clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

When Will the Premier League Have Another Great Team?

Since 2010, England has mainly produced European also-rans. Can Pep Guardiola and Manchester City finally rise into the Champions League elite?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Forget Neymar. Never mind PSG. And don’t worry about Barcelona. While money moves across the continent, the financial center of European soccer remains in the country that wants to leave the EU.

Of the 10 richest teams in the world, five play in England: both Manchester clubs, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool. Of the 25 most expensive transfers this summer, 16 were purchases made by English clubs. Last year, Manchester United had the highest wage bill in the world, Manchester City trailed only United and Barcelona, and Chelsea landed fifth, behind Real Madrid. Heading into last season, the Premier League’s collective wages more than doubled the combined salaries paid out in Germany and Italy, per Deloitte’s annual review of soccer finances.

In 2015, the Premier League signed a £5.14 billion TV-rights deal with broadcasters Sky and BT. The three-year agreement began with the 2016-17 season and marked a £2 billion increase over the previous contract. Add in somewhere around £3 billion more from overseas rights, and the Premier League has leaped ahead of its competitors: The Bundesliga just signed a rights deal for £4.2 billion, while La Liga is in the middle of a deal worth around “just” £2.4 billion.

There are other ways for a club to make money—jersey sales, sponsorships, miscellaneous commercial deals, stadium usage, and of course, game-day tickets—but the Premier League’s broadcasting revenue alone was higher than the total revenue accrued by every league on the planet other than the Bundesliga. In 2015-16, the Premier League brought in €4.9 billion in overall revenue, while no other league made more than €2.7 billion.

Money attracts the best players and the best managers. Do some simple alchemy, and the end result should be this: Money makes the best teams. Except, in England, it hasn’t. Of the 28 Champions League semifinalists this decade, only four have been from the Premier League. Chelsea won in 2012 and Manchester United made the year prior, but that’s where the successes end. Tottenham has made the Round of 16 once this decade, Liverpool hasn’t gotten out of the group stage since 2009, City made the semis in 2015 but otherwise haven’t won a knockout tie, and Arsenal — well, information regarding the symptoms of Stockholm syndrome is widely available for fans.

The Premier League’s growing purchasing power has coincided with its waning influence at the highest levels of European soccer. United, City, and Chelsea can pay superstars just as much as they get anywhere else, and Liverpool and Arsenal aren’t far behind, but the money hasn’t been enough. With great power has not come a great Premier League team.

That could all change this season—thanks to the team that finished last season 15 points back of first.

At the beginning of the century, everyone was great.

There was Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United: six Premier League titles, a Champions League trophy, one runner-up medal, and two more semifinal appearances before 2010. Cristiano Ronaldo went supernova, Wayne Rooney solidified his claim as one of the greatest Premier League players of all time, and Carlos Tevez played a leading man who was disguised as a character actor.

The fuzzy Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003, and his club went on to win three Premier League titles in the 2000s. They didn’t win the Champions League until later, but they made the semis five times and finished runners-up once. Overseen by José Mourinho and led by Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, and Frank Lampard, the team functioned like an army designed by a brutalist architect—dense, overpowering, and organized unlike any side we’ve seen since.

Getty Images

Arsenal’s Invincibles didn’t lose a Premier League game in 2003-04, giving Arsène Wenger his second title of the decade, as the Frenchman’s now-widespread progressive philosophies overwhelmed the league. The Gunners also made two European finals, and were regulars in the Champions League quarters.

Meanwhile, Liverpool’s worst team of the decade … won the Champions League in 2005. They made another final in 2007, along with one other semifinal appearance in 2008 and two more runs to the quarters in 2001 and 2009. With Steven Gerrard providing the forward momentum, Xabi Alonso controlling the ball, and Javier Mascherano winning it back, Rafa Benítez created the platonic ideal of the modern midfield three.

All four teams had their moment in the sun, and in six straight seasons from 2004 to 2009, that quartet qualified for the Champions League.

Last season confirmed that the Premier League hierarchy now goes six deep. Manchester United tanked the last month of the season in favor of focusing on the Europa League. Mourinho called it “a simple decision, based on common sense." It worked, and they still finished eight points ahead of seventh-place Everton.

While there are plenty of factors behind why the Premier League’s European footprint has started to disappear—managerial impatience and/or incompetence, misguided personnel management, bad luck, crappy ownership—the biggest cause seems to be the increased parity at the top of the table.

In September 2008, the Abu Dhabi United Group, led by Sheikh Mansour of the Abu Dhabi royal family, bought Manchester City for £210 million. The club finished 10th that season — but led by Tevez, who came over from Manchester United, and Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Touré—both defectors from Arsenal—City shot all the way up to fifth the next year. In the seven seasons since, City hasn’t finished outside of the top four, and they’ve won the Premier League title twice.

City’s giant step has coincided pretty clearly with the drop-off in the Premier League’s performance in Europe. Right before Mansour’s arrival, the Premier League’s TV deal jumped by £700 million up to £1.7 billion for 2007 to 2010. It rose incrementally for the next three years before exploding to £3 billion for 2013-16 and then ballooning again to where it is now. Unlike the other top leagues in Europe, where distribution of broadcasting revenue is tilted toward the traditional powers, the Premier League’s TV wealth is spread out more equally. As Deloitte puts it: “The league’s revenue distribution mechanism — the most equal of the ‘big five’ European leagues — and the effective ‘minimum guarantee’ that all clubs receive as a consequence enables strength in depth and intense competitiveness … ”

The influx of outside money in Manchester, coupled with the repeated injections of billions in broadcasting revenue, seems to have raised the floor of the league, which in turn has lowered the ceiling. John Burn-Murdoch of The Financial Times looked into the issue a few months ago and found a correlation between success in the Champions League and wages compared with the best domestic team not in the Champions League. In other words, raw wages don’t predict European success; financial dominance over your domestic competitors does.

