After Chelsea’s defeat at Porto and Arsenal’s capitulation to Olympiakos, Premier League clubs have lost five out of six Champions League ties so far this season – their worst ever return at this stage of the competition. We asked our football experts to explain England’s failings – and what needs to change to put it right.
Managers blame the physical intensity and competitiveness of the Premier League for clubs struggling in Europe. But it does not wash. Certainly not at this stage in the Champions League and, conversely, that argument can be turned around. If the Premier League is so competitive then presumably the standard is so much higher and teams are sharper, stronger, better-prepared.
Instead the failings appear to be down tactics. English teams do not play smartly, do not vary their approach. They do not manage the format or afford their opponents enough respect. They are often too gung-ho, too emotional and direct in the way they approach matches.
That is down to individual managers. In terms of helping English teams – a winter break is a must while, if they are complaining about fixture scheduling and tiredness, they need to tell the Premier League to make its planning more helpful to them. That has been happening but, clearly, if the managers are right, it is not working and needs to be looked at again. Maybe more Friday night football before European matches; more Monday night football after them.
There are always excuses but the Premier League clubs have extremely expensive, extremely strong squads and come from the richest league in world football. They really need to blame themselves for their failings and simply do better. It is their own fault.
Too much money, too little class
The gulf between the Premier League and the other major leagues is not one of quality, but solely of wages. English football is like a bubble gum pop song. Extremely popular, capable of generating lots of cash and something you can’t get out of your head, but (at the moment) lacking class and substance.
Our clubs are being fleeced by agents who know they can get their slice of the TV revenues by playing on fears that if they don’t sign ‘the next Ronaldo’ one of their rivals will. When an English side does have a player of Ronaldo, Suarez or Bale’s class, they’re whisked off to Spain. Barcelona and Real Madrid are emblems of the pyramid of power.
The greatest players who come here are just passing through. In the meantime, the continued emphasis on overseas players of a lesser standard is to the detriment of the academies who continue to talk a good game while (mostly) failing. Despite multiple reviews of the system, there is no easy solution.
You can’t make under pressure managers select England players just because they are English. They have to be good enough – but how do you make a sound judgement without playing them? Equally, any use of the word ‘quota’ summons an unhealthy image of Nigel Farage shouting at border crossings. Or makes you sound like you agree with Stuart Pearce. Neither is an attractive option.
It’s a logistical and philosophical mess. Cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield, Birmingham and London must be able to produce half-a-dozen top-class footballer every few years, so where have they gone? The only solution is to listen to those demanding a more competitive league for the 17-21 year-old academy graduates who are not getting opportunities.
The idea of a Football League revolution frightens people, especially in the lower divisions, but the alternative is waking one day to find a Premier League filled solely with overrated overseas players trying to impress Madrid and Barca scouts. In the meantime, Sky TV and BT may as well cut out the middle men and hand their cheques directly to the Jorge Mendes-es of this world as they and other major agencies reap the rewards of every fresh TV deal without so much as a pound’s earnings publicly declared.
The complicity as players, agents and managers makes themselves richer – ultimately with the assistance of subscription fees (which lead to further TV rights deal increases) – is scandalous and sickening. Nobody at any level of our game is demanding accountability. We are consistently denied genuine access regarding where all the money goes, while hypocritically turning our gaze to the finances of FIFA and UEFA. How about we start at home?
Look at the make-up of our Champions League squads and make an educated guess where all that TV money is going – so much of the cash is heading out of the country. And where does it go? It is subsidising the astute squad building of the Champions League rivals abroad. Clubs like Porto.
A few years ago, Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool were regularly reaching the latter stages of the Champions League with a combination of overseas nous and British heart. Terry, Scholes, Lampard, Gerrard, Neville, Carragher alongside top class foreign internationals … it is no coincidence since those players disappeared English clubs have struggled.
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The English aversion to defensive football is at the root of the current failings of Premier League clubs in the Champions League.
Arguments about the competitive nature of the Premier League, the lack of home-grown players or truly world-class performers simply shift the focus from the real problem of teams, and coaches, ignoring the importance of defensive organisation and discipline.
