Every year we hear the same accusation: that Premier League clubs are falling behind in the Champions League.
Between 2005 and 2012 there was only one year when no English side made the final of the Champions League. Since Chelsea’s Munich triumph, no English team has appeared in the final of the competition. It sounds like a sudden and sad demise, but the truth is that although Chelsea won the competition, it was with arguably their weakest side since Jose Mourinho won his first Premier League title at Stamford Bridge. Since Manchester United lost to Barcelona in 2009 no English side has looked likely to win.
When an English side was knocked out of the competition in recent times, talk inevitably centred around the nation’s coefficient: the fact that England gets four Champions League places is a reflection on their teams’ performances in European competition over the past number of years. But these days, talk has cooled as new rules coming into place for the 2018/19 season will see each of the top four ranked nations guaranteed four entrants straight into the group stages. Unless England falls behind France, Portugal or Russia, it will be guaranteed four teams.
This season, England has five.
It’s hardly a ringing endorsement of English competitiveness in Europe that Manchester United won the Europa League and the furthest any Premier League side managed to get in the Champions League was Leicester City in the quarter-final, but the idea that England is falling behind is being over-egged.
For one thing, England was never in any real danger of losing its four places even before the rule changes. Despite Italy closing in on England, the closest they got to catching up was in the 2014/15 season, when five Italian teams made the last 16 of the Europa League and Juventus reached the Champions League final. Despite so many entrants in the latter stages, the Europa League doesn’t count for very much in terms of coefficient points, and in any case, only Juventus reached a final.
Another simplistic answer might actually shed some light on England’s problems, however: these things tend to be cyclical.
Even though no team has, of yet, retained the Champions League in its modern guise (Real Madrid can become the first this weekend), it was quite a common feat in the old European Cup era. Bayern Munich and Ajax both won three in a row in the 1970s, English clubs won five in a row at the end of the 70s and the start of the 80s.
Between 1975 and 1985, only two finals didn’t involve English teams, while the noughties also saw a similar period of English revival. Both periods were followed by a decade or so of decline, though for different reasons: English clubs were banned from European competitions after the Heysel disaster in 1985, but it was the rise of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and a shift in efficient tactics which put paid to English dominance in the 2010s.
It would be over simplistic to say that England shouldn’t worry about falling behind the rest on the European stage just because they’re due a comeback. But it isn’t wrong to suggest that fashion tends to dictate who dominates – certainly over a long period of time, and counting the likes of the 2012 Chelsea triumph as an anomaly rather than part of the trend. And at the moment, with so many top managers – and with them, tactical ideas and innovations – the fashion does look to be in England’s favour.
Perhaps that doesn’t adequately explain just why Leicester City were the best English performers in the Champions League this season, but it is important to remember that Pep Guardiola is new in his job, while Mauricio Pochettino is new to Champions League football. On the other hand, Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United simply had enough quality to fend off second tier challengers in the Europa League. Ideas take time to sink in, coaching doesn’t happen overnight. But there is at least one trend that seems to point in England’s favour.
In the wake of a comeback which will go down in history as one of the greatest moments in the history of football, it’s no surprise that Paris Saint-Germain’s 4-0 victory over Barcelona at the Parc des Princes gets lost. But that night, it was the French side’s pressing in numbers that threw the Catalans. They hunted in packs and barely let Barcelona out of their own half – even Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta could barely pick a pass.
This season, we’ve witnessed Premier League games where Manchester City and Tottenham have pressed like that and to a similar end. It has also been visible at Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp, too, though more in the first half of the season.
That bodes well for the English sides. Just as Barcelona – and possibly Bayern Munich, though losing to Real Madrid in any round is never a disgrace – look to be at a low ebb in terms of European competition, England get an influx of cash, top players and thoughtful managers.
English clubs may have fallen behind over the last decade, but whether they’re due a revival or not, there can be no excuses for a 2010s style failure over the next few years.