Arsenal, Chelsea and et al…time for a wake-up call?
With Arsenal and Manchester United crashing out of the Champions League in the round of 16 to Bayern Munich and Real Madrid respectively, every journalist across the country has been asking anyone in English football who has an inch of clout, from ex-Liverpool coach Phil Thompson to Three Lions boss Roy Hodgson, whether the Premier League has lost its way, and will this be the end of the English game?
Last night, Arsene Wenger, defiant in defeat after the Gunners’ impressive but futile efforts to turn over a 3-1 defecit, claimed that Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal’s failure to impact Europe’s most prestigious competition this season was a “massive disappointment for English football…a massive wake-up call” and furthermore, “we accept the rest of European football has caught up with us.”
But is it really all doom and gloom? Should we really let one unsuccessful year dictate the state of the Premier League, despite the fact we are home to the reigning Champions of Europe, Chelsea FC? Or rather is it a case of taking a year out, or even just a campaign riddled with slight misfortunes for the English clubs, such as Nani’s now infamous red card.
Part of the logic behind the argument supporting the Arsenal boss’s claim is the poor showing at the top end of the Premier League table this year. With the title race very quickly becoming a one-horse affair as Manchester City and Chelsea struggle for form, Manchester United didn’t need asking twice to take advantage of the situation and form a seemingly unbreakable lead on their rivals, creating a 12 point gap between themselves and second place.
In my opinion, the Premier League title was already decided when Arsene Wenger allowed Robin Van Persie to leave for Old Trafford in the summer, but it is certainly true that although the Red Devils have played well and deserve their credit for producing some exciting football along the way, the rest of the Premier League elite have hardly risen to the challenge.
But to declare the English game is in disarray is rather short-sighted, and ignoring the cases of each particular club. Manchester City have struggled with the inevitable burden of being reigning champions for the first time. It’s an experience none of the squad have had before, and the situation wasn’t improved by some the mild calibre of reinforcements brought in during the summer; Javi Garcia, Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair are all good players, but should they really be part of a title-defending side?
Similarly, the ticking time-bomb that was Mario Balotelli’s City career finally exploded, and there has been an overall struggle at the club to meet fans’ expectations. Samir Nasri, Yaya Toure, Vincent Kompany and Gareth Barry are still yet to find fifth gear this campaign, and it is now most likely too late.
Chelsea’s season was essentially over before it had started following the sacking of Roberto Di Matteo back in November last year. It was not the Italian’s departure that sealed their fate, but rather the appointment of Rafa Benitez, which would put the interim manager, the players, the owner and the club under constant media scrutiny with a new controversy or dramatic episode rearing its ugly head on a weekly basis around Stamford Bridge.
The Blues have lost out this season simply due to the club’s inability to find any stability on and off the pitch, and furthermore, the first-team is transitioning between two generations of players that are fundamental opposites; whilst the Old Guard pride themselves on their physicality and mechanical nature of their play, the new boys, such as Eden Hazard and Oscar, are all about technique, skill, flair and improvisation.
Meanwhile, Liverpool and Arsenal, two Premier League heavyweights and former members of the traditional top four, which Alan Hansen once declared would never be broken, have been suffering from their mistakes in the transfer market. Whilst the former can be accused of being rather over-zealous in their offers made for mainly English talent, the latter have been unambitious, and it has lead to the gradual depreciation of the first team. Although I have firm faith in Chelsea and Manchester City putting on a better showing next season, the problems at Anfield and the Emirates are structural, and will take longer to overcome – especially now that Tottenham have proved themselves as real contenders this year.
One can’t deny however, that defending has quite simply gone out of the window this year. It’s created some excellent episodes of Match of the Day, but it’s not hard to work out how English clubs have been caught out by their more clinical and defensively organised continental rivals, proven by some statistics provided by The Guardian calculating English teams have let in on average 1.4 goals per game in Europe this year, up from the 1.1 goals per game from last season, and the 0.89 from 2010/2011.
It’s not an institutional problem as such, but rather how the English game evolves in terms of cycles. Whilst this campaign, scoring goals has been the impetus – a characteristic personified most by Man United, who have three strikers capable of scoring at least 20 goals per season – that at some point will naturally shift back towards organisation and defensive stability, as soon as one club proves it is the most efficient way to win the title, just as Jose Mourinho did back in 2004.
Similarly, the Premier League’s reputation for being the best in the world is perhaps a case of hyperbole. Although we have the thickest spread of talent throughout the division, compared to the top flights of other European countries, I find it difficult to claim the title of being the world’s best whilst the two figureheads of World football currently, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, both ply their trade in La Liga. Furthermore, the startling ease at which the ex-La Liga cohort at Swansea City have took to the English game and performed well, without requiring time to acclimatise, should go some way to change English preconceptions about middle-order players from the Spanish top flight.
The German League is also on the up. The rise of Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga has improved the whole division, and there is now considerable quality throughout. But to say that they have “caught up” with us would certainly be an overstatement. This season is the first year since 2001/2002 that there have been two German clubs in the quarter final stages. Furthermore, since 1996, English clubs have reached the quarter-finals 33 times, whereas Spain sits at 32, and Germany a long way off with 20.
Just as it would be wrong to base your opinions on Manchester City’s, Arsenal’s, Chelsea’s or even Liverpool’s future on one season alone, it would be wrong to judge the English game on the same premise. It is clear that this year represents a blip in form, with some transitions at domestic level affecting performance in Europe.
Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal have all had poor campaigns by their usual standards, and the Premier League’s most in-form team, Manchester United, that could have gone on to mount a serious challenge for the Champions League trophy, were eliminated from the tournament via a rather dubious refereeing decision. To truly discover whether English football is falling to the wayside, it must be judged on a season in which our clubs are firing on all cylinders, and yet still come up short in Europe, not whilst our top teams are still getting their houses in order.