You’d be forgiven for adhering to the bout of pessimism prevalent at the moment given the state of English football clubs’ performances in Europe.
Chelsea’s away goal Champions League exit to PSG, combined with Arsenal and Man City’s precarious second-leg tie status, are again damning evidence for another year that English football is dwindling on the European stage.
To add to that, Liverpool and Tottenham are both out of the Europa League and only Everton, rooted to 14th in the Premier League, six points above relegation after 29 games, have any attachment left to the continent.
The hypothesis that you deduce from that is fairly straightforward; for all of the glamour and decadence that the Premier League arrogantly portrays in it’s multi-billion pound television deal swag, the best club team’s in Europe are residing abroad.
The whole aura of disappointment comes partly from our (very high) expectations. Such are born primarily from, one, the financial might that England’s top teams possess (be it from investing oligarchs or the financial efficiency of the league itself), and two, the incredible run of success that English teams maintained between 2005 and 2012 in getting to the Champions League final.
Indeed, in 2005 it was Liverpool, 2006 Arsenal, 2007 Liverpool again, 2008 Manchester United and Chelsea, 2009 and 2011 United, and 2012 Chelsea. In 2013/2014, not a single English team made it to the quarters, and last year only Chelsea made it to the semis.
It’s that recent success, combined with the assumption that the Premier League is the finest of it’s kind, that makes us believe that an English team should challenge every year. In reality, English expectations in Europe are slightly miss-guided, because a bracket of ultra-exceptional clubs now compete every year.
Jonathan Wilson outlines this basic (but applicable) analogy in this article, but to paraphrase, Europe is now dominated heavily by a string of ‘superclubs’- a collection of around eight teams who have a chance of winning the Champions League every year.
Why? Primarily because of Financial Fair Play, but also because of the changing structure of the tournament itself, which demands more knockout games than it used to. That is beside the point, though.
While the notion of there being exceptionally strong clubs in Europe may feel familiar, it has never been the case in the past. Madrid won it five times in a row in the sixties and Ajax three times in the seventies – the last side to retain it was Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan in the nineties. Essentially, the Champions League is more competitive in the sense that a different team will win it every year, but it’s effectively significantly less competitive because the same eight or so teams will always make it to the final rounds. Never again will you see an ‘outlier’, a Steaua Bucharest (winners in 1986) or a Red Star Belgrade (1991) shock the tournament again.
Either way, the overtones of this change is that the European stage has never been so vehemently contested by that collection of ludicrously strong teams. A superclub will always use their might to stay absurdly strong – Spurs, for instance, had a 2011 surge with Luca Modric and Gareth Bale, but both players eventually migrated to Madrid and won the tournament three years later in a different strip. Liverpool, once the stronghold of the world’s finest collection of players ceded their golden booted Luis Suarez to Barcelona in the summer for a monolithic figure that only the very privileged can outlay.
Of course, this dominance has clearly coincided with some shortcomings in the English game – the ‘superclub’ analogy doesn’t wholly explain why England itself hasn’t produced a team of un-nerving quality in the last couple of years.
But overall, recent trends as a whole are more representative of the fact that English teams have continued on their projected rise in the last couple of years. They’ve steadily got better, while the boat of European elite have all soared exponentially into mega giants. Have so many world class players ever resided within so few clubs?
In light of that, our maligned expectations ought to change. Barcelona, Madrid and Bayern are all undeniably in a superior state at the moment. The tide will inevitably turn back in England’s favour at some point. In fact, it would be pertinent to remember that a country’s European dominance appears to happen in phases; in the nineties Italian teams had their heyday; at the turn of the Millennium it was Spanish; the mid to late noughties was the time for the English and recent years has seen a minor German revival and a profound Italian decline. Pinpointing when England will have it’s fightback is an elusive task.
But if anything is certain, Europe’s next big challengers will only be one of those superclubs – so it’s down to England’s elite to buck up their ideas.