In recent years, the Premier League's rather bashful self-proclaimed title of 'best league in the world' seems to have transformed somewhat quietly into 'most competitive league in the world'. The change is a subtle one, but was inevitable as there are few who can now make a convincing case to suggest that the world's strongest club sides currently come from England. Of course English sides are still up there amongst the best in Europe and will be for the foreseeable future, but there is a definite sense that that the Premier League's grasp on the much-coveted Champions League has visibly slipped away in recent years.
Why is this? It seems rather strange that such an occurrence would befall English sides when you consider the extent of the riches that are are pumped into Premier League coffers. Of course, money does not necessarily guarantee success - look at QPR, whose wage bill is reportedly higher than that of last year's Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund. There is no doubt, however, that in most cases a large budget will help you along the way. The instance of QPR and Dortmund is an extreme and rare example, but what it clearly displays is that even if you have virtually unlimited funding, you still need to spend wisely to reap the rewards. It is this that is the crux of the problem for the Premier League.
Examples of smaller sides spending their money intelligently and reaping the rewards are clear in almost every league in every country. Take Swansea, Southampton and Norwich (until a recent splurge) as examples of those who continue to achieve beyond their financial means. Borussia Dortmund do so spectacularly in Germany, while sides like Athletic Bilbao, Valencia, Real Soceidad and Atletico Madrid have also had extended periods of success beyond their realistic fiscal capacity. Everybody loves watching a financial minnow genuinely contend with the giants, although it is unfortunately inevitable that when such a team is successful they do not have the financial might to keep hold of their stars. In many cases, when this sort of player is purchased by a new club, they struggle to hit their previous highs because they have been taken out of a system that they were moulded to.
It is a fact in football that you cannot simply buy a group of players and expect them to win competitions. You need to build a team and this takes time. A football club with relatively little funding can achieve similar or even greater feats than a far richer club by being founded on a solid basis and having a clear and effective philosophy. This takes time, but the end results can be devastating. Look no further than Barcelona who combined excellent long term planning and vast riches to create what was arguably the best football side in the history of the game for at least three years. Of course, nothing lasts forever. Players get old and some will still believe that the grass is greener on the other side no matter how successful and rich they are, but if football is about winning and glory, then surely the time spent building and planning are worth two or three years of excellence on the pitch.
The billions of pounds that the Premier League churns out means that teams can buy expensive players, but unfortunately, they cannot buy time. In fact, all the money simply creates pressure for instant success and damages the chances of building a successful long-term side. After some absolute transfer howlers from Chelsea and Manchester City when they first tasted their ridiculous new wealth, there are signs that both clubs are starting to get their heads together and focus on youth and the long-term. Things are still far from perfect, however, and the fact that Chelsea's two best strikers since Didier Drogba, Daniel Sturridge and Romelu Lukaku, were sold or loaned out to accommodate a very expensive and ageing Samuel Eto'o is testament to this.
Chelsea and City are not the only offenders. In fact, the only two current top sides in the league with any semblance of long term planning are Arsenal and Liverpool. Things finally seem to becoming together for Arsene Wenger once again and with a relatively cheap side based on a core of good players who have worked with each other for a long time. Wojciech Szczesny, Laurent Koscielny, Bacary Sagna, Kieran Gibbs, Mathieu Flamini, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Tomas Rosicky, Theo Walcott and others have been working together for years and cost relatively little considering the success they have helped to bring the club. Liverpool, meanwhile, stuck with boss Brendan Rodgers despite calls to sack him last year. The regular core of their squad has helped them to a league position that would have been unprecedented at the beginning of the season.
The précis of the argument is that you cannot mould a successful football team out of money, you need intelligence and time. Money will help you greatly if you have these two assets, but as a single factor, financial muscle is never enough. If that is the case, then it would seem that top Premier League sides are finally finding that the best way to build a side is to nurture it, stick with a successful philosophy and teach players to play with each other rather than for themselves. Spending £150m every season on players can bring you an element of success, but not as much as clever planning and long-term thinking.
Leading English clubs still have a long way to go if they are to build the sort of devastating projects that Spain and Germany have recently produced, but it would seem that they are finally starting to go about it in the right manner. Unfortunately, however, in today's climate it will surely take a long time for the Premier League to realise that money does not a successful football club make.
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