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Choose your adjective with care when rating the Premier League

Monday 13th February 2017
Chelsea went into Turf Moor on Sunday with an opportunity to all but lock up the Premier League title. Victory against a side from the table's bottom half seemed likely despite Burnley's incredible home form this season.

Antonio Conte's side has been next to unbeatable since converting to a 3-5-2 formation, even when Diego Costa's antics saw him left out of the lineup after his head was turned by a rumored offer from the Chinese Super League. Three points would have put the Blues twelve points up on London rivals Arsenal and Tottenham, their closest competitors. For either to catch them, Chelsea would have had to lose four more of their final thirteen matches or drop points in six more than their hottest pursuit. With the lead only ten after managing just a draw, catching the Stamford Bridgers remains difficult but more doable.
On the other side of the ball, the point earned thanks to Robbie Brady's sumptuous free kick, bent into the upper ninety to a diving Thibaut Courtois' right, puts Sean Dyche's crew within a result of ninth place. Moreover, it will surely spark a new round of tweets and Facebook posts touting the Premier League as the most competitive on the planet. Although my favorite competition, I don't think the Premier League is the most competitive. Not indisputably, anyway.

The argument is admittedly a subjective one dependent on the context in which the term competitive is used. English fans put forward two primary arguments. The Prem has more title contenders and its playing style is the most intense of any league.
The numbers certainly don't validate the first argument. Since the 1992-93 season, when the English First Division became the Premier League and time began for most contemporary English football fans, its list of champions looks pretty much like everyone else's excepting Ligue 1. Six clubs have won the league, same as the Bundesliga, one more than Serie A and La Liga. In all four leagues, one team has claimed roughly half the titles over the twenty-four seasons the Premiership has been in existence. Serie A and the Bundesliga have the fewest multiple champions at three each, but the Premier League and La Liga only have four apiece. So, if one team wins half the championships with only a small handful fighting over the scraps, how is the Prem any more competitive than its biggest rivals?

Only Ligue 1 has truly spread the wealth, with six multiple champions, ten overall. No one in their right mind considers the French top flight as competitive as the others, however. It wasn't even mentioned in the same breath until Qatari interests bought Paris Saint-Germain. The quality of play just isn't there, as most will note by citing PSG's failure to advance beyond the Champions League quarterfinals. Money obviously changes the argument, but we aren't discussing which league is the richest.

When you apply the Champions League success metric to English clubs, they've failed to measure up since Chelsea won in 2011-12. Only three sides have even made the quarters in the four completed campaigns since. Manchester United was knocked out by Real Madrid at that stage, in 2013-14, although Chelsea moved on to the semis before bowing out. Manchester City lost to eventual winners Real Madrid in 2016's final four. Conversely, there have been three La Liga clubs in every quarterfinal round, and two Bundesliga squads in three, with Bayern the lone German representative in 2014-15. That would suggest to the impartial mind the Bundesliga and La Liga are the most competitive.
The Premier League's recent shortfall is probably why EPL fans fall back on their game's frenetic pace. La Liga can point to Diego Simeone's Atléti as a high energy side, the Bundesliga to BvB under both Jüergen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel, but England is the only competition where no side seems willing to give their opponent a moment to breathe, let alone make a play. It's also the one which most highly values tackling. Yet, if running opponents down like lions would a wildebeest or leaning on them like a loan shark makes a club more competitive, why doesn't the Prem dominate the Champions League anymore? Such logic says they should be cleaning up in Europe.

Naturally, balance has something to do with it. If limitless energy were the key, hummingbirds would top the food chain. Were it physical power, elephants wouldn't be led around by the nose. Strong arm tactics will only take you so far. They will wear any side down, even the aggressor, especially when such clubs are faced with an extra domestic cup tournament, playing through the holidays, and an unsympathetic FA should scheduling conflicts arise from success on the continent. Real Madrid twice outlasted their crosstown rivals in the Champions League by allowing the Rojiblancos to punch themselves out. When Atléti were gassed, Ronaldo and company picked them apart. Intelligence and subtlety are what make a champion, not endurance.

You can argue Cristiano Ronaldo may have transferred to Real Madrid in order to go mano a mano with Lionel Messi in a nine year Ballon d'Or battle but that the duopoly would never have unfolded had Messi instead transferred to Arsenal or Chelsea. You can say the tiny Argentine wouldn't have been able to take the punishment doled out in England. Except Eden Hazard, Pedro, and N'golo Kanté, who are all 5' 7" and therefore stand eye-level with Messi, would beg to differ. Note that's three players lacking an intimidating physique all starting on the side with an inside track to the title, and the 'competition' solidly in the rear-view mirror. It's 6' 2" Diego Costa in the minority on the Blues attack.

Man United, a pre-season title favorite struggling to stay in the hunt, have Juan Mata, also 5' 7" and twice Chelsea's Player of the Year. Yet, after he forced José Mourinho to play rather than sell him at United, the Portuguese still insists on substituting him for Marouane Fellaini whenever an opponent so much as looks funny at the happy little Spaniard after the hour mark.

No, technical skill and tactical discipline should be valued as much if not more than athleticism and thuggery to a side with competitive ambitions. As much as I hate to say it, if the Premier League truly wants to be the most competitive, rather than the most physically demanding, it needs to make room for more Matas and Paul Scholes in its ranks, stop allowing ill-tempered center backs and midfield destroyers to batter its Jack Wilsheres, and not expect foreign managers who have been to a Champions League Final to know who Joey Barton is.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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