Jim White

Reports of Premier League demise have been exaggerated

Jim White

View photo

This has not been the Premier League's best week in Europe's top competition. In the Champions League, three of England's representatives lost, whilst the fourth were obliged to recover from a losing position.

What was worse was the identity of those doing the beating. It was not the old school muscle of the competition that was handing out the drubbing. It was not Milan or Real or Inter. It was Ajax, Shakhtar and Schalke doffing up England's finest. Meanwhile Manchester United were shocked out of their complacency at home not by Benfica, Bayern or Barcelona. But by Braga.

Does this suggest, as some commentators have in the wake of failure, that the Premier League's star is waning? That we are kidding ourselves about the strength of our domestic competition even as it empire builds across the globe? That financial superiority does not translate into footballing prominence?

Well, yes, there is some of that. Except much the same could have been said about last season, when City and United both sank in the group stage. Except, as we all recall, last season Chelsea went on to win the thing.

This year too, it is not possible to discern any real pattern from the defeats, or suggest it signals the end of any ascendancy by the English league. While it is undoubtedly true that the Bundesliga has growing advantages over the Premier League in terms of fan ownership, reasonable ticket prices and a preference for developing local talent over buying in the best from elsewhere, for instance, only one of the teams giving their English rivals a football lesson this week came from Germany.

Indeed it is pretty laughable to propose that this signals a warning sign for the Premier League model of oligarch ownership and the recruitment of foreign players when one of the clubs handing out the footballing lesson this week was Shakhtar.

The Donetsk club has largely modelled itself on the way the Premier League does its business. Owned by Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in Ukraine, its stadium — the Donbass Arena — is designed along the lines of the Emirates. Except Akhmetov was not that impressed by the corporate hospitality provision at Arsenal's ground when he visited it prior to the Donbass's construction and instructed his architects to make his place significantly plusher and swankier.

Some of the high end suites there have to be seen to be believed: there is more gold in the fittings than in Ashley Cole's bathroom. Akhmetov's team, too, largely consists of foreign players, most of them Brazilian, brought in on the sky-high wages he subsidises.

Manchester City, meanwhile, were given the runaround not by crafty Germans but by Ajax's technically gifted academy products. Ajax developing their own hot young talent: whoever would have guessed it?

I seem to remember Gary Lineker doing eulogising television documentaries about the Ajax way 15 years ago, insisting that the only way English clubs would ever compete is through making their academies ape the Ajax way. And how often have Ajax won the trophy since then? And how often have English clubs won it?

Driven as much by internal philosophy as economic necessity, the Dutch club have always developed their own. It just seems from the evidence of Wednesday night that the current lot might be worthy successors to the side which won the Champions League in 1995.

Let's just hope for the fans' sake that if this team does turn out to be as good, they hang around in Holland a bit longer than the team of Patrick Kluivert, Clarence Seedorf and Edwin van der Sar did in the 90s. Every system it seems has its problems. And the Ajax way is that a great team comes round but once in a generation. And then immediately does a runner to leagues prepared to pay them a bit more for their talents.

In fact what this week did was demonstrate is not that the Premier League method is now officially finished, but that there is more than one way to attain success. Besides, it may be a little premature to signal the end of the Premier League's years of prominence just yet.

Sure, Manchester City may be about to make their second abrupt exit from the Champions League, bumbling off bickering into European oblivion, at this rate struggling even to make the consolation of the Europa League. But United have as good as qualified, and, despite midweek setbacks, there is every chance Arsenal and Chelsea will join them in the knock-out phase in the spring.

It is then that we will be able properly to judge the competitive nature of English clubs abroad. And my bet is, at least one of them will make the semi-final.

View comments (50)