely tempting to attribute these failings to English soccer culture. Slap down a shrug emoji and just chalk it up to how those backward-thinking Brits misunderstand a game that’s more about subtlety and intelligence and less about “wanting it the most.” The problem with this is that none of England’s Champions League representatives are owned or managed by Englishmen — and the same goes for Liverpool, who played in the competition last year. Brendan Rodgers is close — he’s Northern Irish, and he’s been in and around the Premier League for a long time — but even he got his big break by working under Mourinho at Chelsea during the Special One’s first stint in England. So, unless whatever’s holding these teams back is in the water supply, we’re gonna have to do a little better than “LOL England.”
At the same time, it’s possible that last season was just a blip, and we’ll start to see English teams in the latter stages of both European competitions. This could be especially true in the Europa League, as the not-quite-top-tier Premier League teams learn how to spend all those newfound riches.3 Remember, overseas scouting and recruitment is hard, especially if you’ve never had the resources to do it before. Just ask Hull City: They were in the Europa League last year, they broke the club’s transfer record for forward Abel Hernandez from Palermo, he scored four goals in 25 appearances, and then they got relegated.
Of course, this would require English teams to take the Europa League seriously, which hasn’t always happened, even though the winner now gets a Champions League bid.
As for the Premier League’s Champions League performance last year, it’s certainly a concern because, after Italy’s strong performance, England is in danger of losing its fourth qualifying spot. But the ratings used by UEFA to determine that are not a be-all-end-all judge of quality. The best teams on the continent still have the same amount of financial power as the top four in England. Plus, at that point we’re talking about such a small group of teams — basically: Bayern Munich, PSG, Barcelona, Real Madrid, and England’s top four — that it becomes a question of what each individual club is doing rather than what their performance says about the league at large.
In short: The Premier League is getting better, just not all the way at the top.
With All That Money, Shouldn’t These Teams Spend It on Stuff Other Than Players, Too?
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We tend to focus every money-related discussion on transfer fees, so it’s easy to forget that you can, um, buy things other than players. Nowhere is that more obvious than on the Premier League’s sidelines. Once exclusively the domain of the league’s elite, plenty of expensive, foreign coaches have come in to manage midlevel and bottom-tier teams.
Heading into tomorrow, more than half the league is managed by coaches from abroad.4 Over the summer, West Ham went from Big Sam Allardyce to Croatia’s Slaven Bilic, and Leicester City dipped into the coffers to bring in Claudio Ranieri, who was last seen in Greece but has a résumé full of clubs with names like Chelsea, Inter Milan, and Juventus. Those two new arrivals join a list already filled with high-profile names like Sunderland’s Dick Advocaat, who used to manage the Dutch national team, and Southampton’s Ronald Koeman, who’s managed all of the top Dutch clubs.
Roberto Martinez technically makes this list for Everton, but he’s basically been coaching or playing in England or Wales since he was 22.
There are still some promising, young British managers, but the likes of Tim Sherwood, Garry Monk, and Bournemouth wunderkind Eddie Howe have a much more crowded and qualified field to contend with than they would have, say, 10 years ago. It’s fitting that a little over a decade ago, Jose Mourinho descended on England’s shores and dubbed himself “a Special One,” and now it’s England’s own Eddie Howe who has earned himself the same designation.
The shift in the managerial profile of Premier League teams is just another example of how the league continues to change at such an accelerated rate. More money brings more options, more affordable players, more managers willing to take the reins of a wider variety of clubs. Of course, having more options doesn’t guarantee a club will pick the right one. Just because you can hire Ranieri really doesn’t necessarily mean you should. But whether it’s managers, or players, or whatever else you can spend money on, English teams suddenly have the freedom to be the architects of their own success or failure. That’s something that the rest of Europe simply just can’t claim.
Champions League: For the first time since the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, we’re gonna get a repeat top four, but it’ll be in a different order. Manchester City wins the league, followed closely by Chelsea, Manchester United, and Arsenal all within a handful of points.
Europa League: Liverpool bounce back nicely, but still only end up in fifth. Tottenham, with their midfield hopes and prayers pinned to a 19-year-old, Dele Alli, who was playing in England’s third level just a year ago, drop down a spot to sixth. As for seventh? I have consumed more of Alan Pardew’s Kool-Aid than one man ever should. Crystal Palace go from 10th up to seventh.
Relegation: Watford, Leicester City, and … Aston Villa. Sure, why not?