A Thrilling Tie Exposes the Premier League’s Flaw

Raheem Sterling, right, attempting to put the ball past Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet during the clubs’ 1-1 draw on Sunday. Credit Andrew Yates/Reuters

MANCHESTER, England — Even an hour after the game, Pep Guardiola was still pulsing, coursing with energy. He was still a little breathless, his words tumbling and flooding out. He confessed his love for his defender John Stones. He declared his undimmed happiness. He called it one of the greatest days of his professional life.

It all felt a little bit excessive, given that his Manchester City team had just drawn with Liverpool, 1-1, on Sunday. It was not a game that decided anything. There was no blow delivered or boost provided, in soccer’s sensationalist argot, no climactic moment that set one team on the road to glory and the other to ignominy.

As they were before kickoff, City and Liverpool remained locked in a frantic race — alongside Tottenham, Manchester United, Arsenal and now, it seems, Everton — to secure a place in the Premier League’s top four, and with it a lucrative, prestigious spot in next season’s UEFA Champions League.

For all the acres of analysis dedicated to each of those teams’ strengths and shortcomings, to how their managers and players are going right and wrong, the truth of the matter is that there is barely a cigarette paper between them. From certain angles, they are all impressive; from others, they are all deeply flawed.

The spread, currently, is 9 points, between Tottenham in second place and Everton five spots below. There are fewer than a dozen games to play, and only three places on offer. Chelsea sails ahead in calm waters as the storm gathers below.

Guardiola’s excitement, though, was by no means unique. His managerial counterpart, Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp, was only a little less exercised. He had taken, he said, a few minutes to compose himself before offering his assessment of the game. He was not quite as keyed up as Guardiola, but he could still muster only a stream of consciousness, his thoughts jagged fragments.

Klopp said he could broadly appreciate that the match had been “nice to watch,” for those with no emotional attachment to either side. But that was not how he had experienced it. On the sideline, he said, it had been “really hard work.” On the field, he suspected, it was even harder.

That, if anything, is putting it mildly. This was a game overseen by two imported managers who are, along with Antonio Conte, arguably the most foreign in the Premier League now that José Mourinho and Arsène Wenger have been so thoroughly Anglicized.

The match was contested by two teams drawn from every corner of the globe, such is the polyglot paradise English soccer has become. Only five British-reared players started the game; by the end, there were as many Brazilians on the field, as well as representatives of Argentina, Estonia and points in between.

And yet, it was a game so resolutely English that it would have appeared to be a cliché had it not been entirely organic. One team attacked, lost the ball and chased the other. Caution was gleefully abandoned; as the game ticked toward its conclusion, players grasped their knees, desperate for every gulp of oxygen.

Guardiola, like Klopp, arrived on these shores as an ambassador from a more sophisticated soccer culture, greeted — against his wishes, it should be pointed out — as some sort of missionary, here to enlighten a backward nation about the divine concepts of tactical fluidity, the counter-press and juego de posicion.

There was no time for any of that here. It was not neat, it was not especially technical, and it was most certainly not flawless. But it was absorbing, a display fit for the former King Juan Carlos of Spain, who watched from the stands.

his was the Premier League as it wishes to see itself, as it sells itself around the globe: breathless, relentless and carefree — all the qualities that fuel the idea this is the world’s greatest domestic competition.

Whether that is true, of course, is a futile debate, one that exists only on permanently shifting ground. How do you gauge the best league? Is it the strength of the finest teams, or the weakness of the worst? Is entertainment the same as quality? Does any of it matter, really?

Whatever the answer, if there is one, only one thing seems to be certain: The Premier League is most certainly the only soccer league that is contagious. Guardiola has only been here for nine months, and it has already infected him. He was meant to come here and mold the league in his image; it turns out the converse has happened.

For all the self-congratulation — where else could a 1-1 draw be so captivating? — a note of caution should be sounded. It is no coincidence that this sort of game should come at the end of a week when Leicester City became the only English representative in the quarterfinals of the Champions League and Manchester United found itself the sole emissary to the last eight of the Europa League.

There are a host of factors behind England’s failure, for all its wealth, to meet even the most grounded expectations in European competition over the last five years. There is the undeniable improvement in the continent’s great powers; an ignorance of the qualities of the second-tier teams in France, Italy, Spain and Germany; the travails of United and Liverpool, two teams historically adept at European competition; and the fact that Arsenal keeps drawing Bayern Munich.

But it would be foolhardy not to draw a link between the Premier League’s devotion to entertainment and its inability to cope with the more cerebral approach demanded, in particular, by the Champions League.

Tactics, and patience, have always carried little weight in England. It was notable here that with a few minutes remaining and City attempting to pick its way through Liverpool’s drained defense, the crowd at the Etihad grew audibly irritated at every measured sideways pass.

The English way has always been to attack, attack, attack. It is what the culture demands, and eventually it is the style the culture forces imports to adopt. It is what lends the Premier League its principal allure to fans across the globe.

Increasingly, it appears to be its great fatal flaw. It is too much to expect teams to play with the reckless abandon asked of them every weekend in league play and then slip down through the gears for the European matches in between to take a more sedate, thoughtful route — particularly when doing so is greeted with howls of derision.

The more the Premier League elevates entertainment at all costs, the more arduous its clubs’ experience in Europe.

That may not matter, of course. The money in England now is so great that the Champions League is little more than a slide from a sales pitch to prospective signings.

And yet, for all that it can look as though the Premier League is the be-all and end-all, with every failure, with every set of Champions League semifinals that exclude it, a little of the league’s self-esteem disappears. No other competition measures its standing compared with that of its rivals so assiduously. After a while, an inability to overcome them starts to undermine all its claims.

Sunday’s game was its league in microcosm: enthralling, intense, played at a screeching pitch of emotion. It was, as Guardiola and Klopp both said, as entertaining as they come. That is the great strength of the Premier League. It may also be its weakness.

Source: NYTimes