Why the Premier League is no longer the best league in Europe

Fernandinho
Fernandinho and Man City lost to Monaco in the Champions League round of 16. (AP Photo)

The Premier League is no longer the best or even the second-best league in Europe.

Unless Leicester City miraculously makes the Champions League final in Cardiff, the Premier League will extend its drought to five years without a finalist in Europe’s top club competition.

To help define the growing divide between Premier League lore and the European reality, the German Bundesliga has sent at least one semifinalist to Europe’s final four in each of the past five seasons, while Manchester City’s 2016 run ended a three-year Premier League drought. When it comes to the quarterfinals, Germany has progressed nine teams over the past five years, while the Premier League has only managed to feature four sides in Europe’s elite eight over that same stretch.

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Based on the UEFA coefficient and in overall European play, Germany consistently produces better European teams than the Premier League. Accepting that the Premier League may not be better than the Bundesliga may be a bitter pill to swallow for the English FA, but acknowledging Spain’s place on the continental throne is a bit like acknowledging that the world is round these days.

With Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid in the quarterfinals of the Champions League for the current campaign, La Liga has now qualified three teams into the final eight in Europe for the fifth straight campaign. In addition to featuring the past three Champions League winners, La Liga has also sent two teams to the semifinals of Europe’s elite club competition for five consecutive seasons.

In contrast, the Premier League has only managed a combined two semifinalists over the past four seasons.

And yes, La Liga’s superiority over the Premier League extends past Barcelona and Real Madrid. In fact, five of the past six Champions League finalists have been from La Liga, with Italian club Juventus the only side to sneak into club football’s biggest match of the year. Clearly, Spain has a healthy lead over the Premier League when it comes to European play, and one should keep in mind that La Liga would have sent four sides to the quarterfinals in the current campaign were it not for two missed penalties by Sevilla in the round of 16.

In truth, even France has overtaken England when it comes to consistency and quality in the Champions League. Even with Paris Saint-Germain collapsing against Barcelona in the second leg of the round of 16, Monaco‘s impressive victory over Manchester City confirmed at least one Ligue 1 club in Europe’s final eight for the sixth consecutive season.

The Premier League did not advance past the round of 16 in 2013 or 2015. In 2016, Manchester City sent forward a side that had a lame-duck manager, while the Premiership’s 2017 quarterfinalist features an interim manager in charge of Leicester City. Even if the Foxes repeat Manchester City’s accomplishment of advancing to the semifinals, Leicester simply does not play the caliber of football that’s fitting of one of the top four or eight sides on the continent.

At best, the Premier League has been the third-best top flight in the Champions League with France making a rather convincing argument to push England’s ranking down to fourth. Add in that Juventus looks to be a serious contender in Europe on an annual basis and reached the 2015 European final, and Italy can make an argument that England is fifth in line when it comes to Europe’s elite.

Of course, European play includes more than just Champions League play, as the Europa League offers another form of cross-league measurement.

Again, Spain sits atop the pile, with La Liga collecting four of the past five Europa League titles and featuring 10 quarterfinalists over that that span of time. No other country has more than half as many quarterfinalists in the competition that was previously referred to as the UEFA Cup.

Germany and England both have five quarterfinalists since the 2011-12 campaign, while Italy has progressed four into the last eight. The Europa League, though, seems to cater to a broader set of European leagues. The Portuguese league has also progressed five teams to the quarterfinals since 2012, while Ukraine has qualified four sides into Europe’s final eight over that stretch.

Interestingly enough, Portugal has more Europa League semifinalists than England over the past five seasons and matches the Premier League in total finalists to Europe’s second-tier competition.

No offense to Ukraine and its league, but the fact that two different Ukrainian teams have made the semifinals in each of the past two years, which is one more semifinalist than England has managed over the past three years, speaks to the difficulty in pointing to the Europa League as proof of the Premier League’s quality among the elite.

Paul Pogba
Pogba and Man United squeaked past Rostov in the Europa League. (AP Photo)

With all that said, Manchester United appears to be the clear favorite to win the Europa League in the current campaign. Still, even Russian side Rostov had its opportunities to eliminate Manchester United in the round of 16, so an unexpected exit from the competition would hardly be a shock or change the Premier League’s standing in Europe.

For a league that proudly and regularly exclaims it is the best league on the planet, the facts suggest that that statement lives in an alternative reality. Calling the Premier League the third-best league is probably most accurate, though the cream of the Premier League crop is further down that ladder and struggles to even make the top eight consistently.

Admittedly, Premier League supporters aren’t rushing to watch Serie A anytime soon, but even Italy is not as far behind as one would think, as Juventus is a super club that does not appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.

The argument against Italy is that the Premier League has progressed four teams into the Champions League last eight over the past five years, while Italy has only managed three. However, the UEFA coefficient dropped Italy down to three Champions League spots starting with the 2012-13 season, so Serie A has been at a notable disadvantage in that 25 percent fewer teams have played in Europe’s elite club competition compared to England, Germany and Spain over that time.

And yet, Serie A has still managed one more finalist and currently features a far stronger challenger for the European crown than England. When UEFA switches to the new system of determining entry into the Champions League in 2018, when Europe’s top four ranked leagues all receive four guaranteed entrants into the group stages, Italy could quickly catch up and overtake the Premier League.

In terms of coefficient, Spain is considerably ahead of the pack to confirm its status as the best league in Europe and on the planet. Meanwhile, Germany leads England in the rankings with Italy close behind the pair. Ligue 1’s inability to progress past the quarterfinal stage of the Champions League in recent years and its failure to make any notable impact in the Europa League will leave France with just two automatic qualifiers to the group stages and one team that requires a playoff to enter the group stages for the foreseeable future.

Clearly, though, times have changed, and, at the minimum, the Premier League can no longer claim to be the best (or even second-best) quality league on the continent, let alone on the planet.

Shahan Ahmed is a soccer columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow Shahan on Twitter: @ShahanLA