Sizing up the EPL

Updated: August 2, 2010, 4:52 PM ET
By David Hirshey | Special to

ArsenalCarl De Souza/AFP/Getty ImagesThe Gunners might not have much hardware of late, but the team plays some of the most stylish football in the Prem.

This is a frequently biased, mostly obsessive column by veteran soccer writer David Hirshey about the English Premier League (and, occasionally, the Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A) that will appear on Mondays and Fridays.

Post-Traumatic World Cup Stress (PTWCS) can do terrible things to a soccer fan. In my case, while yearning for the start of the 2010-2011 season, I have been forced to endure cut-rate U-20 squads disguised as EPL teams sleepwalking their way through absurdly profitable North American exhibition games. But be careful what you wish for, as even the real thing isn't perfect. There are elements of the EPL I find exhilarating and others I find exasperating. In fact, there are so many things that both delight and annoy that we had to divide this manifesto into two parts, the second of which will appear on Friday.


Technology has given us many wonderful things: e-books, TV on your phone, Justin Bieber. In 2009, it advanced sufficiently to give us a Genghis Khan-like horde of channels to vie for our soccer eyeballs. (And it even had the good grace to offer up games in HD.)

Even those fans of the less glamorous clubs -- I'm talking to you, Tottenham -- can see their overpaid heroes on a TV or computer screen. And despite what you may have heard in the buildup to the World Cup, they don't only play soccer in England and Brazil. You can now spend an entire weekend watching Dutch, German, Italian and Spanish soccer soap operas played out on oversized screens at your local pub, which is where you'll find me most Saturdays and Sundays from September to May, third seat from the end of the bar at Kinsale Tavern at 94th Street and Third Avenue in New York City. Identify yourself as a Prem-loving ESPN reader and the first beer is on me. Pay homage to a certain North London team and I might even spring for an import.


Why do the Lords of the Premiership engage in carny-like blather as though it's the convergence of "The Passion of the Christ" and "Mad Men" reimagined by Martin Scorsese? The EPL is a lily that needs little gilding, considering the 2010 World Cup, where virtually all of the EPL's top domestic and imported name brands were about as successful as Leno at 10. OK, Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas and Liverpool's Fernando Torres and Pepe Reina have some bragging rights, but all three of them sat out most of the tournament.

Of course, none of these inconvenient facts has stopped teams from changing their uniforms (as they do every season), knowing that they can gouge their supporters (as they do every season) for the Third Option Away Shirt that's either been tweaked and tugged so minutely that you can't even distinguish it from last year's model. I don't know about you, but I'm not paying $100 so I can show off the latest faceless corporation that paid handsomely for the rights to use my torso as a walking billboard.


Let's get it out of the way now. I've been a Gooner since 1971 when my dad brought home a video of the club's dramatic 2-1 Cup win over Liverpool to seal its first double (capturing an EPL title plus the FA Cup). So the chances are good that this won't be the last time you'll be hearing me breathe heavily about My Team That Plays the Prettiest Soccer in the EPL and Wins Nothing but Oohs and Ahhs.

That said, the past 40 years of Arsenal soccer hasn't always been so beautiful. There have been lean times when opposing fans taunted fans with deserved chants of "Boring Boring Arsenal." But under Arsene Wenger, the club has produced some of the most stylish -- not to mention infuriating -- soccer anywhere in the world. Arsenal fans deified foreign imports such as Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry for their skill and verve, even if the teams they inspired, apart from the 2003-2004 Invincibles who went undefeated, never quite fulfilled their grandiose expectations.

The fact remains that Arsenal hasn't won anything significant in five years because it has a manager whose idea of a shopping spree is seeing what's on sale at the U-17 store. Wenger stubbornly clings to his romantic vision that Arsenal doesn't need seven-figure talent because he believes his young players are better than any overhyped veterans on the transfer market. As the new season approaches, here's hoping Wenger has an EPL epiphany before Arsenal disappears into the miasma of mid-table.

DON'T LIKE: CHELSEA (except for Yossi Benayoun)

If you read from the Wenger Bible, you know that the snake in the Garden of EPL is wearing the royal blue of the West Londoners. The club's owner, the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, was the league's own George Steinbrenner. Though he's since been out-Bossed by Man City's Sheikh Mansour, Abramovich has done more than his part to jack up transfer fees and player contracts into the stratosphere ($48 million for Andriy Shevchenko!) while building a juggernaut that has won three Premiership titles in the past six seasons.

So why are they so unlikable?

