Is English football fading away from European glory?

Is English football fading away from European glory?

On Wednesday night, an inspired 10-man PSG proved to be too much of a task for Chelsea and a 2-2 draw sent the London club crashing out of the most prestigious football competition on away goals already after Round of 16. All the controversy and emotions from the match managed to somewhat overshadow one bleak prospect for English football: For the second time in the last three years, there is a real chance that there will be no representative of English football in the Champions League quarter-finals.

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With Manchester City and Arsenal facing deficits in away fixtures during the week and Liverpool, Tottenham and Hull City all out of Europa League, the Premier League can soon be left with Everton as the sole English team in European competitions. That is very unsatisfactory for a league that claims to be the best league in the world – and it is! The alarming decline of top English teams in Europe in recent years does not give a fair reflection of the quality of the Premier League. However, when a team that leads the league struggles against a 10-man team that is in second position in the French Ligue 1, it is a worrying sign.

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English Clubs in the Champions League since 2004/05 season. (BBC.co.uk)

Chelsea are far from being a bad team, under the lead of Jose Mourinho, with all the experience and personality of the team, they were the best equipped English club to carry the banner, yet they have been put out on the first step, and it must be said, deservedly so. Wednesday night’s game was easily Chelsea’s poorest performance all season with the Blues players often walking on the pitch. There was no desire, no urgency and a lack of ideas and creativity. PSG on the other hand showed heart and great character to come back from behind twice, the Paris team were at it from kick-off, pressing the Chelsea players and defending well. Perhaps the match defining moment was when Zlatan Ibrahimovic was harshly sent off for a tackle on Oscar. The moment seemed to have exactly the opposite effect on the game, rather than killing PSG hopes and sparking Chelsea, the sending off fired up the French side, while it appeared as if Chelsea wanted to walk the game to a 0-0 draw. David Luiz and Diego Costa should have both been sent off during the game with Chelsea also denied a penalty, however that is no excuse for the sluggish approach from Mourinho’s men and the manager knew it. After the game, The Special One admitted his team were not good enough and didn’t deserve to win and for once he opted not to bring up refereeing errors as the reason for his team’s exit, a clever decision as his team were simply outplayed by 10 men.

It all seems rather strange now, given that not too long ago, Chelsea were playing some of the best football in Europe and talks of a possible quadruple were a popular topic for some journalists and supporters. Even before the Round 16 draw was made back in December, Mourinho had hoped for his team to be drawn up against PSG and back then, it seemed like a reasonable wish with Chelsea looking unstoppable and PSG struggling in Ligue 1. However since then, a lot has changed about Chelsea. Something has happened to the team that was cruising towards the title in early December. First it was the draw at Southampton and Mourinho’s first claims of a clear conspiracy, followed by a 5-3 defeat at White Hart Lane, later a 4-2 defeat to Bradford, Diego Costa “stamps” all the way to the disgusting incident on the Paris metro. Few would argue that the Chelsea of the past three months is the same one that entered the Premier League in style. The Blues have not dominated a single game with the exception of the 5-0 victory at Swansea in a long time and the calmness and great link up play have been replaced by nervousness and some sloppy passing, with Chelsea throwing away a lead in 8 of their 16 games in 2015 (2 defeats, 6 draws). The assists of Fabregas has somewhat dried up, Oscar has disappeared like he did last season and Diego Costa until yesterday has not scored in 7 matches straight. Luckily for the Blues, Eden Hazard and Branislav Ivanovic have been making up for this sudden lack of contribution up front.

So back to the point, are top English teams truly getting worse compared to their counterparts in Spain, Germany and France? I don’t think they are, and I don’t think Chelsea were showing even half their full potential on Wednesday night, but then again, they haven’t for quite some time now. The Chelsea team that started the season was in line to at least reach the semi-final and would have walked over PSG. Similarly to Chelsea, Arsenal did not give an adequate showing of the full potential the team has. Had it not been a day off for Giroud up front and some abysmal defensive errors due to naivety and impatience, the Gunners would have taken something from the first leg at the Emirates. The positive sign is that they had created enough chances to at least draw the first game, meaning if they take their chances at Stade Louis II., they can yet go through, particularly if they can get an early goal. If Arsenal have any chance of going through to the quarter-finals – and they certainly have the team for it – every single one of their players needs to be at the top of their game. It will also depend on the tactics of Leonardo Jardim, who can chose to defend with 11 men and cement his goal, something he can afford with Arsenal in need of 3 goals.

Manchester City face Barcelona at Camp Nou and will hope to overrun the 2-1 deficit from the first game. Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Yaya Toure who missed the first game will be relied upon if Manchester City are to defeat the Catalonians. However this weekend’s defeat at Burnley is not a good base to build on for Manuel Pellegrini’s men, especially when their defense will have to face Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar rather than Danny Ings, Sam Vokes and George Boyd.

