José Mourinho is wrong: the Premier League is not as strong as it was

Contrary to claims by the new Chelsea manager, English football is weaker than it was when he was first at Stamford Bridge

Well he would say that, wouldn't he? José Mourinho has already been testing the nation's credulity with his talk of happy marriages and clubs that love him, but his claim that the Premier League is stronger than ever might just be the most transparent nonsense spouted by Chelsea's new manager, and that's saying something.

Palpably, the Premier League is not stronger than ever. It has just lost three of its most able, respected and experienced managers for a start.

David Moyes, who as Mourinho is bound to point out at an early stage of next season is at Manchester United without ever winning a major trophy, and it somehow feels even longer than that since Arsène Wenger won one. Mourinho was rubbing Arsenal noses in their lack of silverware when he was last working in this country. To return six years later and find the Emirates sideboard still bare is doubtless something he will find both amusing and useful, but it hardly points to a stronger, revitalised English competition.

In 2004, when Mourinho first arrived in England, Arsenal had just won the title without losing a game, an unprecedented feat in modern football. It is true that Preston North End were the first Invincibles, winning the inaugural English league competition in 1888-89, but in those days you played only 22 games and a quarter of the 12-strong league – Blackburn, Burnley and Accrington – could be found in East Lancashire. Arsenal, 115 years later, boasted players of the calibre of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira and Ashley Cole, and now, as Mourinho knows perfectly well, they don't.

Also in 2004, Liverpool were still a Champions League side, and had just appointed Rafael Benítez to replace Gerard Houllier on the basis of the Spanish coach's success with Valencia. Benítez won the Uefa Cup at the same time as Mourinho was winning his first Champions League trophy with Porto, and the reward for both was a job in England.

It has been a while since the major European competitions were regarded as a testing ground for the English league. Neither Jupp Heynckes nor Pep Guardiola have shown much inclination to come to England, and though Chelsea have won both the European Cup and the Europa League in recent seasons neither manager was able to build a career on the success.

In 2004, Liverpool had just made Steven Gerrard captain, had Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia in defence, and Spanish internationals of the quality of Xabi Alonso and Luis García. On their way to a somewhat unlikely fifth European Cup in 2005, they managed to despatch teams as good as Bayer Leverkusen, Juventus and, er, Chelsea in the knockout stages before producing their incredible comeback against Milan in Istanbul. Liverpool would be in another Champions League final two years later, proving that what many regarded as a fluke was in fact no accident. Benítez knew what he was doing, especially in Europe, and Liverpool now look back on the early years of his tenure as something of a golden period.

If Mourinho feels that Manchester United were not quite up to scratch in 2004-05 then he might have the germ of a point, since Sir Alex Ferguson ended up trophyless for only the fourth time in 17 seasons and the team finished a rather disappointing third behind Chelsea and Arsenal.

It depends how you look at these things, of course. 2004 was also the year United signed Wayne Rooney, began to realise that Cristiano Ronaldo could do far more than merely replace David Beckham on the right wing, and ended Arsenal's unbeaten run of 49 games. United's games with Arsenal at this time were something to behold. The one at Old Trafford in 2004 brought the famous food-fight, the one the previous season had seen the Arsenal players taunt Ruud van Nistelrooy over a missed penalty.

There may have been only a few clubs in with a chance of the title – leagues the world over are pretty similar in that respect – but English football was no wallflower 10 years ago. The Premier League was regularly producing the sort of intense, passionate fare that the rest of the world loved watching.

Despite Mourinho's claims to the contrary, it does not do that to the same extent at present. German and Spanish performances are the ones that take the breath away, players such as Alonso and Ronaldo have gravitated to La Liga, and Guardiola snubbed Chelsea to ply his trade in Germany. He gets to take charge of a treble-winning side and genuine European powerhouse, Mourinho gets to pick up the pieces at Chelsea and see if he can match Roberto Di Matteo's achievement in winning the European Cup.

Mourinho's contention that England is stronger than it used to be because there are now five or six sides competing for the major honours does not really bear close examination. The big difference since he was last here is that Manchester City are major players financially and domestically, even if they have yet to stride the European stage with real conviction.

Arsenal and Tottenham barely count as title threats, and Liverpool have dropped right out of the picture. It seems likely that Mourinho's arrival will turn a two-horse race into a three-horse one, and open up the title to a challenge from beyond Manchester, though that is hardly a signal of strength that the world will recognise. Manchester City haven't even got a new manager yet, and there is no guarantee that the first of the five trophies in five years that the new appointment is supposed to supervise will arrive at the end of next season.

As has been rightly pointed out, next season could be a great opportunity for Mourinho and Chelsea to take advantage of change and uncertainty in Manchester. But however you dress it up, that does not, cannot mean that the English competition is stronger, better or more glamorous than it used to be. Because at the moment English is second best. Everybody knows it, and Mourinho knows it better than most. He might bring the good times back to Chelsea, a club that somehow seems to regard the recent European triumphs as unsatisfactory, but he can't turn back the clock.

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