The Premier League is marketed better than any other division. It currently has the best teams. But it is yet to sign a star at its peak.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s power is all about perception. That, more than anything else, made him the most ideal signing for this version of Manchester United at the perfect time.
It is thanks to his immeasurable talent that Ronaldo is viewed the way he is, so uniquely free of critique and general analysis because everybody knows what he’ll do. Before his debut against Newcastle United last weekend, which led to an astonishing debate over the long-standing 3pm blackout rule and whether it should stand, after both Sky Sports and BT Sport resisted the urge to change the kick-off time and show it live, there was no doubting he would score. It was accepted and expected; the only questions were when and how many.
Newcastle, much to their fans’ annoyance, were something of an afterthought, the unwilling invitees to a party they’d never be able to crash. For long spells they did but history and perception is all about the result. The home side were inspired by their returning hero who grabbed a brace in a 4-1 win. Everybody who dismissed any doubts had been vindicated.
The point here isn’t to subtract from or question Ronaldo’s ability, before anybody starts furiously burning their fingers on their keyboard or touchscreen in protest. It is to demonstrate that his ability to lift Manchester United to new heights and end a five-year trophy drought is unlikely to face scrutiny, because he is such a powerhouse of a footballer and a marketing tool, something he has earned through hard work. The usual microscope that would be thrust over a new signing with such heavy expectations on their shoulders won’t be used. He can get by on name alone. Arguably the only other player around with a similar luxury is Lionel Messi.
On Sky’s Monday Night Football last week, Gary Neville talked about Ronaldo being the greatest footballer ever. Predictably, his sparring partner, Jamie Carragher, went for Messi. It was the culmination of the narrative built around the strength of both Manchester United and the Premier League. They’d managed to lure a superstar. But like it or not, this is where English football has been found lacking: the ability to go and get the very best at their very best.
Neville stopped short of claiming Ronaldo will turn his former club into Premier League champions, and he admitted the 36-year-old, who became international football’s greatest ever goalscorer for Portugal in the last break, would be supplying a ‘cameo’. There is no doubting the legitimacy of signing Ronaldo, even at this stage of his career, but the narrative that his arrival shows English football is undisputed now as the best in the world does not necessarily stack up.
As a product, it has never been in question. The Premier League is marketed and packaged superbly. In terms of competition and entertainment, most people wouldn’t argue, and with Real Madrid and Barcelona beginning to wane, it could be said that it now has the best collection of teams. But its clubs have struggled to sign a truly elite player at their peak.
That isn’t to say the country isn’t littered with some of the best in the world – it is. But they don’t often arrive in that state; often they are brought in with potential which they go on to fulfil, such as Eden Hazard or Kevin De Bruyne, or more commonly, arrive with their reputation ahead of them, but at a difficult point in their careers, with the selling club’s blessing.
Chelsea’s capture of Saul Niguez is a perfect example of this. Over the past five or six years, the Spain international has been one of the hottest properties around as the perfect midfielder for Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid. He was a hybrid, mixing the grit, determination and work ethic Simeone demanded, with the guile and intelligence that made him target for a host of Premier League clubs.
At his peak, he didn’t budge from Atleti despite countless links with Manchester United, who it seemed needed a midfielder built in his image for some time. By the time Chelsea signed him this summer, still at the age of 26, he had lost his way. Instead of the sort of fanfare and – let’s be honest – saga he would have commanded a couple of years ago, he represented an opportunity for the Blues on transfer deadline day. Chelsea shrugged and took their chance; Atletico were happy for an initial loan deal with a €35m option to buy, less than half his highest value. That should tell you a lot.
His debut was far from ideal. Chelsea eased to victory over Aston Villa, but fans were far from happy with their new signing’s constant misplacing of possession. Unfortunately, that has been rather in-keeping with his more recent performances for Atletico.
Paul Pogba is an example of an English club buying a superstar, admittedly, but it wasn’t financially viable for Juventus to keep him at the time. Sergio Aguero is another, albeit he entered another stratosphere at Manchester City. Serie A has not been strong enough to hold onto the very best for around two decades now. Radamel Falcao was linked with Chelsea and Manchester United when he was arguably the best striker in the world, but by the time he spent a season on loan at each, he’d suffered a serious knee injury and looked a shadow of the player he once was.
The true challenge would have been to sign one of Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich’s best players when those sides were at their best and their top players were tied down to new contracts. That never happened. There were rumours about Sergio Ramos and Manchester United in 2015, Thomas Muller the same year and Robert Lewandowski the following summer, but usually they were trying to get better terms out of their current clubs. Bastian Schweinsteiger moved to Old Trafford around that time, but only with Bayern’s blessing; he didn’t make much of an impact.
Times may be changing, as already suggested. That will be telling with the next batch of superstars. Paris Saint-Germain have amassed a number of them, but their brightest hope in Kylian Mbappe is currently in the final year of his contract. Real Madrid have made contact and are favourites for his signature next summer, which suggests they may still hold the power despite the Premier League’s collectively deepening pockets. Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland is also set to be on the market and that is a battle most teams in England will believe they can win over European rivals.
It is hard to denounce the Premier League as anything other the best league in the world right now, but the final piece of the jigsaw will be signing a world superstar at their peak who isn’t looking for a progressive step in their career, or beating off competition from one of the usual suspects, namely Real Madrid. Spain has been the place for the very best players over the past decade; is it time for that to change?