London – Does José Mourinho have a point about power being divided in the Premier League, or is the manager of Manchester United simply trying to get his excuses in early?
United still have a job on their hands to crack the top four this season, let alone get back to winning titles, and should a third season in four arrive without achieving Champions League football questions are going to be asked about the effectiveness of his stewardship in the light of all the money spent. Perhaps in anticipation of that scenario, Mourinho has just observed that winning anything in England is particularly difficult because all the top clubs can afford to bring in big players.
“In England the clubs are so powerful economically that the market is open to everyone,” he told France Football. “No club in England can dominate. Power is divided and everything is harder: buying, winning, building.”
Historically that never used to be the case. In terms of league titles at least, power was shared between a remarkable number of teams through the 60s and early 70s, with 10 different sides finishing on top of the old First Division in a little over a dozen years. Perhaps that was a result of the balancing effect of the maximum wage years taking a while to disappear, though when Liverpool rose to dominance in the mid-70s it was not initially based on big spending or financial backing, just astute football judgment established over years of stability and continuity.
When Manchester United eventually managed to knock them off their perch their outlay was modest by today’s standards – thanks to Michael Knighton we know that the whole club was valued at only £20m as late as 1989 – though by the end of the Sir Alex Ferguson years United had transformed into the enormous money-making machine we know today.
For a while, United’s preeminence in England went largely unchecked – Ferguson was usually worried about only one major rival per season, be it Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool or even Blackburn – but that sort of 20-year ascendancy became more difficult through the money pumped into Chelsea and Manchester City. Which is precisely Mourinho’s argument.
There are too many rich clubs in England at the moment to make life easy for anyone, not to mention well-run clubs such as Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur using either TV money or transfer market savvy to acquire players of the caliber of Alexis Sánchez and Dele Alli. Just to reinforce the point the Premier League’s top scorer, Romelu Lukaku, can presently be found at the club in seventh place, outside the top six and, evidently to his chagrin, outside the Champions League positions.
The champions of last season, Leicester City, can, of course, be found three places above the relegation places, but that is another story. It is hard to know whether their experience disproves Mourinho’s theory or confirms it, though it can surely be agreed that few other leagues around Europe are as distinctively individual as our own.
“Everyone knows this is the hardest league in the world,” Tony Pulis said at the weekend after West Bromwich Albion beat Arsenal. But do they? Pulis has never worked anywhere else for a start, so how would he know? And getting the jump on disorganized defenders at a couple of corners – even Arsène Wenger said Arsenal were naive – hardly constitutes football at its most riveting.
Mourinho has worked in other countries, so his opinions carry more weight. While he is probably having a dig at Pep Guardiola or Carlo Ancelotti in dismissing the competitiveness of German football – “Do you know when Bayern start winning the title every year? The previous summer, when they buy Borussia Dortmund’s best player!” – even the staunchest defender of Bundesliga standards would struggle to disagree. The strength of squad and standard of football at the very top of the German and Spanish leagues is exceptional, which is why teams from those countries are beginning to dominate the European competitions, though the argument always advanced in the Premier League’s favor is that it offers more fight, entertainment and excitement all the way down.
Yet if the Premier League is the hardest to play in and hardest to win, what does that actually achieve, apart from handicapping English teams in Europe? Is it even a boast worth making when better football and better footballers are clearly being produced elsewhere? While the 1-1 draw between Manchester City and Liverpool before the European break was great fun to watch, a knockabout caper immediately received as classic Premier League entertainment, it was so full of defensive errors it was easy to see why one side has just joined the other on the sidelines of European football.
City were dumped out of the Champions League by Monaco, who fully exploited their defensive frailties over two legs and deserved to go through. Now Kylian Mbappé, Benjamin Mendy and Tiemoué Bakayoko, some of the exciting young talents in that Monaco team, are not only being drafted into the France squad, but also interesting clubs such as Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City.
Which is intriguing, because no one ever says the French league is the hardest in the world. Or the most competitive, or exciting. Monaco, however, just happen to be all of those things. It is a privilege to watch them at the moment – those Monégasques don’t know how lucky they are – and it will be a pity to see the team broken up just to fortify the clubs at the top of the Premier League.
For if all the leading teams in England strengthen – and as Mourinho says, they are all in a financial position to do so – where is the net gain? Who will then stand out? The competition next year may be absorbing, the struggle for top‑four places tighter than ever, but it will essentially be business as usual between the same big names.
The dimension the Premier League has been missing for most of the present century is that of invention and development from within. Since Alan Hansen dismissed what would turn out to be Ferguson’s greatest achievement at United with his infamous line about not winning anything with kids, nothing new in terms of ideas has happened in English football.
Nothing like Jürgen Klopp’s Dortmund rising to the heights with a high-energy pressing and passing game. Nothing like Monaco keeping PSG off the top of the French league table by bringing through a new generation of players.
We had Leicester, of course, and we were all mightily relieved to discover we could still be so surprised, but it would be good to grow something of our own that turns out to be a little more sustainable. Like Liverpool and United used to. The trouble with importing talent all the time, as Mourinho has admitted in a roundabout way, is that anyone can do it.
The Guardian Sports