Until recently, there was a saying: “best league in the world” – a sardonic adage that’d be parroted around football Twitter every time United and Arsenal conjured up an embarrassing hockey score between them, or when an English side were outclassed in the second round of the Champions League. The implication was simple: “Let’s not get above our stations here – we are, and always will be inferior.”
But what a difference a few years and a couple of hundred million quid makes. This season, only the most unfaltering La Liga loyalist could possibly claim superiority over the Premier League, only the most delusional Bundesliga stat-stan could claim its current state is anywhere close to where it was in 2012, and to be honest pretty much nobody in Italy thinks their league is any good anyway.
The dust of this year’s season has settled, and through the clouds stand some totemic achievements; the domestic dominance of a lethal Manchester City side, a Liverpool team that ran them as close as you can without going to goal difference and reached the Champions League final, a much less consistent Tottenham side that still managed to body Dortmund, City and the much more-fancied Ajax — as well as the forthcoming showdown on the banks of the Caspian between Arsenal and Chelsea.
To some, it feels as if this season’s European finals have been ruined by the Brits, as if all the majesty and history of the competitions is about to be sullied by two warring couples from London and Liverpool and their pissed-up on a package holiday from hell — leaving the locals to clear up the mess.
But of course it’s not an entirely new phenomenon, a fair few British teams have won European trophies before. Aside from the obvious ones like Celtic in the ‘60s, Liverpool in the ‘80s, United in the ‘90s, there was a Chelsea team featuring Ed De Goey and Michael Duberry that even beat Real Madrid in the Super Cup Final of 1998. It would be unfair to dismiss those victories. They weren’t exactly flukes, but they didn’t exactly feel indicative of a wider power grab – more like one-offs, examples of heart and grit winning out. But this time round it feels very different — something like the birth of a new, soft football empire built by TV money and ambitious managers.
Spend a Saturday afternoon watching games from across the world and you’ll see why the TV money and audiences are so great for the Premier League: it’s inherently more watchable than the rest. It all goes down with a pace and ferocity that bears more resemblance to a Royal Rumble than a cultured kickabout — a style that attracts fanatics, fairweathers, bandwagon jumpers and 14-year-old Americans in Monster Energy hats alike. There is no “respect on the ball” – there is little respect at all in fact. The closest you’ll get to the concept of the Italian Catenaccio system is Burnley’s visceral, entertaining prison-yard interpretation of it. Even the colours are more exciting, as some have pointed out. If La Liga is a perfectly-weighted family saga, and Serie A is a camp melodrama, the Premier League is a Paul Verhoeven killer-thriller; violent, lurid, expensive.
It’s true that the league title has been dominated by very few over the last ten years, but it’s still basically Takeshi’s Castle compared to the dictatorial reigns of Barca, Juve and Bayern. Man City might win most years, but Liverpool pushing them to within a point is as important to the football as having a second name on a ballot box is to democracy. Chelsea winning just two years ago is almost forgotten these days, but it does make a huge impact on the mentality of the league, as do Arsenal’s recent FA cup wins. Whilst the miracle of Leicester gifts a glimmer of hope to the outcasts a Monster Raving Loony Party protest vote in what should be a safe seat.
But what’s really at the heart of this new wave of success isn’t necessarily the tactical improvements, the superstar gaffers, even your Van Dijk’s and Hazard’s – it’s the competitivity and the physicality. The way Liverpool stepped up against Barcelona, the way Tottenham bullied Ajax into total mental collapse, even the way United did against PSG earlier in the season is rooted in the speed, strength and perpetual state of threat that the league presents. When every game feels like a testimonial for Messi or Ronaldo, a conduit for another perfect hat-trick to be shared around the world, your big teams will probably find it hard to create those reserves of power and strength you need for the biggest games. Madrid had them until very recently, and it’s notable that their comeback seems to depend on an enormous Premier League player-haul.
The intensity of the Premier League now demands a kind of fitness that is very difficult to contain for opponents that don’t have to that kind of thing week in week out. Because it’s so tough, so fast, because if a team can’t pass they can definitely kick you, everyone’s had to up their game. You saw that perhaps most notably in Tottenham vs Ajax – when Sissoko and Moura made the acclaimed young Dutch boys look like a public school choir coming up against the local comp in a game of British Bulldog. We’re starting to make some of the best teams in Europe look like Arsenal – and it’s not a moment to be dismissed as a fluke, or a transitional season for the big boys. It may just well be the future.
There is an innate fierceness to the Prem — a reality of dropped points, of broken noses, of 30,000 Burnley bastards griefing you all game, of Lewis Dunk or James Tomkins or Salomon Rondon having the game of their life against your lot. It’s why some of our best imports have essentially been anglophiles; Kompany, Drogba, Suarez might have brought our game forward, yet something about them has always felt like they could have turned out for Don Revie.
There was that old cliche that became a meme – “Lionel Messi, he couldn’t do it on a Wet Wednesday night at Stoke”. Of course, Messi probably could do that (especially now Stoke are a mid-table Championship side), but maybe we ignored the side-points of that statement too readily, dismissed it as reactionary Dad bullshit too easily. Because it’s starting to look like those countless Wet Wednesdays at Stoke are part of what’s making us so indomitable on an international stage.