A Weakened Premier League Is a Myth

Andrew Gillooley, Liverpool. December 20th 2013:

There has been an overriding trend towards pundits suggesting that the Premier League and the teams within it being of poorer quality over the past couple of seasons. Much of this has centered around the failure of English clubs to reach the quarter finals of last season’s Champions League, and by Manchester United walking to a title with what was considered to be one of their weakest teams of the Premier League era. This way of thinking appears to have continued well into the current season, despite numerous signs to the contrary.

While teams that have traditionally spent big and occupied the top four spots over recent years have certainly been reeled in this season, that does not necessarily mean that the league is suffering. Far from it. For the first time in many a season we have a league wherein any team can beat any opponent on any given day. We have seen Everton and West Brom win at Old Trafford for the first time in decades. Southampton celebrated a first win at Anfield since 2003, while Manchester City and Chelsea have suffered unexpected  away defeats at the likes of Sunderland and Stoke.

All this equates to a league where only eleven points separate first and eight place. While the top four may not be quite as strong as in recent years, the top eight certainly is. This is further enforced by Southampton and Swansea City completing the top half of the table. Each of these are teams that set out to play football, Pochettino and Laudrup both value a pressing game based on retention of possession which is also reaping rewards for teams placed higher up the table, notably Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City and Everton.

Fluid, Passing Football is Proving Key

EPL_Passing

The table above shows that of the top twenty teams for successfully completing passes, only the Italian Serie A rivals the Premiership with seven teams represented, though the traditional slower pace and cautious nature of Italian football could skew this slightly. Surprisingly both La Liga and the Bundesliga are underrepresented with just five teams between them.

Six out of the top twenty teams in Europe for successful pass completion come from the Premier League. Of these six teams, four are in an equal or better position in the league table than they were last season, with Manchester City and Swansea City only slightly worse off than last year. This shows a growing trend towards a passing game that values possession of the football being the most effective route to success in top level English football. Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, who have both struggled in the first half of this season both find themselves outside of the top twenty, while the current top four all feature strongly in the list.

The Importance of Chance Creation

Of course possession of the football will only take a club so far. Without an end product teams will invariably struggle. Below we see that Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Everton’s positions within the league are backed by the fact that they create a high number of shots per game (SpG). Each of these teams have been taking their chances, unlike Spurs who despite creating the most chances in the league showed a level of profligacy that ultimately cost manager, André Villas Boas his job. League leaders Arsenal on the other hand have been much less wasteful, scoring 33 goals to Tottenham’s 15 from just 13.8 shots per game.

EPL_Chances

What we are seeing is a league in transition where the traditional values of English football are evolving to closer resemble football on the continent and in South America. While some, particularly this week’s Match of the Day pundits are choosing to concentrate on defensive mistakes and a lack of organisation, what should be focused upon is the control teams are exerting over matches, the freedom of movement when attacking, and the fluidity of passing being displayed. Much of this by young British players such as Jack Wilshire, Aaron Ramsey, Ross Barkley and Jordan Henderson. Suddenly the arguments that the league doesn’t produce enough British players that are happy to accept possession in difficult areas looks redundant, and an examination of why they haven’t been implemented into the national sides better over recent years should made.

Are English Teams Struggling in Europe?

Looking back at the original argument that top English sides are struggling in Europe; this can be countered by the fact that each of the four Premier League sides have progressed through to the knockout rounds this season. Manchester United and Chelsea both topped their groups, and Arsenal and Manchester City were somewhat unfortunate to only miss out on top spot by the finest of margins. Italy meanwhile lost two teams during the group stage, while Spain and France lost one apiece. Only Germany join England with four teams in the last 16.

Furthermore Manchester City complimented their recent Premier League improvement with a win away at Bayern Munchen, and look to suggest that they will have a much stronger second half of the season than their first. Barcelona will not look forward to facing them in February. Manchester United have shown their best form in this year’s competition, perhaps showing that David Moyes’ more cautious approach is now more effective in Europe than it is in a Premier League that is developing something of a maverick nature. Arsenal came through a very tricky group whilst maintaining a title challenge at home, and 2012’s winners, Chelsea should not be written off too early with Jose Mourinho back at the helm.

An Over Reliance on Star Names

So where are the arguments that the Premier League is weak founded? I have talked about how the top half of the table is stronger and more competitive than in recent years, and shown that the teams competing in the Champions League are still capable of mounting a challenge. Is it perhaps down to an over reliance on star names? PSG, Monaco, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munchen have all stolen the headlines this season with big name players signed with huge transfer fees to accompany them. Despite all that, the star player in European football at present plies his trade in the Premier League.

Luis Suarez has been a revelation since his ill fated attempt to engineer a move away from Anfield. With seventeen goals scored in just eleven Premier League matches this season, Suarez is showing a level of form to rival Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. His promotion to captain in Steven Gerrard’s absence this week instigated an even higher standard of performance as the Uruguyan showed a level of professionalism and ability that any of the very top teams would be envious of. This is a player who came to the country as a very good footballer but who has been taken to a whole new level through positive coaching and an attacking system that helps bring out the best of him. Brendan Rodgers, the young Liverpool manager will take a lot of credit for this, much like Pellegrini with Aguero, and Martinez with Lukaku; managers that are finding adaptable ways to bring out the best in their talented front men.

Conclusion

There is a definite shake up in the Premiership at present; Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur have had to face the harshest lessons of this. Intelligent football with an attacking intent is proving to be the most successful approach. While some will focus on the negative connotations this brings to defending, the majority of us will instead enjoy what we see, embracing what is proving to be one of the most interesting Premier League seasons in years, and certainly not one that should be considered low on quality.

Thanks to Who Scored for providing statistics.

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