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Breaking news: Manchester City title stroll should not distract from strength of competition

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‘It is not Barcelona and Real Madrid wrestling for the title every year and it is not Bayern Munich winning with a crushing inevitability.’
We may not have had a tight title race since 2013-14 but the Premier League is still more competitive than its rivals Jonathan Wilson
‘It is not Barcelona and Real Madrid wrestling for the title every year and it is not Bayern Munich winning with a crushing inevitability.’

The title race was in effect over about four months before the final snows of winter. Even if Manchester City do not wrap up the championship against Manchester United on 7 April, they will surely do so at Tottenham a week later or, if the wheels really fall off, at home to Swansea City the week after that. They could almost certainly lose every game from now until the end of the season and still win the title.

The ease of City’s success has brought out the sneerers – or perhaps, more accurately, the counter-sneerers. You see, they say, all that time you were saying La Liga or the Bundesliga were easy to win, you were wrong. This is just what happens when you have Pep Guardiola in your league. Perhaps there is some truth to that; perhaps fans who tend to watch the Premier League did not appreciate quite how good Guardiola is.

The counter-counter-sneer, of course, is that although the Premier League has not had much of a title race (in terms of it being tight all the way to the end) since Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool made their doomed pursuit of Manchester City in 2013-14, it has been different sides running away with it since: José Mourinho’s Chelsea, Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City and Antonio Conte’s Chelsea.

It is not Barcelona and Real Madrid wrestling for the title every year and it is not Bayern Munich winning with a crushing inevitability. It may be that City go on to win the title next season and perhaps beyond but if they do, their domination will not be for the same reasons. The wealth of Abu Dhabi distorts the picture but the latest Deloitte report into football finance shows that they are not even the Premier League club with the highest annual revenue: Manchester United’s is 28% higher than City’s and there are three other Premier League clubs in the world’s top 10, and 10 Premier League sides in total in the top 20 (two of them, slightly oddly, could yet be relegated this season: West Ham and Southampton).

Bayern’s revenues, by contrast, are 77% higher than the next highest Bundesliga club, Borussia Dortmund. Barça’s revenues are slightly lower than Real Madrid’s but still 138% higher than those of the third La Liga team, Atlético. That is not just domination but hegemony. This is not a case of a good manager and a good group of players coinciding so a team stay on top for a while; it is structural.

In that sense, the Premier League is by some way the most competitive major league. But that is not the only measure of competiveness. The Premier League has had four different champions in the past five seasons, more than any of the other top four leagues in Europe. The Bundesliga and Serie A have both had only one. Trace that back over a decade and a slightly more complex picture emerges. The Premier League has still had only four champions while Ligue 1, which has had only two champions in the past five years, has had seven. The picture in France is clear, of an evenly balanced league rendered onesided by unprecedented investment in one club.

But look a little further down the league and a different picture emerges. In the past five years each of the big five leagues in Europe has had seven or eight different sides finish in the top four. Take that back a further five years, though, and a little context is added to the comparative unpredictability of who wins the title in England. Over the past decade, there have still been seven different sides finish in the top four of the Premier League. In Spain that figure is nine, in Italy and France 10 and in Germany 13.

Bayern may have won seven of the last 10 Germany league titles but the flip side of having one dominant club is that a host of decent but not great teams can qualify for the Champions League (whether they have the resources to achieve much once they get there is another issue).

The Premier League can boast an array of title winners in part because there is a small clutch of dominant teams (a putative big six now as opposed to the big four of a decade ago). That means that for a smaller side to win the title they need not merely to have an extraordinary season but for half a dozen big clubs to fail. It can happen, as Leicester showed, but a mid-sized club are still more likely to win the league in Germany, where they need only one giant to falter.

Which is preferable is largely a matter of taste and, perhaps, your relationship to the league. A fan of one of those mid-sized clubs probably appreciates the chance to qualify for the Champions League, to have the fun Leicester did last season; a more neutral observer is likely to be far more engaged by a battle to win the title than to finish in the top four. Either way, it seems, there is an awkward stratification in the distribution of wealth. The television rights deal in England may be more equitable than elsewhere but there is still an unhealthy step between the elite and the rest.

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