Big-spending, static Premier League should heed warnings of Serie A
The first thing to understand is nothing is new in football; there is no invention, only innovation. Everything has been before and everything will be again. The second thing to understand is empires rise and fall. Everything comes to an end and there is no such thing as forever. Only then can what appears to be -- and only appears to be -- becoming of the Premier League (hint: it's not good) be put into context.
In the summer of 2000, Silvio Berlusconi was worried. The man who had bankrolled AC Milan's transformation from ailing giant to the world's pre-eminent superpower had never seen such a sustained challenge to his team's dominance. His club's fans were restless -- so restless, in fact, that Berlusconi used one of his private media channels to try to allay their fears. "Supporters can be assured," he said soothingly. "A big name will arrive soon."
The reason for Berlusconi's anxiety was that a few months earlier, Milan had been beaten to the Serie A title not by Juventus or Internazionale -- essentially, one of Italy's grand old houses -- but by cash-rich pretenders from the south. Lazio had won Serie A in the most dramatic of fashions -- snatching the crown from Juventus by a point on the final day. Milan had finished third, 11 points adrift.
As if that weren't bad enough, Sergio Cragnotti, Lazio's bombastic owner, followed it up with an unprecedented spending spree. He had broken the world transfer record to sign Hernan Crespo from Parma and threw in Valencia's Claudio Lopez for good measure. The year before, he had bought Juan Sebastian Veron and Christian Vieri; the year after, he would sign Stefano Fiore, Jaap Stam and Gaizka Mendieta. The scale of Lazio's ambition was unsettling. As Cragnotti said at the time: "We are always looking for not just the best, but the best of the best."
Berlusconi's response was the only one he knew -- the only one anyone in Italy knew. At the time, the league was the private fiefdom of seven sides: Milan, Inter, Juventus, Roma, Lazio, Parma and Fiorentina. They were known as le sette sorrelle, the seven sisters. Some had always been powerful. Others, like Lazio and Parma, were arriviste vanity projects run by men of unimaginable wealth.
The latter groups' dominance was built on money -- extraordinary sums of money. The rivalry was as much between the individuals as it was the teams they controlled; spending heavily was seen as a measure of their power. They broke the world transfer record for fun and drove an inflationary spiral so damaging, Italy is still recovering from it. And so, when Lazio spent, Berlusconi's only response was to spend as well.
At the time, in the summer of 2000, it seemed impossible that Italy's supremacy would ever end. Serie A had all the players, all the money, all the glamour. But it did not last. There is no such thing as forever.
A decade and a half later, the Premier League is the turn-of-the-century Serie A's spiritual heir. Here, too, we find a cabal of seven teams whose superiority is taken as a given: two sides from Manchester, two from Liverpool, three from London. Here, too, we find a world where clubs measure their worth not just on the pitch but on the books as well. The accepted response to failure is spending more, spending better and spending bigger. It's a league defined by money.
Like Serie A, the Premier League is unquestionably the richest and (probably) the most glamorous in the world. And yet, as Raphael Honigstein (among others) has noted, that no longer appears to be a guarantee of success in the Champions League. Just five English wins from 16 games in the group stage this season, with Liverpool and Manchester City both in severe danger of not reaching the knock-out rounds, proves that.
It is not impossible that by the end of the campaign, both La Liga and the Bundesliga will be regarded, by UEFA at least, as superior competitions when the leagues are gauged against each other.
The shift suggests that the money and the belief that success can be shop-bought aren't working. That might well be because, just like Serie A, the Premier League has reached the point -- at least in terms of its finances and its allure -- where greater resources do not necessarily lead to higher quality. Yes, English teams continue to outspend everyone, bar Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, but they are not necessarily buying better players.
Instead, they are simply paying more for the same calibre signing.
Take Sevilla and Chile midfielder Gary Medel this past summer. He was offered around Europe for six million pounds ($9.5m), but when Cardiff City came in, armed with the Premier League's television rights money, the price was jacked up to 11 million pounds ($17.5m), which made Vincent Tan very cross indeed.
It is a pattern replicated across the continent. The Premier League's television deals keep going up but the only effect is more of that money handed out across the world, in the form of inflated transfer fees.
It's the same process that happened in Italy. Clubs knew Serie A's sides could -- and would -- pay a premium; Italian teams felt they had to spend to keep pace with their rivals, so they lavished hundreds of millions of pounds on players who did not necessarily improve their squads or their first teams. Slowly and surely, the quality suffered.
At the same time, those clubs outside Italy who did not have recourse to huge wealth had to find new ways to compete. They appointed forward-thinking coaches such as Louis van Gaal and Arsene Wenger, who helped them close the gap, pioneered new styles and moved the game. Convinced of its primacy, Italy stood loyally by methods and styles that soon seemed old-fashioned.
There is an echo here, too, of the Premier League, where that frenzied style that worked so well between 2004 and 2010 -- England's best period in the Champions League -- now seems dated, thanks to the work of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and the ultra-ruthless counter-attacking approach of Real Madrid. England has money, so it does not need to innovate. The process is the same as it was in Italy. The effect might be, too.
There are far more similarities between the two leagues. Serie A was reliant on a cadre of aging players, icons it could not bear to let go. It was hamstrung by a mistrust of youth, which meant the next generation of stars could not come through. Teams neglected homegrown talent because they knew they could always buy ready-made.
There was a culture of rampant short-termism, where every defeat for one of the major contenders was treated as a crisis and managers were never more than two or three poor games from dismissal. There was no regard for the future because they felt the world had stopped, that things would always be like they were. They were wrong.
That is not to say the Premier League will follow the same path as Serie A and will find itself in the same plight in 15 years' time as the Italian top flight did. There are differences, too. There is not the tinge of criminality that was attached to a number of the sette sorrelle; there is not likely to be a match-fixing scandal; the money is spread more equably and the model more sustainable; one of the owners of one of the great powers is not, as with Berlusconi, going to lose interest because he wants to be Prime Minister.
But the parallel is worth considering and the warning worth heeding.
Writing in The Telegraph on Tuesday, Paul Hayward described how the Premier League's steadfast loyalty to "PlayStation styles of play" and its delusion that football has to be "emotionally exhausting and aesthetically thrilling" has served to scupper several of members of its own sette sorrelle. The problems besetting Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal, Everton and Manchester United are multifarious, but the fact that all of them have ignored the need for effective defending because of the emphasis on endless attacking is among the most significant.
This, of course, would be the ultimate irony: That the very rock on which the Premier League's popularity and wealth have been built, the thing that makes people across the world want to watch -- its breathless excitement -- ended up accelerating its ultimate decline.
But then again, that is exactly what happened to Serie A. Its greatness was built not on its entertainment value but on its intelligence. Players wanted to test themselves against the very best defences in the world. That was the appeal it held. Italy assumed that would always be the case. It was not. Football moved on. It changed and Serie A did not go with it.
There is no such thing as forever.
Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.