International football receives a fairly bad press these days. Some of it is fully deserved, although any sporting enterprise willing to put up with the barely fit for purpose Fifa probably gets what it deserves, and some of it is an unavoidable result of the rapid evolution of the rest of the game.
What was once the crème de la crème has turned into something a little more stodgy now the leading performers in the world can be seen on a weekly basis playing for their clubs. A couple of generations back you would have had to wait for World Cups every four years to catch a glimpse of Lionel Messi or Neymar. In 2013, if you have any sort of access to a sports channel, or ever walk into a pub, it is actually quite difficult to avoid them.
It is frequently stated that the Champions League has done most to hijack the glamour and exclusivity that used to belong solely to international football, and it is certainly true that standards are higher at the top end of the Uefa tournament and players have started to regard lining up under lights with the theme music blaring in the background as a sign of arrival more significant and desirable than pulling on the shirt of their country.
Were it not for the fact that it is still a glorified knockout competition one would have little hesitation in describing the Champions League as the best league in the world; there is no doubt it is the home of the most impressive, most seductive football.
The Premier League's claims to be the best in the world, on the other hand, are usually scoffed at. The best players are in Spain, the best teams in Germany, and so on. That may be so, but Mesut Özil has become the latest player to sing the Premier League's praises, describing it as the strongest because it is so balanced and the competition is so fierce. The Arsenal playmaker may just have been being polite, or reassuring himself that he has not taken a downward step from La Liga, though a German with a big reputation in Spain at least ought to know what he is talking about when he makes comparisons between countries.
Özil also mentioned that the league table, with Arsenal level on points with Liverpool at the top, is just a snapshot after a mere seven games, and that is undeniable. As snapshots go, however, it contains a wealth of interesting detail. No one imagined that Arsenal would go so well after their opening-day humbling by Aston Villa, or that Liverpool would settle down so quickly. Two teams who did not change their manager in summer are above all the clubs who did, although in terms of changing manager the most notable rise has been that of Southampton under Mauricio Pochettino. Avoiding relegation and stabilising the club last season was just a preliminary. The Saints currently occupy a Champions League spot and looked exceptionally good in winning at Anfield.
When the domestic programme returns, Southampton find themselves at Manchester United. That fixture would hardly have stood out at the start of the season, though few would have anticipated that Southampton would go to Old Trafford higher in the table than their hosts, with supporters feeling that players such as Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw should have been recognised by England. Rickie Lambert's elevation made a good story, but there is a solid core of England talent behind him and behind Southampton's success.
While David Moyes has a solid core of English talent at his disposal, he has not had the easiest of starts at United and was in danger of being humiliated by the bottom club last week before he was rescued by the get-out-of-jail card that was Adnan Januzaj. To say the 18-year-old looks a player would be an understatement. Moyes said the time was right and so it proved. He faces the trickier problem now, given that Januzaj has yet to commit to a contract extension, of managing expectation while giving the player enough games to progress. It is ironic, as Moyes is now being credited with being bold enough to put his trust in youth, that Everton supporters were just starting to grumble that he had been holding Ross Barkley back and it took a change of manager to give an obvious talent a run in the first team.
It was also ironic, after the media hoo-ha surrounding the reunion between André Villas-Boas and José Mourinho when Chelsea claimed a draw at White Hart Lane last month, that a much more unsung English manager turned up on the same ground last week and shocked the locals with a 3-0 away win. Sam Allardyce will have enjoyed that, particularly the bit where his novel, strikerless formation trumped the tactical input of the foreign coach who spent around £100m on players over the summer. Spurs were left wondering why they never thought of buying Ravel Morrison for £650,000. Harry Redknapp is currently telling anyone who will listen he is the best manager England never had, post-Brian Clough at any rate, but Allardyce was once in the running too. At various stages in his managerial career he has been the most prominent English candidate, yet those clueless know-nothings at the FA (© H Redknapp) preferred to look abroad or go for the supposedly safe option presented by Steve McClaren.
Allardyce would not have been a universally popular choice, but at least it would have been an honest one. For better or worse, he sums up what English football is all about. As distinct from Premier League football, which is all about imported talent, foreign influences and massive amounts of mis-spent money. The two worlds collide at Upton Park next Saturday, when Manchester City are West Ham's visitors. That fixture alone embodies what is unique about the English league. It is not so much a tilted playing field as an uneven surface with potholes and booby-traps. But every week you get a story.