In Defence of a Premier League Unfairly Maligned as Being Boring

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistMay 12, 2017

Chelsea's march to the title under the magnificent Antonio Conte has been, in its own way, uniquely thrilling.
Chelsea's march to the title under the magnificent Antonio Conte has been, in its own way, uniquely thrilling.Associated Press

It's often said the only certainties in life are death, taxes and an end-of-season denouncement of the Premier League as being boring.

Censure has arrived a little early this year, with Phil Neville breaking rank to tell it how it is. Normally, the only thing the monotone Mancunian (I can say it—I am one) on punditry duty engenders in the viewer is reassurance there will be an opportune moment to put the kettle on between games on Match of the Day, or in this instance, its little brother, Match of the Day 2. He'll never escape the sibling thing. 

"I'm watching games lately that actually make me want to turn off as I'm bored watching them," he said (h/t Louis Sealey of Metro).

Off camera, the producer who had spent all afternoon and early evening trying to repackage Liverpool's goalless draw with Southampton into something vaguely palatable that wasn't a sleeping tablet made a gesture with his fingers a bit like the one used to denote "perfect"—if it were flipped on its side.

Even Martin Keown, a man who could find a cloud in a silver lining, looked a little taken aback alongside him.

It wasn't the sentiment expressed that shocked, rather who said it.

A dissenting voice from a man who almost certainly at one time or another has got down to the pool before daybreak and placed a Premier League-branded towel on the sun lounger he's had his eye on all holiday but keeps missing out on. He's rolled his eyes at the swarthy Spaniards strutting about in Barcelona shorts, bit his lip at the statuesque Germans playing head tennis in their Bayern Munich flip flops despite hotel protocol clearly stating footwear is not permitted poolside. As for the hipsters in AS Roma shirts, it's just not cricket.

Our Phil loves the Premier League like Theresa May loves anything that is strong and stable. Yet here he was, bold as brass, football's Judas Iscariot, decrying the good Lord's work.

Neville lamented that after watching Real Madrid play Atletico Madrid in a UEFA Champions League semi-final first leg at the Santiago Bernabeu, he could make a case for only one Premier League player being good enough for the Spanish giants.

"I looked at the Real Madrid team, and I thought, how many players from the Premier League can get in that side? I thought maybe one—David De Gea as goalkeeper, as I don't think Keylor Navas is top, top drawer. But apart from that, I don't see any other player."

The Premier League put its head in its hands, with Neville having exposed its insecurities like the ruthless women's magazines that circle celebrity cellulite in a big blue marker.

Neville is not alone in voicing a view English football has lacked a great side for too long for it to be dismissed as a blip. Of the 20 UEFA Champions League semi-final places available since Chelsea were the last English winners, in 2012, the Premier League has accounted for just two of them.

Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona's omnipresence in recent years has meant 10 last-four spots for Spain, with Germany next up with five. Italy, with two, and France's one bring up the rear.

By the end of the campaign, the Premier League will have provided just four winners in the 25 seasons since the competition rebranded. As the self-professed richest league in the world, it's a little like finding out the Sultan of Brunei has a holiday home in Bognor Regis.

There's a big difference, though, in calling out the Premier League for lacking quality than turning it off for being boring. The two can be mutually exclusive. A dirty burger can be delicious even if it is not made from Kobe beef.  

The halcyon period between 2004/05 and 2010/11, when English clubs provided eight finalists in as many seasons (three winners and five runner-ups), seems almost far enough away for it to be spoken of with the same moist-eyed reverence old-time ravers reserve for conversations about acid house. It's not as though we shouldn't have seen coming a corroding of influence in Europe.

It's worth noting here how the date changes but the landscape rarely shifts, with Tim Rich's article for the Telegraph—smack bang in the middle of this period, in 2008—posing the question: "Is it boring football in the Premier League?"

As an aside, then-Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp's prediction that "in years to come, you'll have 20 foreign billionaires owning 20 Premier League clubs" showed real prescience. As did Sir Alex Ferguson's assertion that "domination is not a word that will be used again." He might want to revise his view about Aston Villa becoming contenders.

No team has retained the Premier League since 2008/09, when Manchester United made it a hat-trick of titles in the last era of any significant one-club dominance. In that sense, English football is festooned with a cornucopia of surprises in comparison with its continental cousins.

