The Premier League is missing Alex Ferguson to set the standard at the top

It’s fair to say that as of right now, nearing the end of November with the Champions League round of 16 yet to be finalized, England’s traditional capital ‘B’ Big Clubs aren’t having the greatest go of it so far, be it at home or in Europe.

A glance at the Premier League’s top seven teams after match day 12, for example, finds a top three consisting of Chelsea, Southampton and Manchester City, with 32, 26 and 24 points, respectively. Manchester United and Newcastle United follow, tied with 19 points – a total that would have put them both south of ninth place this time last season. Arsenal is currently in eight with 17 points, Liverpool in 12th with 14.

These kinds of irregularities, especially those involving Arsenal and Liverpool, aren’t particularly abnormal. Often the EPL seems to spasm around until settling into a familiar order around March and April. Moreover the current table doesn’t account for the relative quality of opposition, which always skews things. Yet the performance of English clubs in the Champions League reveals even more disappointment.

As of writing, Manchester City is at the bottom of Group E with two points and a 0-2-2 record. Liverpool has won one and lost three and sit tied on three points with Bulgaria’s Ludogorets Razgrad in Group B. Arsenal is in second in Group D, five points behind Borussia Dortmund, and is guaranteed a spot in at least the Europa League. The only English club in first is Chelsea in Group G, yet its eight points is the lowest of any group leader left in the UCL.

Manchester City FC v PFC CSKA Moskva - UEFA Champions League

Again, none of this alone should be taken as strong evidence of a real, Serie A-esque decline. Using the Champions League group stage results as a barometer for relative league health is a bad idea at the best of times. However, there is a sense of a power vacuum within the top-tier of English soccer.

Rafa Honigstein touched on it a few weeks ago in a column for ESPNFC, arguing that the nouveau riche elements within the league have promoted a culture of spending versus developing which has undercut their overseas success. He also mentions that while other domestic tables like the Bundesliga or La Liga feature several big, dominant teams (Barça, Real Madrid, Bayern), the lesser lights from those same leagues have met with relative success, too:

The above-average power of Bayern, Madrid and Barca should logically be offset by the below-average power from inferior teams from those leagues. Yet the numbers suggest otherwise.

Schalke 04 (turnover £161m/$256m in 2012-13) have performed better than Arsenal (£283m/$450m in 2012-13) over the past five seasons in Europe, while Leverkusen (£78m/$124m in 2012-13) are currently ranked higher than Manchester City (£271m/$431m in 2012-13).

Again, this is perhaps not the best way to gauge relative league health (I think something like Dan Altman’s Age-Based League Rating system is likely much better). Nevertheless, I think Honigstein touches on something here that’s worth speaking to.

Why is it that smaller clubs in leagues with competitive giants like Bayern and Barcelona manage seem to perform well in Europe? Atlético Madrid, for example, was a Champions League finalist last season, in which Schalke and Bayer Leverkusen joined Bayern and Dortmund in the round of 16. That was also the same year in which Sevilla won the Europa League.

Perhaps a rising tide lifts all boats. Those teams just below Bayern or Barça and Real Madrid must work ever harder to keep the pace with the established favorites, in turn forcing the clubs below them to work harder to stay in the league.

With this in mind, it’s interesting to speculate whether the Premier League may only be truly coming to terms with the vacuum left in the wake of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement at the end of the 2012-13 season.

Manchester United v Chelsea - UEFA Champions League Final

For over two decades, Ferguson’s United was the standard by which the rest of the Premier League’s contenders were measured. There was Newcastle United manager Kevin Keegan’s “love it if we beat them” rant in 1995-96, the season the Magpies chased United all year but finished four points back. The success of Arsenal in the late 1990s and early oughts, an era epitomized by the image of Martin Keown screaming in Ruud van Nistelrooy’s face during the “Battle of Old Trafford,” was in part held against the long-time dominance of United, particularly after the Invincibles of 2003-04. A few months before Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich bought the West London club in 2003, he offered the managerial job to Sir Alex. More recently, Manchester City’s success following investment from Abu Dhabi United Group was held against overcoming its “noisy neighbor” status in relation to the Red Devils. In some sense the league had always been fueled by the spirit of Anyone But United.

Now Ferguson has been gone for a season and change, with David Moyes’ brief tenure in 2013-14 seemingly underlining how closely Sir Alex was tied to the success of the club. One could point to Chelsea as the new team to beat, but even with Mourinho back in charge, his future at the club, particularly with Abramovich’s itchy managerial trigger finger, is less than certain. Manchester City appears to be a more promising case to develop into a perennial contender, but the club hasn’t yet come close to provoking the same kind of fear United once sowed in its opponents. As for Arsenal and Liverpool, well, not much more needs to be said of either at the moment. The Premier League lacks a strong, established powerhouse in the Manchester United mold.

So what does this mean for the immediate future of the Premier League? Not much. It will likely maintain its majority portion of the global market share and continue to demand ever larger domestic television rights deals to ensure it is home to some of the world’s best footballers. Yet without Ferguson’s United furiously driving the rest of the league to greater heights, clubs can relax a little. They may no longer need to spend their way to a league title, but can focus on better player development, better training facilities, smarter recruitment methods, much like United relied on youth development in Ferguson’s early heyday. This will likely guarantee more longer term success than relying on infinite transfer market spending power alone. The current state of affairs may not be compelling stuff for the neutral, but it could sow the seeds for another club to gradually, and intelligently, fill the void left behind by one of the greatest managers in football history.

Photo credits, from top to bottom: Sergio Aguero, Pablo Zabaleta and Samir Nasri protest at the end of the UEFA Champions League Group E match between Manchester City and CSKA Moscow on November 5, 2014 (Alex Livesey/Getty Images); Sir Alex Ferguson lifts the trophy following their team’s 6-5 victory in the penalty shootout during the UEFA Champions League Final match between Manchester United and Chelsea on May 21, 2008 (Michael Steele/Getty Images).

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