Financially, the Premier League is certainly not behind the La Liga, Bundesliga, Ligue 1 nor the Serie A, however the introduction of Financial Fair Play and the financial situation of top European clubs mean that only Manchester United can rival Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich in terms of money available for transfers. World class players arrive in the Premier League every year, Angel Di Maria, Cesc Fabregas, Alexis Sanchez, Diego Costa, Mesut Ozil, Christian Eriksen or Dusan Tadic to name a few, however with players such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale leaving and the likes of Rodriguez, Kroos, Reus and Muller rejecting the option to play in England, it raises the question whether the world’s best players opt to join Premier League clubs. It is worth considering that Di Maria, Ozil, Fabregas and Sanchez were all considered surplus at their respective clubs Real Madrid and Barcelona before joining the Premier League. Can it be that the decline in Europe causes that the most wanted players do not have an English team as a first choice of destination anymore? Is it that the only way for England to receive world’s top players is to collect the “unwanted” from other top clubs who need to balance their chequebooks?

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Chart showing clubs that reached Champions League quarter-finals since 2004 and their respective countries. (Highcharts.com)

With the exception of the 2009/10, 2012/13 and 2013/14 seasons, the Premier League had at least one club make it to the Champions League final in the last decade, with Chelsea reaching semi-finals last season and at least winning the Europa League a season earlier. The three English winners of the trophy in this period were Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea. In recent years, both Liverpool and Manchester United have faded away from the competition with Manchester City coming into the scene, so far with little success, accompanied by the ever-present Arsenal and Chelsea. Over this last decade, the most stable English representative have been Chelsea, who have reached the competition’s quarter-finals seven times, followed by Manchester United with six and Arsenal and Liverpool with a joint four. Overall that is not a bad number, however the rate is alarmingly decreasing. In the chart below, we can see how the numbers have gone down in the past few years compared to the statistics from the period between 2007 and 2011. In 2012 there was only one team (Chelsea), in 2013 there were none and last season it was Chelsea and Manchester United.

The question is, what is the reason behind this sudden decrease and more importantly, what can be done to stop it. One solution that is screaming out more than others is the introduction of a winter break. Of course, there was never a winter break when English football was at it’s best in Europe but even then, the like of Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger were in favour of a winter break and give their players some much needed physical and most importantly psychological break and an opportunity to spend time with their families. While players from every team in every other league had their legs up, Premier League players were battling it out between eachother for league points in what is regarded as a crucial period of the season. In conclusion, in a two week period where other players were on holidays, some Premier League clubs had five fixtures. Whether this would help English teams in the Champions League would remain to be seen, however it is certainly an idea worth considering for the FA.

However as mentioned previously, the lack of a winter break hasn’t impacted on top teams in Europe in the 2007-2011 period, so why (if at all) does it now? Well that’s because it wouldn’t be the only reason. The reason why the lack of a winter break might only be exposed now is the overall quality and competition in the league going up dramatically in recent years, with smaller clubs giving the top teams a tough battle in every single game. The Premier League was always very competitive and every game was difficult, however now, with the money being shared fairly among all 20 clubs, the smaller clubs have resources to bring in very good players from abroad and prove stiff opposition to even the best clubs in the country. In 2010/11, Chelsea entered the league with two 6:0 victories, Liverpool won games 5:0 and 5:2, Manchester United recorded a 5:0 victory as well as Manchester City. One season later, Manchester City had 5:0 and 5:1 victories, Manchester United won 5:0, Arsenal even recorded a 7:1 victory! How many of such results did we see in recent season? This season Chelsea won 6:3 and 5:0, Manchester City won 5:0, but that is about it.

The point is, it is becoming more and more difficult for top English clubs to defeat teams further down the table. Every game is a battle, anyone can beat anyone and this makes players more tired and consumes more of their energy than ever before. The big four of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal is not the guaranteed top 4 for the end of the season anymore. Manchester City and Tottenham have caught up with them and challenge them for their position. Teams like Everton, Southampton and West Ham have emerged this and last season, pushing for a European spot. Premier League is a very special league, with at least six teams having a good enough squad to challenge for the title, something unparalleled anywhere else. The fact that lower teams are getting more competitive as well means that players in England need to be at 100 percent every game they play and managers cannot afford to rest players as much as when Bayern Munich, Barcelona or Real Madrid are winning 6:0 in Hamburg or Elche respectively. The lack of a winter break doesn’t allow English players to recover the strength they used already against other Premier League teams and perhaps that is why, despite having one week off and PSG having only four days off, Chelsea have looked the more tired team on Wednesday and English clubs are failing to live up to their name in the Champions League and Europa League.