The supporters are also culpable in this, with Manchester United fans, for instance, chanting ‘attack, attack, attack’ at times when Louis van Gaal’s players are attempting to overcome teams with their possession-based tactics.
For English clubs to be successful once again in Europe, it requires an acceptance from all parties that defending is just as important as attacking.
Rafael Benitez guided Liverpool to two Champions League finals on the back of sound defensive organisation, while Carlos Queiroz’s influence at Manchester United, which saw Sir Alex Ferguson adopt a more pragmatic approach in Europe, was key to their 2008 success in the competition.
And Chelsea, in 2012, won the Champions League with some of the most memorable defensive performances of the past 20 years.
There is now too much emphasis on the attacking game, with a 4-3 Premier League victory regarded as proof of the league’s entertainment levels rather than a hard-fought 1-0 win.
At United, Van Gaal may yet find the balance between defence and attack required to progress in the Champions League, while Jose Mourinho’s track record suggests he will also find the right formula. But Arsene Wenger appears a lost cause at Arsenal and Manuel Pellegrini is another, at Manchester City, who appears only to have a forward gear.
A gathering complacency coinciding with reducing technical and tactical agility is to blame. For whatever reason it is, the quality of defending by English league teams has fallen behind those on the continent.
Watching Olympiakos last night, they defended with a tenacity and discipline rarely seen here, a solid line of blue shirts easily sufficient to withstand every tricksy Arsenal approach in the last 10 minutes. Yet this is the same Olympiakos who shipped three goals without reply in their first game in the group against Bayern. So they aren’t even that good.
They were, however, a whole lot better than the home side at the lost art of keeping the ball out of their own net (though it helped their goalkeeper didn’t throw it in there himself). All English clubs are being undone by their defending. Chelsea’s last night was rotten, shipping goals that will have had Jose Mourinho, a man who values nothing more than a clean sheet, tearing out his hair.
Why is it? It is not that they are unable to afford to bring in good players (though in truth the very best remain somehow tantalisingly out of reach). But for some reason they seem to reduce in the harem scarum rush of the Premier League, where it doesn’t matter if you let in a goal, the opposition defence will be so porous, you always have the chance of getting one back.
Liverpool won the European Cup four times and Nottingham Forest twice in the seventies and eighties by shutting up shop away from home and scaring the living daylights out of the opposition once on their own turf. English hopes would undoubtedly improve if they could learn how to play like their predecessors did so effectively.
A competitive Premier League
Even allowing for the mitigation that follows, the bottom line is that the Premier League should be doing rather better. England’s ‘big four’ have more financial certainty and power than any others clubs with the exception of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich yet the Premier League’s huge broadcast income has become a double-edged sword.
This is because the vast wealth is spread so evenly and has created a domestic competition of ever increasing intensity. It is easy to dismiss as an excuse the repeated explanation of English clubs being disproportionately weary in Europe. Yet when this reason is being consistently offered by managers of such experience as Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger, as well as players who have competed all over the world, we should really sit up and take notice.
It is not the only factor but is genuinely part of explaining what is now a steep decline since the period between 2005 and 2009 when English clubs were so dominant. A look at the respective league tables tells its own story.
Olympiakos went into last night having won five out of five in the Greek League and with a goal difference of plus 13. Porto are also in their customary position at the top of the Portuguese League whereas Chelsea and Arsenal are facing a weekly fight, as was shown in respective away games on Saturday at Newcastle and Leicester, to stay even around the top four of the Premier League.
The other big issue is the concentration of the world’s very best players at Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. England’s leading clubs are dealing not only with the strength in depth of their domestic opponents but the reality that, by and large, the absolute elite of world football play elsewhere. It is a pincer movement.
What can be done? A less equitable allocation of broadcast income, as is the case in Spain, would certainly help our leading clubs in Europe. It would simultaneously weaken their domestic rivals and make them able to compete with Barcelona, Real and Munich for the best players but it is surely not a price worth paying for diluting the Premier League.
