This is an obituary that has been a few weeks in the making. With Manchester City’s departure last night, it was finally confirmed that there will be no English clubs in the quarter finals of this year’s Champions League. It’s the second time in three years this has occurred which has prompted much talk about the waning power of Premier League clubs to compete at Europe’s top table. It is always a dangerous business to try and weave meta narratives through something as chaotic and unpredictable as football, but when teams as diverse and contrasting as Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal all struggle it seems there is something afoot.
First, a throat clearing. This is a problem to be confronted by England’s biggest clubs and the Premier League, rather than by English football per se. Lord knows, the Football Association has enough to contend with trying to produce a successful national team and arrange Cup semi-finals before the tickets go on sale. So this is not a crisis of the national game.
The underwhelming performances of English clubs in Europe, including the Europa League, is made all the more stark due to the increasing lumps of money received by clubs in lucrative TV deals. The Premier League is set for a further douse of cash when the recently negotiated £5.14 billion broadcasting rights deal kicks in next year.
There is a school of thought that argues that with a surplus of money to spend in the transfer market, clubs are becoming less thorough in their recruitment of players. Now of course, it has to be stressed that PSG, Barcelona, Real Madrid and to an extent Bayern Munich also operate with extravagant budgets. On the whole though, English clubs are in a luxurious position. Last summer, Hull City spent more money on transfers than Napoli, Inter and AC Milan. When the new TV deal comes into play all 20 Premier League clubs will be among the 30 richest clubs in Europe.
It is this way of thinking, combining the very worst of the provincial ‘island mentality’ with a grossly conceited superiority complex, that threatens to undermine English teams in European competition
The argument that a greater arsenal of cash is harming our clubs is little dubious when it comes to the Champions League because the teams likely to be in the latter stages also spend big money; Barcelona and Real Madrid being the obvious examples. Some argue along the lines of necessity being the mother of invention; that smaller budgets result in more imaginative solutions and more of a focus on coaching and player development. Or that English clubs are being loaded with mediocre players by devious agents motivated by avarice. English clubs were hardly paupers, however, during their best performing years of 2005 to 2012.
Indirectly though, the wealth of Premier League clubs may feed into what I view as an atmosphere of complacency. While Manchester City were thoroughly outclassed, Arsenal and Chelsea all but knocked themselves out. Chelsea, with an away goal and facing ten men, rested on their laurels in the home leg against Paris St German. Arsenal panicked when they discovered they hadn’t swept aside little fancied Monaco within the first half an hour of their home leg, and in their impatience to put the tie to bed, threw it away.
Even as the post mortem was being conducted, there were some astonishing attitudes expressed from those who should know better. Philip Neville, working for a Middle Eastern broadcaster, claimed that the top four Spanish teams are fresher because they can relax against 60% of teams in La Liga, who Neville described as little better than League 2 standard. This level of ignorance is staggering. Aside from the ‘other Spanish teams’ excelling recently in the Europa League, in the last month alone Real Madrid have been held at home to Villarreal and Barcelona beaten at home by Malaga.
It is this way of thinking, combining the very worst of the provincial ‘island mentality’ with a grossly conceited superiority complex, that threatens to undermine English teams in European competition. When pundits, having seen our teams knocked out, are willing to show such disrespect to foreign leagues, you begin to realise how insidious this complacency really is.
The very best teams in Europe have some superstar footballers, but they display a genuine commitment towards the collective
From a technical point of view, I actually don’t think there is a lack of talent at our top clubs. Maybe not to compare to Messi, Neymar and Suarez or Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo, but I don’t think a lack of offensive quality is the issue. All our top teams can create against even the very best. As I alluded in this piece a few months ago, it is a drop off in the intensity of our defensive work that is letting us down. The very best teams in Europe have some superstar footballers, but they display a genuine commitment towards the collective.
There has in England been a shift towards the cult of individual; you only need look at the masquerade of transfer deadline day or the howls of fans on Twitter after a defeat. Their reaction is predictable; BUY NEW PLAYERS. We’ve forgotten that there are other ways to improve as a team other than buying players in the hope that a messiah will turn up. Let’s take Arsenal. Mesut Özil is a fantastic footballer, but it takes more than one player to shift a club who was scrapping for fourth every season up to Champions League contenders. Maradona at Napoli was an exception. We must return to a philosophy based on team balance and structure. In short, while others amount to more than the sum of their parts, English clubs are falling short of their ‘on paper’ potential.
There was also a great deal of ‘mirroring’ between 2008 and 2012 when Spain and Barcelona were dominant. Everybody was trying to ape their style of play. Now, there may well be much to take from how they went about their business but it won’t necessarily suit all teams and players. Arsenal aside, who were already attempting this aesthetic, Chelsea, Liverpool, United and City have all adopted a more technical, possession based game in recent times. This was done for very good reasons, but in the midst of this transition they appear to have lost what made them top teams in the first place; organisation, athleticism, pace of play and power. In an effort to blend in with the continental way, we’ve stood out as naïve pretenders.
You can follow Dan on Twitter: @ZeqiriDan
image courtesy of theguardian.com