“We accept that the rest of European football has caught us.” As Arsène Wenger reflected on his side’s exit from the last 16 of the Champions League for the third successive season, he brought to attention the troubling statistic that for the first time since 1996, no English side has successfully negotiated its passage to the quarter finals of Europe’s premier club competition.
“It’s a massive disappointment for English football. We have to take that into consideration when we think about the future of the Premier League.” So what is the future of the Premier League? It is tempting to not look beneath the surface of the plight of England’s top clubs. Arsenal have been unable to mount a serious challenge for either European or domestic silverware for some years, Manchester City have yet to master European football whilst Liverpool are still undergoing a period of redevelopment. It would also be easy to explain away Chelsea’s catastrophic defence of their maiden Champions League crown as a result of their merry-go-round of managers and the generally farcical situation down at Stamford Bridge.
These, seemingly, are all short-term problems that can be turned around in a season or two. An English side won the Champions League last year and it can win it again next year. 2013 was just a momentary blip. But don’t let appearances fool you. In reality Europe has been catching and since overtaken the English as long ago as Manchester United’s defeat to Barcelona in the 2009 Champions League final. The sight of Cristiano Ronaldo moping about the Stadio Olimpico as Barcelona celebrated their victory was telling. His heart was no longer in England, but instead he wanted to follow the trophy to Spain – the most glamorous league in the world.
This is the crux of the problem. As much as we kid ourselves that the English league is the best in the world due to its strength in depth, the ultimate for the superstars of this world will always be to play in Spain or even Italy. You only have to look at the plethora of big-name movers from England to the continent to realise that ultimately the Premier League is not top of the food chain. Henry and Fabregas to Barcelona, van Nistelrooy, Alonso and Ronaldo to Madrid, Vieira to Juventus to name but a few. However many various mitigating reasons for each move, whether they be going back to their childhood club or looking for a new challenge at the end of their career, it is somehow hard to imagine the Premier League luring any La Liga superstars away from their sunshine and tapas.
This issue is compounded by the Premier League’s inability to produce genuinely world-class English talent. Thus it has seen itself overtaken by a rejuvenated Serie A and Juventus in particular, and even the Bundesliga as Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have outshone the English champions Manchester City in successive group stages.
The success of previous years has been misleading. The Spanish giants will always be at the top of the European tree whilst the other leagues fight it out to be the best of the rest. During the last decade the Premiership has taken advantage of the turbulence in Serie A and a relatively weak Bundesliga. But as Wenger rightly points out, Europe has caught us up and we will have to say adios the days of English clubs punching above their weight.
By Alex Tyndall
Hang on a second. Didn’t Chelsea win the Champions League just last season? It seems a bit premature to be panicking about English football’s place in Europe when just twelve months ago a club that finished sixth in the league was crowned European champion. The English have been enjoying a glut of success in European football in recent times, with finalists (and winners) seven years out of the last eight. The fact is that English football is undergoing a sizeable domestic shake-up at the moment, though. It’s not the same as a decline to suggest that the powers-that-be in English football are changing.
The first signs of this shake-up came in the topple of Liverpool – Champions League finalists as recently as 2007 – from their regular spot in top four places and the big-money rise to success of Manchester City. The clubs that we’d have called “top”, ten years ago are being usurped one at a time by clubs who were previously knocking on the door of Europa League places. Arsenal, Champions League finalists in 2006, have been haemorrhaging top players to other clubs with high aspirations, and this year they look like dropping out of the top four for the first time since 1996. Meanwhile, Manchester City have blasted their way into the Champions League spots and Tottenham have announced loudly their own claim to a top-four finish. So, with new blood coming into the top four, the Premier League big dogs such as Manchester United can’t afford to slip even for one weekend, so tense is the competition for Champions League qualification. As I write, there are eleven points separating the team in third from the team in eighth. This time four years ago, the gap was double that. With such a fierce domestic competition, key players are going to be working harder than ever at weekends which will naturally affect their midweek performances.
European football isn’t the same as Premiership football; it requires a different managerial approach and more careful man-management to keep top players fit to play both at the weekend and Wednesday night. That’s the sort of expertise that can only come with experience. Roberto Mancini hasn’t got it right yet but frankly he can afford to buy a whole separate world-class squad to play midweek. It’s probably only a matter of time before he does so. The point is that success in a new tournament can’t be taken for granted. Once things settle down again in the Premier League and the new top clubs get used to their status, we’ll see English names back on the big trophy again.
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