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Is the EPL really the "World's Greatest League"?

Manchester United, and English football in general, were really shown in their true form this week. We have listened, for some time now, to the condescending drivel coming from Sky Sports and BBC pundits about how English football is the best in the wo...

Manchester United, and English football in general, were really shown in their true form this week. We have listened, for some time now, to the condescending drivel coming from Sky Sports and BBC pundits about how English football is the best in the world and their dismissive views of teams from Italy, Germany and Spain. They talk about the rough and tumble of the Premier League and how no other league can rival its entertainment etc, etc. 

Well I, for one, was extremely entertained by Athletic Club Bilbao’s dismantling of what is a weak Manchester United team. United were completely outclassed and had no answers for the slick passing, superior technique and intense work rate Athletic showed from the first whistle to the last.

But this was no shock. As an enthusiastic viewer of Spanish football, Athletic have impressed me time and again with their approach to the game. The club underwent some transition last summer, with a presidential election placing former player Josu Urrutia at the helm. 

He immediately moved to put well respected coach Marcelo Bielsa in charge of first team affairs and as a result they have moved from being a dogged outfit who were hard to beat, to being a stylish side who play with a flair backed up by belief and industry. The fact this has been achieved whilst sticking strictly to the rule of only employing local players is testament to the club and their values. Of the 23 registered members of the first team squad, 13 players have played for the club’s youth academy. 

In Fernando Llorente and Javi Martinez, they have two world class operators who are important members of the Spanish national squad and with the emergence of Iker Muniain, already a good player who is fast developing into a world class talent, the future is looking extremely bright for Athletic. They are currently fifth in the Spanish league, with fourth place and a place in next season’s Champions League well and truly up for grabs. 

With the strides they have made this season under Bielsa, don’t rule out a title challenge next season, which would be remarkable for a club with such restrictions considering the power Barcelona and Real Madrid have in the transfer market. (Although, all their hard work could be undone if Llorente and Martinez are sold this summer.) They also have a Copa Del Rey final against Barcelona to look forward to as well. 

With Athletic’s record of 35 final appearances resulting in 23 wins, only two behind Barcelona who lead the all time winners list, the final makes for a great spectacle, of which the result is far from a forgone conclusion.

The style of play adopted by most teams in the Spanish League requires short, sharp passing, great off the ball movement and awareness. It encourages players to remain calm on the ball, to express themselves in possession and, above all, retain possession. In England, it’s all about getting the ball forward as quickly as possible. How often do we see the centre halves in the Premier League just lumping the ball up to the strikers and teams trying to win flick-ons? How often do we hear the call at matches of “play it up the line”, “don’t mess about with it” or the old classic “get rid of it”? Pure garbage. 

With the exceptions of Swansea, Arsenal, Man City, Man Utd (apart from when Jonny Evans plays) and Tottenham (again, Kyle Walker and Ledley King are long ball merchants),who all try to play attractive football, the lack of ability in the Premier League is frightening, considering it’s meant to be “the greatest league in the world”.  

In the 10 league games played in the Spanish Primera Liga last weekend, 33 goals were scores as opposed to 24 goals in 10 games in the English Premier League, so even the argument of “other leagues don’t have as many goals” doesn’t wash.

English clubs have struggled badly in Europe this season and the fall in standards of English football has really been exposed. Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea have been outclassed in continental competitions this season and have failed to cope with the technique and style being displayed by teams such as Basel, Ajax, Sporting Lisbon, Napoli, Otelul Galati (yes United beat them twice, but they are a dreadful side and United struggled badly against them)  and Genk (Chelsea dropped points away to them after hammering them at Stamford Bridge). Hardly powerhouses of the modern game in terms of success. 

Unless there are dramatic changes in approach from the top Premier League sides, European competition will be dominated for the foreseeable future by Spanish teams.

Don’t buy into the propaganda Sky Sports uses to market their product. The Spanish league is how football should be played. Maybe another lesson for Man Utd in the San Mames will open people’s eyes that little bit further…..

Written by Dave Butler
Follow him on Twitter @daveybutler83
Check out his excellent blog, Davey Butler’s Football Matters

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Published with permission from davebutler.

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