The season isn’t over and yet we can confirm 2015/16 has laden another layer of mire on top of the English Footballing Reputation. Why? Because of our continued failure in the Champions League, the competition in which the best teams from each European country are pitted against each other in a crescendo of money and talent.
Although plucky Manchester City limp onwards to represent the Premier League in the quarter-finals, they do this on the back of defeating an unmistakeably average Dynamo Kyiv side. If and when the draw for the quarters brings a Barcelona or Bayern Munich to their door, we will then confirm our League’s true lack of quality once more. The competition has become, for English teams at least, a scrabble to see who can avoid these top teams the longest and therefore progress the furthest.
At the start of every season, the sensationalising English media whip us all into a frenzy and convince us that one, a few or all of the English teams entering the Champions League have a chance of winning. This hasn’t even come close to being true for 4 years now since Chelsea won in 2012, and even then no one could argue they actually deserved that title on the strength of footballing quality.
As a nation, under Roy Hodgson’s England, our severe deficit in quality is a fact that has long been accepted. However at club level, as a nation on the European stage, fans and journalists react to our failures like they are still a surprise, or an injustice.
So where does the over confidence come from?
You could point towards the widely purported notion that the Premier League is ‘the best league in the world’. Every season we all squawk this self-endowed mantra like a gaggle of geese staring at a brick wall, while the Germans and Spanish guffaw behind us.
Any time we, as a league, possess a world class playing or managerial talent, it is usually by sheer luck (Gareth Bale springing out of nowhere, for instance), or because we’ve given them so much money that they take the cut in quality (Pep Guardiola), or because they have been cast off, unwanted, by a superior foreign club (Mesut Ozil, Angel Di Maria). While these factors give us a taste of being equal, up in the higher echelons of European football, it is akin to eating a vegetarian sausage and swearing blind that you’re munching on juicy pork. We just don’t compete, and we know it.
The over confidence surely comes from our past success in the Champions League. Between 1998 and 2012, a fourteen-season period, we won four Champions League titles. Not too shabby. Between 2004 and 2012 we were involved in seven of the eight finals, winning three. Very strong.
But we are failing to realise that we have been not just second best but third or even fourth best for longer than we think.
Let’s strike out Chelsea’s 2012 win as a ridiculous anomaly, built upon a lot of strong defensive work, a bit of luck, and Drogba. You then look back on previous years and see that since 2008, every single final has involved a team from Spain or Germany. Barcelona or Bayern Munich, to be exact, on all but one occasion. It is from 2008 that I believe the rot began.
So what caused it? Why are we so far behind the quality of Europe’s elite?
It’s not a coincidence that these two omnipresent nations are also currently the strongest at international level. Despite swathes of foreign players in all leagues, the two come hand in hand; the last 3 international tournaments have been won by either Spain or Germany. Our Champions League successes coincided with our ‘Golden’ English generation of Lampard, Gerrard, Rooney and co. PSV won the Champions League in 87/88, and then the Netherlands went on to win the 88 Euros. Our rot since 2008 can be partly attributed to our rot in terms of English player production.
How much of a factor is money? It certainly contributes to success. Before money flooded the footballing world, winners of the European trophy were wide-ranging – as obscure as Red Star Belgrade and Steau Bucharest. In the 20 years before 1995, 10 different ‘nations’ won the club European trophy of the time. In the 20 years since, only 5 different nations have done so. I believe this is money diluting the game and concentrating the success toward who spends most.
In terms of the Premier League, if it isn’t the best League in the world it is no doubt the wealthiest. So why aren’t we winning on the European stage anymore? I believe it’s partly down to the inflation of fees Premier League teams are forced to pay due to the common knowledge of their wealth. We pay over and above for average-to-good players. When foreign clubs deal with our pockets figures go through the roof as the rap their fingers in greedy delight – holding us to ransom in the knowledge that we can handle huge outlays.
And yet, we can’t buy world-class talent if they don’t offer themselves to us. Our highly competitive and world class league left in 2008, shortly followed by Cristiano Ronaldo and Sir Alex Ferguson.
Our failures could be down to our notoriously critical media and fans putting too much pressure on. Long cited (and still cited) as the reason for our failures on the international stage, but sadly something that is simply a waste of energy to think about, as it could never be rectified.
And finally, we come to the one remaining potential reason – The Winter Break. A phrase that has cursed English football for nearly a decade now due to a slew of foreign managers coming to our shores diagnosing our international failures as a result of our lack of a winter break. When our Premier League teams return to the Champions League every February after a gruelling December and January period, we face better players with fresher legs.
I don’t think we will see Premier League dominance in Europe again until we accept and attempt to rectify our issues.
Next season looks like fun – if Leicester, Spurs and West Ham all qualify for the Champions League we can see players cherishing and fighting for every moment again, fighting to be part of the elite, rather than assuming we are. It may also force Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and co to conduct some long overdue self-assessment.