Premier League's intensity comes at expense of quality vs. Europe's elite
"I hear a lot of times about the intensity in the Premier League when none of you have been in La Liga or the Bundesliga to know how intense it is," Pep Guardiola told a roomful of British journalists last week. He added, "I think the intensity in Italy and other places is quite the same." Then he took his Manchester City team to Barcelona and was thrashed 4-0.
Guardiola's words reawakened an old debate: Is the Premier League especially intense? And what does "intensity" even mean in soccer? I've tried to answer this question, with the help of eyewitness reports and a dollop of data.
Before we talk about intensity, the first thing to say is that the Premier League is now weaker than its big rivals. The UEFA coefficients ranking, which measures clubs' performances in European competitions, has the Premier League in third place behind Spain and Germany. Looking at just the last three seasons, Italy outperforms England too. The only English club ranked in UEFA's European top 10 is Chelsea, at number eight. Manchester United ranks 22nd, two places below FC Basel of Switzerland.
The Premier League's European decline is relatively new. It seems to correlate with the fading of England's so-called "golden generation" (notably Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and the Man United cohort of Paul Scholes, David Beckham et. al.) as well as with the reign of Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid since 2009 and Leo Messi at Barcelona.
Seven English teams featured in the seven Champions League finals from 2005 through 2011; none has been in the four finals since 2013. There is now frighteningly little English talent around: the leading English clubs have discarded even internationals such as Joe Hart and Jack Wilshere. Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane are very rare examples of young Englishmen who are established players at big clubs.
Premier League clubs are the biggest spenders on the global transfer market in part because they have to be: they need to import almost all their talent. Only about 35 percent of Premier League starters are Englishmen, the lowest proportion of nationals in any of Europe's big leagues. Indeed, Germany and Spain probably produce more good players than any other country except Argentina.
Yet for all its money, the Premier League struggles to buy the very best players. "The Premier League is sold for more than its value. You can count the true top stars playing in England on the fingers of one hand," says the German former Liverpool midfielder Didi Hamann. It's telling that Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is a "true top star", moved to the Premier League only this season when he was 34.
It's quite possible that in the next few years the Premier League will narrow the gap with Spain. If we presume that Messi, 29, and Ronaldo, 31, are human, they must start fading at some point, and both are irreplaceable. The best players of the coming generation -- the erratic Paul Pogba, and even Neymar -- are unlikely ever to reach quite that level.
For now, though, as Barcelona's win over Manchester City in the Champions League showed, even the best English clubs remain second-rate. Partly this is because the Premier League distributes TV money more equally than Spanish clubs have done in recent years, though the Spaniards are now shifting towards a more English system. Nor has any English club achieved the sort of dominance of sponsorship money that Bayern Munich boasts in Germany. That means that England has no enduring national champion to compare with Bayern, Serie A's Juventus or Ligue 1's Paris St-Germain.
But there's an upside to that: the Premier League is more balanced than its rivals. To adapt the NFL's slogan, on any given day, any English team can beat any other team. "In England you can't win any game easily," the German former Spurs player Steffen Freund told the Hamburg newspaper Die Welt. In short, the very lack of a brilliant team makes the Premier League more exciting and intense.
The best continental teams rarely play very intense league matches, because they usually win easily. "Barcelona could play 50 percent of its games with its B-team," Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp remarked a couple of years ago. "There are games in which Messi runs only 4.3 kilometres but scores five goals. There's nothing like that in any English match." Klopp is exaggerating slightly, but European goal stats make his general point. Last season Barcelona averaged 2.95 goals per league game, Madrid 2.89, and Bayern 2.35. The most prolific team in the Premier League, Manchester City, managed only 1.87.
The top continental teams often run away with games, but they are also adept at closing matches down. They control the tempo of play in the way that no English team can. After Barca or Bayern take the lead, they usually just keep the ball. The opposition rarely gets a chance to mount a thrilling last-ditch offensive. Instead the game simply bleeds to an end. Nor do the best continental teams need to run much, because they often camp almost the entire game on the opposition's half.
Yet a game against Barcelona, Madrid, Bayern, or indeed PSG or Juventus has its own kind of intensity: an intensity of concentration. If the weaker team makes one mistake -- a ball given away, a midfielder out of position -- the opponent will punish them. That means the underdog has to play 90 minutes with total concentration. This is mentally exhausting.
Intensity in the Premier League takes a more physical form. Games tend to be more box-to-box. Mid-ranking and bottom-of-the-table English teams make lots of mistakes, lose the ball often, and play many long passes, Dustin Boettger of the statistical database Global Soccer Network told Die Welt. That results in more tackles to win 50-50 balls. And players in the Premier League can go in almost as hard as they like, because English referees blow for fouls less than on the continent.
English fans, too, are always urging players to "get stuck in" and applauding ferocious tackles. "Every crowd in England plays every ball," Arsene Wenger told Arsenal's website in 2013. "That injects the pace into the game and the commitment and desire into the players. That also helps to explain that despite having so many foreign players in the English Premier League, it is still very much an English game."
Wenger, whose knowledge of international soccer is possibly unequalled, made another point about English intensity. The Premier League, he told Arsenal.com, is "very well filmed. When I sometimes switch the television from an English game to a foreign game, the intensity of the game comes through the screen better in England than anywhere else. The intensity of the noise of the crowd is much higher than everywhere else. The loudness of crowd comes to you in your home, so it's like they are transporting you to the game."
In truth, English fans are probably no longer any louder than foreign ones, but TV makes them seem so. The famous proximity of crowds to players enhances the effect. In part, the Premier League simply looks and sounds intense.
You can have the best teams, or you can have the most intense league, but you probably can't have both at the same time. The Premier League has gone with intensity. As a recipe for appealing to fans, that seems to work just fine.
Simon Kuper is a contributor to ESPN FC and co-author, with Stefan Szymanski, of Soccernomics.