Why is that? It’s because financial dominance typically means a much easier domestic schedule. In the Premier League now, each of the top six teams has 10 games against the rest of the top six, in addition to games against mid- and lower-tier teams that are better than their counterparts throughout Europe. Meanwhile, Real Madrid and Barcelona only play each other twice. Bayern Munich has four games against RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund. Juventus hasn’t had much domestic competition until this past year. And outside of last season’s outlying performance by Monaco, who finished their chances at a historically high rate, PSG could probably play a reserve team every week and still win Ligue 1.

It’s easier to perform in European competitions during the week when weekend domestic games never get particularly close. Meanwhile, Premier League clubs often have to recover from a Saturday slugfest in time to travel to, say, Portugal for a Champions League match, and then play another game three days later. It all creates a cycle: PSG, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, and Bayern Munich consistently win domestic trophies and compete for the Champions League title, so the best players want to play for those clubs. Among the Guardian’s annual list of the top players in the world, only two Premier League players made the top 10: Leicester’s Riyad Mahrez and Arsenal’s Alexis Sánchez, neither of whom seems likely to be playing in England for much longer.

Without as many true game-changers across the league, the past two Premier League winners have been teams that finished 14th and 10th in the seasons prior to their championships. Coming into last year, it seemed like there were six teams with legitimate chances of winning the title. From a points-accrued standpoint, Chelsea and Tottenham were the class of the Premier League in 2016-17—but Tottenham lost one of its starting fullbacks this summer and has yet to bring in any new players, and Chelsea’s summer recruitment doesn’t seem like it’s improved the squad enough to cope with the increased demands of the Champions League. The league, then, should be just as wide-open once again.

Yet, here we are:

While City finished way back of Chelsea—and even Tottenham—the numbers tell a slightly different story. Expected goals—the number of goals you’re expected to score and concede based on the historical data behind the locations of the shots you take and concede—suggest that City were the best team in the league last year by about a 14-goal margin. This decade, no team has conceded fewer shots across an entire season than City did. And their ratio of shots taken to shots conceded was higher than all but one team: the 2009-10 Chelsea side that only won the title by one point, but posted a goal differential of plus-71. (For reference, Real Madrid’s goal difference last year was only plus-65.)

The discrepancy in the numbers and the overall performance likely comes down to some bad luck: Unless Pep’s players all somehow forget how to strike a ball when they’re playing against higher-quality opposition, there’s no other explanation for why City finished their best chances against the top six teams at such a low rate. But the numbers likely don’t account for everything, either: keeper Claudio Bravo was a swinging gate last season, while the team’s fullbacks—i.e., 20 percent of the team’s outfield players—were league-average at best.

The Abu Dhabi United Group fixed that this summer. City bought Ederson, a 23-year-old Brazilian keeper, from Benfica for £36 million, and while young keepers are tough to project, he should be an upgrade for no reason other than that the back of his jersey doesn’t say “Bravo.” And then they dropped £118 million on three fullbacks: Kyle Walker was already one of the best in the Premier League, Benjamin Mendy might already be one of the best in the world, and Danilo’s versatility (he can play on either side of the field) makes him an ideal backup to both.

City still have weaknesses. The roster has only three recognized center midfielders: Ilkay Gundogan, who’s never healthy; Fernandinho, who missed eight games to red/yellow-card suspension last season; and Yaya Touré, who’s 34, doesn’t defend, and can’t play more than one game per week. Plus, their three main center backs—John Stones, Nicolás Otamendi, and Vincent Kompany—are all still questionable at best, and City’s thin midfield likely won’t provide the defense with much help.

Except those problems were all present last year, and City still played well enough to win the title. They’ve thrown money at the two biggest weaknesses from last year, and their attacking depth rivals any team in the world: Kevin De Bruyne had six goals and 18 assists last season; David Silva has lost his hair, but he has retained the vision that makes him one of the top final-third locksmiths on the continent; Leroy Sané’s smooth movement makes it look like he’s playing on a pool table whenever the ball is at his feet; Raheem Sterling is closer to superstardom than anyone’s willing to admit; new signing Bernardo Silva can create chances from anywhere on the field; and Gabriel Jesus averaged 1.6 goals-plus-assists per 90 minutes as a 19-year-old last season. Oh, and Sergio Aguero has the best goal-scoring rate of any player in the history of the Premier League.

Then there’s Pep. He’s built up two of the most dominant teams of the century. He won two Champions League titles with Barcelona, and his Bayern Munich teams won three Bundesliga titles by a combined 39 points and made the Champions League semis three years in a row.

If there’s been one criticism of Guardiola’s success, it’s that he’s been able to win only with an outsize amount of resources and talent. That’s not quite fair. Maximizing top-level talent requires way more than just lining up the 11 best players in a 4-4-2 and telling the guys to play. Guardiola has successfully demanded more positional awareness and attacking impetus from all of his players—including the goalkeeper!—than maybe any manager in the modern era. However, the situation at City isn’t much different from a resources standpoint. The club has enough cash to buy almost anyone it wants, build out an impressive and already successful youth academy, and create satellite teams in the States and Australia. Plus, they have a modern internal structure headed up by a director of football, in addition to a massive global scouting network.

Manchester City has everything they need to become a European power, and the manager who knows how to get them there. In a couple of years, we could be looking back on this season as City’s first step in asserting its dominance over England and beginning its eventual rise toward the Champions League elite.

Then again, the money’s been in England for a while—and it hasn’t really mattered yet.