In the Bundesliga, it's now five successive titles for Bayern Munich. It's almost the same story in France, with Paris Saint-Germain still in with a shout of making it five on the spin. In Italy, with three games left, Juventus are seven points ahead of second-placed Roma as they march to a record-breaking sixth Serie A title without interruption.

At a recent press conference, Roma coach Luciano Spalletti spoke for every coach in Italian football when he expressed weary resignation over Juventus' preeminence: "To call this a failure seems like a utopia. Juventus have made it clear that nobody can get near first place."

For all its faults, the Premier league will commence next season with each of the top six, pending what happens over the summer, likely to be quietly confident of mounting a serious title tilt. It's impossible to say that about any of Europe's other top leagues. Spain has the best run-in by far, as Real Madrid and Barcelona go head-to-head for the title, but with Diego Simone's Atletico Madrid seemingly at a crossroads, it's hard to see beyond the big two in the foreseeable future.

Unfavourable discourse about the Premier League invariably includes, in inverted commas, the go-to stock Sky Sports phrase that it is the "best and most competitive league in the world."

For all the talk of the Premier League having a league within the league (i.e., anyone outside of the top seven) that is perceived to be full of substandard dross, the part that it is the most competitive kind of rings true. So everyone focuses on the bit about it being the best instead.

Every substandard passage of play involving a big club invites a stampede of social media referencing as much, excitable fingers working overtime to be the first to post a GIF or meme of Wayne Rooney spraying a pass into a hot-dog kiosk.

As a side issue with regard to the league-within-a-league bit, it is startling to see how it's not just at the top where new money has given rise to a need for perpetual progress that feels more like entitlement. According to The Independent's Jack Pitt-Brooke, Claude Puel is on borrowed time at Southampton. When has a likely top-10 finish and a place in the EFL Cup final not been enough for Southampton? 

In the interest of full and frank disclosure, it is probably worth pointing out I worked for Sky Sports for around 12 years. Taking away holiday time and two days off per week, by my calculation, that's around 22,176 hours spent at a desk watching Sky Sports News on a loop.

There's an element of George Orwell's 1984 and "The Principles of Newspeak" about the way they repeatedly use the same language when speaking about the "best and most competitive league in the world." While it's a heavy-handed approach to reinforce a message that the "best and most competitive league in the world" is well worth the subscription fee, it would be a shame if a broadcaster's bias to its product creates a counterculture against it.

In fairness, it would be a bit much to expect them to strap-line the jewel in their crown as being "arguably the second-best league in the world behind La Liga."

It's not perfect, but it's far from boring, either.

ESPN FC's senior football writer, Mark Ogden, recently wrote a piece billed as "Predictable Premier League in need of United, Liverpool, Arsenal revivals."

The idea that English football needs its top table to again set a place for the original big three is intriguing.

Ogden wrote:

"The Premier League needs a genuine revival at United, Liverpool or Arsenal, the country's three biggest and most successful clubs, with the most illustrious histories, to restore the sparkle to the competition. They are the three teams that generate the greatest interest, from their own supporters and rivals; the three most recent champions—Chelsea, Manchester City and Leicester—simply do not engender the same degree of love, hate and envy."

From the 2001/02 season, when English football was awarded a fourth spot in the UEFA Champions League, to Tottenham Hotspur's breakthrough campaign in 2009/10 (followed by Manchester City's the following season), Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United took 29 of the 32 available places. Even when Liverpool missed out on fourth spot to Everton in 2004/05, they still qualified for Europe's most prestigious competition by virtue of having won it that season.

It doesn't seem long ago that most neutrals were exasperated at the closed shop that was Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. Now it seems English football wants them back. It's just not as much much fun hating mediocrity. In the words of the notoriously hard-to-please filmmaker Stanley Kubrick: "I do not always know what I want, but I do know what I don't want."

Ogden's bemoaning that for the "third successive campaign, the title race has been a procession" seems if not revisionism, certainly an ungenerous take on Leicester City pulling off what is widely regarded to be one of the greatest achievements in sporting history. Tiring of Leicester City's title march becoming a procession suggests were he site foreman on the Pyramids, he'd have grumbled at the architect for not using the plot to build a row of nice semi-detached properties.