It leaves the only other alternatives of doing more to mitigate rest by thinking harder about the fixture schedule and, above all, a relentless look in the mirror to see where we are coming up short in tactics, preparation and also recruitment.
There is not a single cause of the Premier League’s current Champions League travails, that is too neat and tidy, but if you are trying to sum things up quickly you can put it down to complacency.
Somehow the same arrogance and sense of entitlement that has hindered our national team for decades has managed to sour our club football too.
In short, we have taken European opposition too lightly because we had become too used to winning easily in the group stages. Arsenal are the perfect example, with their perfect record of qualifying for the knockout phase. Arsene Wenger has treated their two games so far as a continental version of the Capital One Cup.
We have become too fond of ourselves. The money in English football has made us believe we have the strongest squads, when all we actually have are the most expensively constructed. They are very different things in a team sport.
We are too prone to believing the horrendous hype of the Premier League, from the television companies who squabble over television rights. We have forgotten that to be the best, you have to prove it on the pitch. To beat teams, you have to take their threats seriously, or you will be punished.
Premier League clubs have had it too easy in the group stages for years. They had become boring and predictable and English clubs fell into the complacency trap as a result. It is a wake-up call, but not necessarily a sign of a long term decline. Recent results need to focus minds and deflate our arrogance.
Lack of game intelligence
There is a strange and defiant current of entitlement running through English football at the moment: trapped between the rock of not actually being any good any more, and the hard place of being convinced we still are. “We invented the game!” cry newspaper columnists and TV pundits and infuriated callers on talkSport phone-ins, whilst in the same breath urging our teams to play a bit more like Bayern Munich.
The truth is that the Premier League has no divine right to European dominance, or even European competence. If you’re compiling a list of, say, the greatest 20 sides in the history of European club football, how many would be English? One? Bob Paisley’s Liverpool, perhaps. Maybe 1999 Manchester United, at a stretch. And that, really, is the nub of the problem. English football has produced great European moments, but rarely builds great, era-defining teams.
You can’t tell me this is about quality. Did Olympiakos, PSV or Dinamo Zagreb have more talent on the pitch? Clearly it’s not about money or history, either. To my partially-trained eye, it’s about intelligence. The Champions League, in effect, is a cup competition. It’s tournament football. Every game offers a different style, a different challenge. You need players who can adapt, who can think their way through a game. You need leaders on the pitch, midfielders who can solve problems in real-time, defenders who can read play rather than simply react to it.
By contrast, the entire culture of English football, with its messianic cult of omnipotent managers refusing to shake hands with each other, is geared towards the soap-opera plod of the 38-game league season. It rewards players who put in a shift, chase down lost causes, play with abandon. In English football, we go again. In Europe, they start again.
The Premier League is falling behind for a number of reasons, such as the dearth of quality defenders and clubs trailing in the slipstream of rivals from Spain and Germany.
But poor recruitment is also impossible to ignore and a huge factor in the decline of English clubs in Europe. Take Chelsea, for example. After winning the title last season they should have made a huge statement of intent this summer but opted for Radamel Falcao, deemed not good enough for Manchester United, and spent months trying to lure John Stones.
Arsène Wenger’s failure to sign a defensive midfielder and another striker was inexplicable and underlines why Arsenal supporters feel like they are banging their head against a brick wall. Agreed, the signing of Petr Cech was a good one, but was a position he should have strengthened years ago.
The signing of Anthony Martial by Louis van Gaal also appears shrewd but the fee remains remarkable and there remains a sense that United’s attempts to recruit a Galactico this summer represented an episode of Supermarket Sweep. Bastian Schweinsteiger left Bayern Munich amid suggestions he was finished at this rarefied level.
Manchester City also signed Fabian Delph when they were pursuing Paul Pogba – which is like going out for dinner with the intention of feasting on caviar but having to settle for a Burger King.
Perhaps the structure of English clubs – with those dreaded words ‘transfer committee’ – is all wrong, maybe the scouting networks are failing, but recruitment needs to be far sharper if our clubs are to start making a splash in Europe again.