You’ve probably heard of or read The Emperor’s New Clothes, a short tale written in 1837 by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen.
If not, this is the story…
Two weavers promise an emperor a suit of clothes that are said to be invisible to those who are unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent. In reality, they make no clothes at all but the trick is making everyone believe they have.
So when the emperor puts on the clothes and parades before his subjects, nobody is willing to speak up. Who wants to be seen as stupid, after all? The game is only up when a child cries out: “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”
The moral is to believe what you can see, not what you are told. Which brings us on to the Premier League.
Watch any game from England’s top flight and you’ll be bombarded with the message that it is the greatest, most entertaining league in world football.
It’s a message designed to keep people watching and it works spectacularly well. It’s why the Premier League TV rights are sold for billions of pounds and why countless brands and companies are willing to spend millions on sponsorship deals. Everyone wants a piece of the Premier League pie.
And the top flight cash cow shows no sign of slowing down just yet. The next round of TV rights will be sold later this year and there are new sharks in the water with Amazon said to be ready to challenge Sky and BT for rights packages.
It’s exactly what the Premier League higher-ups and clubs want. The more interested parties, the higher the price will be driven. Everybody wins.
But it’s this extravagance which may be beginning to do more harm than good for England’s top flight. The money on offer is so great that fear is creeping into the division’s ‘lesser’ sides and it is resulting in dour games, with the intent from both teams to avoid defeat rather than trying to win.
It’s understandable. Last season Sunderland, who finished bottom of the table after a frankly miserable campaign, received a reported £93.4million in television revenue.
For context, that is more than Juventus received for winning Serie A, Monaco received for finishing top of the pile in Ligue 1 and more than Bayern Munich received for strolling to another Bundesliga title.
So who can blame the owner of a Premier League side for hiring managers who are capable of setting up a resolute defence but offer little else?
There has been much discussion this season about the managerial merry-go-round which includes the likes of Sam Allardyce, Alan Pardew and Tony Pulis. It is they, not foreign bosses, who are now seen as the wall standing in the way of young British coaches because of what they offer a club: a steady-hand and as close as you can get to a guarantee of survival.
And that play it safe short-term thinking is often translated on the pitch. No risks, percentage football. Waiting for the opponent to make a mistake. They are valid tactics but they are hardly in keeping with supposed greatest league in the world.
Competition is what made the Premier League so captivating; the fact that every team, to use a footballing cliche, ‘had a go’. But we’re moving into an era where, unless a club is one of the big six, it’s easier to sit back and hope to nick a goal via set-piece.
Don’t misunderstand the point, however. There is nothing wrong with defensive or counter-attacking football if there is genuine ambition to win the game – Leicester City counter-attacked their way to the title in 2015/16.
But this season there have been too many occasions where a lesser side have gone up against one of the elite and accepted their fate.
Think back to Manchester City’s trip to Newcastle United in December. The Magpies, straight from kick-off, booted the ball upfield and retreated into their defensive shape.
Those watching the game would’ve let out a collective sigh. It was going to be one of those games. Attack versus defence for 90 minutes; no ambition, competition, no entertainment.
It was after that match that Sky Sports pundit and Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher spoke passionately about the future of the Premier League. Many felt he was over-stepping the mark with his comments but he certainly had justification.
“The Premier League is becoming a bit of a joke league,” he said. “The top teams are so far ahead of the ones at the bottom that, for those clubs, its almost like they’re accepting they’re going to lose the game, as long as it is only one or two-nil.
“The Premier League has been built on every team having a go, that’s why everyone around the world wants to watch it. Will they keep watching if they keep seeing football like that?
“I’ve seen it virtually every week. There has got to be some sort of aggression, some sort of plan for winning the ball back and then going forward. It’s a sad state of affairs for the Premier League.”
This ‘must not lose’ mindset is reflected in the numbers. Last October the CIES Football Observatory released a study measuring goals per game from 35 different European leagues over the previous two years.
The Premier League finished well down the list in tenth with an average of 2.75 goals per game, a figure behind the supposedly defensive Serie A (2.77), the Bundesliga (2.83) and La Liga (2.86).
Audiences are wising up too. Viewership of Sky’s live TV channels fell 14 per cent last season, according to the Financial Times. Total viewing hours dropped by six per cent, too. BT also saw a drop, but a less humbling two per cent.
It’s too early to tell if the trend has continued this season but it would hardly be a surprise if that is the case. England’s top flight is losing its unique selling point and over time that will prove costly.
The Premier League is not the greatest, most entertaining league in the world anymore. And if enough people decide to turn off, the consequences will be dramatic
Until then the story will be spun in the hope it’ll be believed. The Premier League is the modern day weaver, hoping not to be caught out.