Four play: England’s Pre­mier League teams take over Europe

This golden era is no fluke. It may just well be the future.

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. 

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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.

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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.


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