The influx of foreign owners into the English Premiership brought with it a raft of moral and ethical dilemmas which many observers found to be totally abhorrent. Money obtained via extremely dubious circumstances, if not ‘stolen’ per se then at the very least acquired through fraudulent situations. Whether it is Russian oligarchs, Arab billionaires or corrupt Asian politicians – money and instant gratification became everything in football. It’s why there should be no surprise that club’s eagerly tie up sponsorship with payday loan companies. Football is a sport which often swims in a tide of moral repugnance and a complete absence of dignity.
But football fans, generally speaking, don’t care. They want their clubs to win football matches, to lift trophies and to sign top class players. Everything else is just noise.
That was the backdrop as English football entered its most successful period ever on the European stage in the late ‘noughties’. Liverpool won the Champions League in 2005, Arsenal lost the following year’s final and the following three season’s saw three Premiership sides occupy the semi-final slots.
Since then top-flight English football has notably waned. Manchester United were losing finalists in 2011, while Chelsea lifted the trophy the next season, but these were in isolation and both team’s enjoyed great and numerous slices of fortune to progress.
Cristiano Ronaldo left Old Trafford, Fabregas moved to Barcelona whilst Xabi Alonso joined Real Madrid, time did not stand still for Didier Drogba, Steven Gerrard or Thierry Henry, while Fernando Torres began suffering from a severe case of early career burnout.
Superstars departed but few arrived, Sergio Aguero and Juan Mata may put forward cases but they have gone against the trend.
Football is constantly evolving and continually in motion, and the Premiership’s time of riding the crest of a wave is over.
The top sides from La Liga and more recently – the Bundesliga have taken a stranglehold of the competition. Elsewhere, Juventus and AC Milan are once more emerging as great European forces, while billionaire owners are more inclined to take their money elsewhere – AS Monaco and PSG are the current main benefactors.
As things stand, there are four standout players in England’s top flight. Tottenham’s Gareth Bale swept the individual awards last season and deservedly so. Robin van Persie fused his talent with precise and critical timing to deliver Manchester United their twentieth league crown. Juan Mata was consistently brilliant in a Chelsea side riddled with underlying flaws, while Luis Suarez – despite being entrenched in objectionable traits – possesses a sumptuous level of ability.
Of these four, only van Persie will definitely start the new campaign in England. Bale’s situation is being constantly monitored by all at the Bernabeu, Mata is heavily rumoured to have deep personality clashes with the incoming Mourinho, and Suarez has already stated his desire to leave England.
In a time of austerity across Europe, the continent’s major football clubs are more eager to splash the cash than ever before.
PSG have signed Edinson Cavani and Marquinhos for a combined total of £82 million. Rivals Monaco moved for Falcao, Joao Moutinho and Rodriguez. Real Madrid have splashed out £57 million on the midfield pair of Isco and Asier Illarramendi while Barcelona moved for Neymar in a £50 million deal. Bayern Munich tied up deals for Thiago Alcantara and Mario Gotze, while the latter’s former teammate Robert Lewandowski looks set to join him next summer.
The story is a different one amongst England’s top clubs – with Manchester City the only exception. They have splashed out a combined £90 million on four players who are unquestionably talented, but none look set to be the ‘game changers’ who will help evolve them into a major European player. Jovetic aside, the average age of their signings is a dubiously high 28 and they will need all to adapt their playing style quickly.
Most sides have missed out on key transfer targets. Manchester United are yet to make a major signing and had undoubtedly monitored the situation of Thiago Alcantara, before Bayern Munich swooped in to nail down his signature. Liverpool’s main target – Henrikh Mkhitaryan – opted for Borussia Dortmund. Isco was tracked by Manchester City, before opting to stay in Spain. Another player linked to the Etihad was Edinson Cavani, but again he turned down offers from English clubs. Arsenal have been keeping tabs on Higuain, but the indicators now seem to point that he could move to Naples instead.
The one exception to this rule appears to be Tottenham Hotspur – who silently went about signing the exceptional Paulinho.
Pre-season is meant to fill fans with hope and expectation. For most, that feeling will equate most closely to celebrating your side scoring before the realisation dawns that it has been ruled out for offside.
We can dream that Norwich can push into the top half with the exciting signings of Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Leroy Fer. Or that Swansea’s European model of running a club continues to pay dividends, or that Southampton’s refreshing style of possession football is aided by the high-calibre signings of Wanyama and Lovren.
Aston Villa have maintained the excellent Benteke and signed more youthful European talent, while Di Canio’s Italian revolution on Wearside continues to take shape. Perhaps Alan Pardieux’s French connection will jolt itself back into life, and maybe Stoke won’t play such energy-zapping, mentally-draining football under a new boss?
Hope springs eternal, but the league’s club increasingly have to replace the positivity with a side order of realism.