Is the Premier League Still the Most Competitive League in the World?
The Premier League; the jewel in the crown of the country that gave the world football and a sacred institution. The type of cherished possession that is afforded a level of protection only enjoyed by the egg of the most fierce hen in the coop. To subject it to any level of scrutiny, particularly when drawing comparisons to its foreign counterparts, is akin to insulting the first-born of the average English football fan. Usher the words 'The most competitive league in the world' and expect to be faced with a nod of acknowledgement for what has become a makeshift name for the league, rather than any dispute. This is a statement rather than a question - a proclamation born in a Sky Sports studio and left to reverberate around stadiums and pubs throughout the land. Question it and expect to be looked at like you've thrown your weight behind the flat-earth theory.
Yet, as we return from the distraction of the October international break, we are greeted with a familiar sight. Manchester City, last year's title winners by 19 points, sit at the top of the table once again. Widely considered to have not even hit top gear yet, City have swept aside all but Liverpool and Wolves, who each wrestled a point from the champions. In doing so, they have also achieved this with one of the world's best midfielders sitting on the sidelines, (Kevin De Bruyne, for anyone who's been living on Mars). Games involving City are routinely analysed for how many goals they will win by, rather than whether they will win or not. Indeed, onlookers are left questioning just how many players City could get away with missing - with the previously tongue-in-cheek suggestion that a squad is so good they could field two teams in the league not seeming so tongue-in-cheek when applied to City. None of this can be considered a shock either - before a ball was kicked Man City opened up as 8/13 favourites to win the league, with the nearest contenders Liverpool as far out as 5/1. It would be considered a seismic shock if anyone but those dressed in Sky Blue were lifting the Premier League trophy aloft in May 2019. The contenders are ultimately still viewed as 'pretenders' - Liverpool have yet to prove an extended consistency that warrants a belief that they will end up on top of the pile, Chelsea's squad is seen as a little thin and perhaps too Eden Hazard-reliant, and the two North London clubs have both shown flashes of the good and the bad that will likely define their respective seasons.
So, at what point must we question the status quo? Two seasons have passed since Leicester City won the title and became the poster boys for a league that was defined by its competitive, 'anyone can beat anyone' persona. Since then we have had two league winning teams, Chelsea and Man City, who both won the title by an unchallenged, almost landslide margin. By the time we come out of the other end of the busy Christmas period, we could be witnessing a familiar tale in the second half of the season. Meanwhile, throughout Europe, leagues that were previously characterised as top heavy and almost inevitable in their end result are seeing upsets become a regular occurrence rather than an exception.
Traditionally seen by the naysayers as a two-team league, in which Barcelona and Real Madrid have routinely tussled for supremacy, while the rest of the league fights among themselves; La Liga has been littered with upsets this year. Real Madrid may have taken the headlines with their record EVER goalless streak and lowly position in the table, but the story does not end there. Alaves have been a constant feature of the top four positions from the beginning of the campaign, while Espanyol currently sit one place above them in 2nd and even Real Valladolid sit sandwiched between the two Madrid clubs in 6th. All three teams would typically be considered candidates for a relegation battle, with Alaves only having been promoted from the Segunda Division two years ago in fact. Beyond that even the leaders, Barcelona, have suffered unexpected setbacks against the likes of Leganes and Girona.
Had you proposed that the La Liga table would look like this by the end of October during any pre-season discussions, few would have responded in any other way than laughter. What had once been viewed as the very opposite to the Premier League - a league in which the two best teams bully the rest of the teams into submission, with little chance of reprieve - seems to be witnessing a slight transformation. Atletico Madrid had long ago gatecrashed the Real-Barca party when it comes to winning honours, but now all teams are approaching the big boys with a real belief that they can take a scalp. If we have prided the Premier League on its ability for the bottom half teams to breach the gulf in class and topple the top teams, then we should pay a little more attention to what is going on in La Liga right now.
The league seen as perhaps the ultimate stacked deck has proven anything but one-sided so far this season. Bayern Munich, so often the Mayfair of all monopolies, have currently scraped their way back up to 4th - unfamiliar territory for a team used to asserting their authority from the start. They have lost two games already, having only lost four in the whole of the last campaign. Borussia Dortmund, generally the team who have come closest to breaking Bayern's stranglehold on the Bundesliga only to be thwarted by Bayern's poaching transfer policy, sit top. But more than this challenge, other teams have also risen to the task - with Borussia Monchengladbach, Werder Bremen and RB Leipzig all showing signs that they can offer a sterner test at the top of the table than they have been able to sustain previously. Below this, unfancied teams like Hertha Berlin and Eintracht Frankfurt have also temporarily occupied the top spots, while in contrast, perennial challengers like Schalke find themselves languishing near the bottom of the table.
While it is still hard to back against seeing the familiar sight of Bayern lifting the title at the end of the season, it is clear that this year they face a more competitive, deeper league. Two unexpected early losses indicate teams are not quite as intimidated as they once were by the prospect of facing Bayern, but beyond this, the presence of regular contenders and Champions League campaigners like Schalke, Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen in the bottom half of the table points to a richer talent pool growing in Germany. From top to bottom teams have taken points off of each other, pointing towards a season that should carry on being fiercely competitive.
Serie A has settled into a familiar groove of Juventus at the top with Napoli hanging onto their coat-tails, but below this, consistent contenders Roma have had to drag themselves from the depths of the table, following three losses, up to 7th. Meanwhile AC Milan, who headed into the season with fatter wallets and renewed optimism, find themselves struggling in 12th position.
Even Scottish football fans have been able to enjoy a start to the season in which Celtic haven't got one hand on the trophy already, with Hearts proving a difficult team to keep up with and teams like Kilmarnock and Livingston providing unexpected congestion in the top spaces.
And in France...PSG have won all ten games and sit eight points clear, (okay some things never change).
So the next time we label our league the most competitive in the world, lets ensure we don't do it while ignoring the surrounding evidence. Other major leagues are experiencing a growth in depth and filtering down of talent that the Premier League has already benefited from - and results are becoming much more open as a result. No longer can we just blindly declare the teams at the bottom of La Liga poor teams, who couldn't compete with their counterparts in the Premier League, or the Bundesliga a one-team league. Truth be told, the tag of 'most competitive league in the world' was the last branch we clung on to when it became clear we couldn't just declare it 'the best in the world' anymore. From 2005 through to 2009 there was always an English representative in the Champions League final - we even had three of the semi-finalists one year. The best players saw the Premier League as the ultimate destination, rather than a stepping stone to Real Madrid or Barcelona and we could rightly claim ours as the world's greatest league. With an increasing European dominance by teams from Spain and Germany came a reluctant acceptance that we (perhaps, maybe, possibly) were no longer the best. But we WERE the most competitive - on that we could hang our hat. No one could match our twenty-team league man for man, blow for blow. Much like that previous dominance we held though, the gap is closing.
Ultimately, come the end of the season and the dust has settled, it is likely that the Premier League's title as the world's most competitive league should remain intact, albeit not without a blemish. The European leagues should straighten themselves out into a more familiar look (you still wouldn't back against Bayern, Real Madrid et al) and we very well could witness an extremely tight race for the Premier League title. Such is the structure and financial muscle behind the TV rights deal for the Premier League, that all teams are dealt a good hand and competition is encouraged - this remains the clearest contrast to the situations in Spain and Germany respectively, and in turn will prove the biggest obstacle for those countries in creating a league as open and diverse in talent as the Premier League. We're fortunate to have such a league and we're still entitled to embrace it as the most fiercely fought, competitive animal of its kind - we just shouldn't take this view from a position of ignorance.