Some of it has to do with the legacy of Jose "The Special One" Mourinho, whose preening arrogance alienated everyone but Chelsea fans before he took his LeBronesque talents to Milan and most recently Madrid. And yet Chelsea remains no more cuddly under current coach Carlo Ancelotti. It's not enough that they still have serial diver Didier Drogba, serial adulterer John Terry and serial jerkbag Ashley Cole. No, it's that while they can clearly play electrifying soccer, they rarely do so, preferring to grind out victories while relying as much on physicality as creativity. The arrival of the inventive Benayoun, who fled the hot mess that was Rafa Benitez's Liverpool, at least inspires hope. Then again, Joe Cole, for all of his considerable technical ability, could barely get any games at Chelsea and went in the opposite direction to Merseyside. So, yeah, I can't stand Chelsea. But as my friend Will Blythe says about Duke: To hate like this is to be happy forever.


Ever suffered through a September game involving the Kansas City Royals and the Baltimore Orioles? No offense to fans of either team, but the fact that the result has little or no consequence makes the game as interesting as watching a Ben Affleck film from the past decade. With nothing actually at stake, players go through the motions, safe in the knowledge that whatever the outcome, come next spring they'll still be slugging it out with the Yankees and the Red Sox. But imagine for a second if they found themselves in danger of being demoted into Triple-A ball if they didn't win that game. That would inject some electricity into those late-season contests, wouldn't it?

And so we get to a fundamental difference between soccer and traditional American sports, and it's something that makes my heart soar -- those relegation fights in which every goal and point earned could mean the difference between prime time and irrelevance. As a result, you see it all laid out on the field every weekend as teams fight to avoid becoming the hapless footnote, destined to disappear into the black hole of the second-tier. Instant drama and the ultimate display of cause/effect. When was the last time the Pittsburgh Pirates could say that about their 162nd game of a season?


The consequences of these struggles make for must-watch TV, though understandably, the teams mired in the relegation morass are there for a reason. With little money or talent to keep up, the bottom-dwelling teams play a brand of soccer better known for robust tackling and scrappy defense, with the odd spasm of skill thrown in for good measure. Still, they're no patsies. Witness burly Burnley in 2009/2010, who beat ManU, Everton and Tottenham and tied with Man City, Aston Villa and Arsenal (that season's top six EPL clubs). Not too shabby, yet Burnley still took the ignominious plunge into the purgatory of the lower leagues.

[+] EnlargeLuka Modric
Jan Kruger/Getty ImagesThe artistry and flair of Luka Modric is a joy to behold.


As heretical as it is for an Arsenal fan to say anything nice about our bitter London rivals, I am, for better or worse, a sucker for the few ball wizards in the EPL -- an elite group that includes ManU's Dimitar Berbatov (when he can be bothered to put in the effort), Liverpool's Joe Cole and, of course, the entire Arsenal team. In a league that puts a premium on fast, muscular play, they are not always the most effective players on the field but their artistry and flair are still a joy to behold. Mini-Modric, at 5-foot-9 and 148 pounds, is like a waterbug skittering around an armada of whales (have you seen Tom Huddlestone recently?) as he orchestrates the attack with his deft touches and seeing-eye passes. He's the Croatian version of Xavi, who majestically waved the baton in Spain's midfield en route to their first-ever World Cup title. Since this clearly means that Modric doesn't play anything like a Tottenham troll, it's OK to admire him.

[+] EnlargeJoey Barton
Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty ImagesJoey Barton stands over one of his victims, in this case Xabi Alonso back in 2009.


Thanks to the wonders of relegation, we were spared an entire season of Barton's knuckle-dragging antics when Newcastle United were dumped from the EPL in 2008/2009. Sadly for us, after winning promotion from the lower-level championship, the Magpies are back and so is their psychotic enforcer.

For those of you who are not conversant with Barton's brutal body of work, allow me to share a few lowlights: He once extinguished a lit cigar in a teammate's face at a Christmas party. He assaulted a 15-year-old Everton supporter during a summer pre-season tour to Thailand. He punched a teammate so hard in a training ground dust-up that he detached the guy's retina. He was caught on camera repeatedly hitting and kicking a man outside a fast-food restaurant. And he broke a pedestrian's leg while driving late at night.

Following the most recent World Cup debacle, he opined that he's as good a player as anyone to wear the England shirt in South Africa. This would certainly be true if the Three Lions were fielding a team of maximum security prisoners.

David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed 2008 soccer documentary "Once In A Lifetime."