The European aspirations of English clubs have fallen apart again.
Chelsea are out of the Champions League, Manchester City and Arsenal look set to follow them. Liverpool and Spurs have gone out of the secondary competition, and the less said about Hull City’s European adventure the better.
Everton could quite easily be the only English team left in Europe come next Wednesday night, and after conceding an away goal to Dynamo Kiev in the first leg, their qualification isn’t exactly certain, especially given the long trip to Ukraine for the second leg. ‘The best league in the world’ may have no European representation after mid-march.
So why are England’s teams underperforming? Well, it’s that old chestnut again: the winter break.
The argument against having a break around the Christmas period centres on tradition and entertainment. We’ve always done it this way, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day games are traditional and so losing them would be unthinkable. And besides, it’s great fun! We all love the Christmas programme.
All of this I agree with. I love rubbernecking at the traditional Christmas 20-team pile-up as much as anyone else – it’s as traditional as mulled wine and fighting with the in-laws. But it’s killing our teams’ chances in Europe.
There is a claim that English clubs had dominated Europe in the noughties even without a break, so there was no need for a rest. They were fine without it. And to some extent they were.
Manchester United have won the Champions League twice. Arsenal reached a final and were beaten narrowly. Chelsea were beaten by Manchester United in an all-English final, but have won the competition themselves followed by a Europa League victory a season later. Liverpool have been in two Champions League finals, winning one, and have won the UEFA Cup, as it was back then. Middlesbrough and Fulham have both been to final of the Europa League/UEFA Cup too.
All of this has happened since 1999, proving that English clubs have at least been competitive in Europe, if not dominant.
But we are now halfway through a new decade and, with the exception of Chelsea, English clubs have been abysmal in Europe since the glory years of the noughties. There seems to be a sudden drop in competitiveness, and this is down to more modern methods of training and conditioning.
The Premier League has always been about pressing and physicality, it’s so quick that even just watching a top flight game can be a breathless experience. But the same can’t be said for other leagues; Spain and Italy are much more tactical and a lot slower, and although they can still be exciting, they don’t have the physical character that the Premier League has.
English football has also become a lot more competitive over the last few seasons. Even the teams at the bottom can beat the teams at the top, and sometimes the big teams need to put in huge efforts to win the game. This doesn’t always happen abroad and it’s a shock when Barcelona or Real Madrid lose to any team, even to teams we would consider big names, like Valencia.
But football everywhere has changed a lot over the last few years – in fact sport in general has changed a lot. These days, even lower league teams have fitness and conditioning coaches, players are given dietary regimes suited to their own body type and even what kind of player they are. If you look at the success of Team GB in cycling, you’ll see that a lot of it is down to this level of sports science, deployed religiously by Sir Dave Brailsford.
The cyclists had a team working on ‘marginal gains’ – they would look at things beyond coaching and fitness to see how they could give their team an edge over the rest. They came up with things like sleeping in a certain position, having the same pillow each night (especially important when you’re on the road), or putting heat packs on legs just before a race in order to keep the muscles warm between the warm-up and the race.
These helped the athletes to increase their performance. The idea is, even if the opposition is just as well coached, is just as fit and has just as much talent as you do, the millisecond of time you make up from doing these very small things will bring you over the line first. In elite sport, when things are so tight, you take whatever advantage you can get.
In a footballing era where you expect all of the top European clubs to have the same level of coaching and fitness, these marginal gains come into play. And in an era where coaches will micromanage every aspect of a player’s form and performance, it looks like these marginal gains are already starting to show.
But there is one area left where England, year after year, leaves its teams behind. It doesn’t matter how much English clubs gain from the small things, they are still going to be two weeks more fatigued than the rest of the competition by the time March comes around. And this is why English clubs fall apart in Europe.