The self-styled greatest league in the world returned last weekend with the usual hyperbolic hoopla; although for those of us forced to enjoy a far-from-traditional Friday evening start to the season, there was a more than slightly surreal feeling to the proceedings.
In all fairness to the relentless Premier League PR/ excitement machine, the football served up at the Emirates by Arsenal and 2015/16 Champions Leicester City was end-to-end, dramatic and action-packed for the duration; if somewhat bereft of defensive discipline or organisation. Increasingly the ever-growing commercial power of the Premier League means that the on-pitch action has to be more free-flowing, less structured and all about goalmouth action; how far removed it all seems from the George Graham, 1-0 to the Arsenal days of my youth and my formative football-watching years.
The second televised game of the weekend featured Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and an equally, if not more so, cavalier attitude to defending; in fairness Arsenal had at least been denied their three top choice central defenders through a combination of suspension, lack of fitness and injury; whereas Liverpool merely highlighted that serious efforts are going to be needed on the training ground and in the transfer market if the concession of soft goals isn’t going to undermine their challenge at the top once again.
Even the usually solid champions Chelsea conceded three goals, more surprisingly at home, although the red card for Gary Cahill just 13 minutes into the season may in part provide some mitigation.
Increasingly it feels as if the relentless quest for an evermore attractive television product is beginning to create a style of play where defence becomes an afterthought, where caution is thrown to the wind and if a goal is conceded there is a certain acceptance that the team going behind will have to go on all-out attack in attempt to rectify the situation.
These days when we describe defenders and their attributes we talk about full backs being able to get up and down the line and make an attacking contribution; and about centre backs who can play out from the back, not whether they read danger or position themselves properly so they are where they need to be. More and more it seems that proper defenders are sacrificed so that additional ball-playing midfield types can be shoehorned into the side. The Premier League is often cited as the most competitive league in Europe, the one where anyone can beat anyone on any given day; however might this be more to do with defensive deficiency across the board than true competition?
It is now five years since an English club appeared in the final of the Champions League, in stark contrast to the preceding eight seasons in which at least one of the finalists each year was from these shores. The perceived wisdom trotted out by the majority of TV pundits, who of course have an apparent contractual duty to remind us that the Premier League ‘is the best in the world’, explains this ongoing failure as being a result of the intensity of competition as well as of course the lack of a winter break.
However, it may just be that the increasing openness in the style of play, combined with the quite frankly obscene financial resources at the disposal of all the clubs in the Premier League, have transformed it into a self-serving cocoon cut off from the rest of the continent. In many ways the way that the Premier League is evolving is similar in nature to Major League Baseball, the NFL or the NBA; which are entities in their own right and which have been routinely mocked by European sports fans for their insular nature and proclamation of the winners as ‘World Champions’. It may be that the only thing stopping the Premier League going the whole hog and following suit is the existence of the truly elite clubs in Spain, Germany, Italy and France.