Even Leicester's disastrous title defence this season has been fascinating. However unedifying it was to watch a man who will almost certainly have a statue of him erected at some point be sacked the season after authoring English football's most remarkable story, it was all thrillingly Shakespearean in hinting at betrayal, tyranny, guilt, conscience, pathos et al. Then he was replaced, and they started winning again every week.

Chelsea heading into Friday night's game against West Bromwich Albion needing a win to secure the title is, in its own way, a remarkable story. Leicester's title win saw Claudio Ranieri oversee a 41-point positive swing from the previous campaign. If Chelsea win their three remaining fixtures to finish the season on 93 points, it would present a 43-point shift—from 10th to first. In the process, they would become only the sixth side in Premier League history to reach 90 points, behind only Jose Mourinho's vintage Chelsea team of 2004/05 with 95.

This is remarkable, unprecedented stuff.

To argue this says more about the rest of the league than it does Chelsea does a great disservice to the immaculate transformative job Antonio Conte has done at Stamford Bridge. To suggest Chelsea's relentlessness has made for a boring season would be to suggest Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have made boring champions over the years because they make opponents work for each and every point as if it is the last they will ever play.

In north London, for all the ridiculous talk of Tottenham being in danger of becoming the Premier League's most overworked bridesmaid despite making clear strides each passing year under Mauricio Pochettino, there are scant Spurs fans not absolutely delighted with a campaign in which St Totteringham's Day has been cancelled for the first time in 22 seasons.

With three matches left to play, the 77 points they have accrued to date already makes this the club's best season in the Premier League. No team with Dele Alli and Harry Kane in tandem could ever be described as boring.

The common consensus seems to be this term represents the quintessential Arsenal season. In fact, it represents the exact opposite. A midseason meltdown may have ended their title hopes before they began, as per, but unlike each of the previous 21 years under Arsene Wenger, a late rally is almost certainly not going to be enough to earn them a top-four finish. What's boring about that? 

For all the rhetoric of a dip in standards, this season's top six cumulatively have 37 more points than last term's equivalents at the same juncture.

On Merseyside, Everton are 14 points better off this season with Ronald Koeman as manager than they were under Roberto Martinez last, while Liverpool can boast a 15-point swing. Jurgen Klopp knows he's still got an awful lot to do at Liverpool, and getting annoyed at opponents for sitting deep at Anfield probably isn't going to solve too many of his issues. But when they're good, they're excellent. 

Manchester is the lit firework that has never gone off, but disregarding all of the advice espoused in safety videos, it is one we will definitely go back to. In a season that was always likely to be more about the managers than players, few would dispute Pep Guardiola and Mourinho have drastically underperformed in failing to get their sides close to challenging for the title. 

Between them, Manchester City and Manchester United have failed to win 33 of 70 Premier League games. Practically every single week, one or the other—sometimes both—have dropped points. In all competitions, United have drawn 18 matches, with 12 of these stalemates inexplicably coming at Old Trafford. 

Mourinho will get away with likely finishing sixth, a place below where United finished last season despite an outlandish summer of recruitment, on the grounds of winning the EFL Cup and getting to the final of the Europa League, where they will play Ajax in Stockholm on May 24. Those Manchester United supporters of the opinion Neville may have a point could perhaps take solace in Albert Camus' pragmatic view that "the truth is that everyone is bored and devotes himself to cultivating habits."

There are worse habits to have than Manchester United and the Premier League.

Guardiola, by virtue of being Guardiola, will get away with making Manchester City a deluxe version of Ossie Ardiles' Tottenham side in the mid-90s that used to play five up front and Gheorghe Popescu at the back. While City's campaign will not have come even close to meeting the expectations of a coach who won 14 trophies in four seasons at Barcelona and seven in three terms at Bayern Munich, purists will argue the Premier League has dragged him down to its base level.

Others would propose either he's not so good or the Premier League's not so bad going off an underwhelming debut season in England. 

Both Guardiola and Mourinho will tell themselves that these first terms in Manchester were always going to difficult, with the former charged with changing City's philosophy and the latter United's mindset. The performances and results may not have always matched the quality and resources at their disposal, but it's certainly not been boring.

It's been anything but boring.