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16 Mar 2018

Despite Manchester City's dominance, the Premier League is getting better

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The top teams on the up

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The lesson of Burnley

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West Brom and going backwards by standing still

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An ever-improving league

(Photo credit: Duncan Hull)

This season, the Premier League has received its fair share of flack. Some of it is deserved, but arrives at the wrong destination.

There are several factors at play here.

Eamon Dunphy has attempted to undermine Manchester City's achievements this season by suggesting their steamrollering of all and sundry is due to the poor quality of the league. He said: "This is a very, very poor Premier League. "You have to take that into the equation when assessing City.”

This is an attempt to characterise English football's top flight in the same vein as La Liga and Bundesliga before it. It's a lazy trope based on ignorance that all of the unglamorous names are walkovers, that the title winners task is "easy". 

The constant variable here is Pep Guardiola. Perhaps Bayern Munich and Barcelona were just outstanding teams. An argument reinforced by their domination of European football - reaching at least the semi-finals of the Champions League in the seven years he spent at the two clubs. 

You only need to watch Guardiola's three teams to see it. The style in which they plan, the manner in which they play, the records of passing and possession they break. 

The Catalan manager has arguably built English football's first true superclub, the first team that can hold a candle to his Bayern and Barcelona. This surely makes more sense than the league suffering a sudden, coincidental regression just as Guardiola arrives?

City don't dominate because the competition is easy. They dominate because they are an incredibly good football team.

The top teams on the up

Dunphy used Dyche's team as an example for the "poor" standard of the league - that them being fourth when he made the comments in December, demonstrated the lack of top quality teams.

This is a confused point. Burnley have dropped off since then, regressing to the mean. But of the top teams - who isn't improving? 

Manchester City's dominance skews things out of perspective.

Jurgen Klopp certainly has Liverpool on the ascendancy, undoubtedly their best team since Luis Suarez was at the club and up there with their best teams of the Premier League era. At this stage, they are only four points worse off than the 2009 title challengers, and five points worse than their 2014 title challenge. Yet, they are fourth.

Manchester United are far from the finished product, as the Sevilla defeat laid bare, but Jose Mourinho has built their strongest team since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Their 65 points after 30 games is usually enough to challenge for a title.

Mauricio Pochettino has built the best Tottenham team of the Premier League era, and has moved them forward yet again. That they pushed Juventus - six-time Italian Champions, and twice finalists in the last three years - is a testament to them. A team of this quality being third, a top four spot not quite secured, reflects well on the teams around them.

Whoever finishes fifth this season will be the best ever team to have done so. It will likely be Chelsea. They have regressed, making mistakes in the transfer market, but the fact that four teams were in a position to leapfrog last season's Champions and take advantage again shows the strength at the top. 

The lesson of Burnley

Back to Burnley. That they could make the mid-point of the season competing with this top four is a just a sign of a good team. 

When they eventually went on a long 11-game winless run and yet remained in seventh, people used this as an argument of a poor league. This argument again, reaches the wrong conclusion. 

Uncompetitive and uneven, perhaps, but nothing do with a lack of quality.

Like a lack of a title race, it's a concerning, perhaps unhealthy example of a stretched and uncompetitive mid-table, but the distribution of points has little correlation with the quality of the teams. 

If anything, that the seventh-place team dropped points in eleven consecutive games, including to many in the bottom half, demonstrates the ability of bottom-half teams. 

West Brom and going backwards by standing still

West Brom finished 10th last season, 14th the season before that, and 13th the season before that. There has been no fire sale of talent, they still boast humdrum yet solid Premier League stalwarts like Jonny Evans, Kieran Gibbs, Ben Foster, Matt Phillips, James McClean and Chris Brunt - and adequate additions such as Grzegorz Krychowiak and Ahmed Hegazi. 

Yet they are bottom, and eight points adrift. This is a credit to the teams above them, and an improvement on previous total no-hopers Sunderland, Aston Villa and QPR at the foot of the table.

You can draw two conclusions from a side who were previously a sturdy mid-table club becoming certainties for relegation. The first is that their coaching has been inadequate. The second is that their competition in the bottom half is vastly improving. 

Their managers have been Tony Pulis, who was sacked after winning just two of West Brom's first twelve games, and Alan Pardew - who has won a solitary league game. 

There is a perennial development in the Premier League. These are coaches whose methods, at one point, worked. Less so now. Alan Pardew once guided Newcastle to 5th place and has done enough to keep others up. 

Perhaps it's too soon to write Tony Pulis off as he has an otherwise commendable record. He might have kept West Brom up, but after such a long run of poor form, action was understandable. 

What applies to West Brom also applies to the teams around them. Stoke City have been the 2010s prototypical mid-table club, yet find themselves in the relegation zone, Southampton similar since they came up. How many great players have these teams lost? Have they made suicidally bad decisions? No - it's just getting harder.

An ever-improving league

To look at the Premier League 2011, for example, is a strange thing. Ian Holloway nearly miraculously kept Blackpool up. Owen Coyle once earned plaudits at Bolton. Alex McLeish, Alan Pardew, Kenny Dalglish, Harry Redknapp and David Moyes were in work, and some of whom were doing well. 

These are all names that time has left in its wake. Though some, embarrassingly for all concerned, try cling to relevancy in the top-flight.

The same principle goes beyond the old-fashioned "proper football men", but also to those who once innovated. Jose Mourinho changed football in England but is unable to replicate that magic at Manchester United. 

Elsewhere, Arsene Wenger is ploughing on but in 2018 that amounts to the Europa League instead of consolidation in the top four. Rafael Benitez is doing excellent work, but instead of a European team, that's now at promoted Newcastle. 

Premier League football is ever-developing and improving. The approaches brought in by Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino and Antonio Conte have been refreshing and innovative. Remember this when you nostalgic reminisce about the supposed bygone glory days, which included Harry Redknapp at Tottenham or Roy Hodgson at Liverpool. 

There are questions about how competitive this league is and the ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots. But don't concern such issues with a lack of quality. 

It really has never been better.

What do you think? Is the Premier League getting better? Let us know by commenting below.