Arsenal’s exit at the hands of Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich last night on aggregate, despite a valiant effort to win 2-0 over in Germany, has quickly been hailed in some quarters as a sign that English football is in a state of decline, but a lot more perspective needs to be attached to proceedings before we can even contemplate entertaining such sweeping statements devoid of any sort of substantive long-term trends or proof. Let’s investigate.
It’s the archetypal straw man argument that the press like to trot out every now and again, that the Premier League, often hailed as the greatest league in the world by those very same journalists, is now dropping like a heavy stone in terms of its standing within the European game. The most over-used statistic doing the rounds at the moment is that this is the first time since the 1995/6 seasons that no English representative will be present in the quarter-final draw of the Champions League. It’s a very neat story arc, you see, build them up, then knock them down, before claiming with the same conviction next season if there is a revival that everything is on the up once more.
Football is a hugely cyclical game and while that may sound like a casual, somewhat sweeping statement of my own, when you take a look at the top flight’s representatives in the Champions League this season and each and every exit is understandable on at least some level.
Were it not for the truly baffling red card handed out to Nani in the second leg of Manchester United’s clash against Real Madrid, as Jose Mourinho even admitted as much, it is likely that Sir Alex Ferguson’s side would have gone through with their Spanish opponents struggling to break them down, just as they did in the home leg.
Chelsea were incredibly fortunate to win the trophy last season (is that not indicative of cyclical patterns more than anything else?), which hardly says a lot for the quality of the opposition. Just as their triumph last term was not a sign that the English game was riding high, simply due to the style of the win more than anything, their exit this season should be seen in the context of their own transition. That European win came at the expense of their league form, where they finished sixth behind Newcastle.
This season they faced a Shakhtar Donetsk side that hadn’t lost in their previous 37 games before one of their group clashes and a resurgent Juventus outfit that went through an entire league campaign unbeaten last year, all while having to endure the great upheaval of the sacking of manager Roberto Di Matteo.
Manchester City have been hampered by a lack of European experience, which while Roberto Mancini may laughably use it in reference to his experienced squad, in terms of their seeding, it is certainly a valid excuse, given that they had to face off against the Spanish, Dutch and German champions this year in Real Madrid, Ajax and Borussia Dortmund to go on top of their tough group last year. Progress has been slow because of the quality of the opposition and while dropping out of the competition even without a solitary win to their name is deeply embarrassing, their exit on the whole isn’t quite as shocking as it’s often been made out to be.
Moving on to Arsenal and while there was a certain inevitability in their glorious failure against Bayern, with echoes of last year’s AC Milan clashes where they lost 4-0 away from home only to claw it back 3-0 on home turf, it further reinforced the idea that this is a side that does well when the pressure is off.
Wenger stated in his post-match press conference after becoming the last English club to bow out of the competition: “It’s a massive disappointment for English football. We accept the rest of European football has caught us. We had Manchester City and United, Chelsea and Arsenal all out by the quarter-final. It’s a long time since that happened. We have to take that into consideration in the way we think about the future of the Premier League.”
It’s clear that the strength of leagues such as Italy and Germany at the moment is of a deeper variety than in the last few years. The Turkish league is no better simply because Galatasaray made it into the final eight this year and a glance at the Uefa coefficients leaves England in second place, just six points behind Spain, which includes the behemoth that is Barcelona and the consistent Mourinho-helmed Madrid side. Italy come up in third a full 17 points further behind, with the added kicker of only having three Champions League places in future.
That the final is at Wembley this season will prove an added annoyance for many, with the sense that many spectators will simply be watching somebody else’s party in their own back yard, but it simply all depends on your sample size more than anything else and through what prism you wish to view this rather humbling European campaign for all those concerned.
England boasted nine semi-finalists over three years between 2007 and 2009, but just three Premier League sides have reached that stage of the tournament and further in the four years that have followed. However, in the 16 seasons preceding this one there have been 32 Premier League teams in the quarter-finals or further, 28 from Spain, 21 from Italy and 17 from Germany. So where exactly does that leave us?
The simple answer is that it’s just too early to tell, but it’s worth noting that despite possessing two of the favourites in Dortmund and Bayern that the Bundesliga has not produced a winner of the tournament in over a decade, that no Spanish side other than the once in a generation Barcelona has contested a final since 2002, and the last French side to lift the cup was Marseille 20 years ago, so hold the ice on the PSG party for the time being.
A direct consequence of the Premier League’s failings in the Champions League has been the fluid nature and the break up of the traditional top four in this country. Other leagues have simply caught up while our best and brightest have stalled, so any talk of a deep-seated regression is premature, even if the warning signs were there for all to see last year. The fact that Tottenham, Newcastle and Chelsea have all made it into the final eight of the Europa League while Spain have no representative and Italy has just one in Lazio is not conclusive proof of anything just in the same way that it’s difficult to be so confident in any end of days sceanrios involving English participation in Europe’s premier competition.
It was to Arsenal’s conquerors Bayern Munich and their manager Jupp Heynckes where the most sense from this tale can be found: “I think comparisons like this don’t bring much. We have had German teams knocked out early in previous years. I think Manchester United were unlucky to get knocked out and Arsenal showed what a quality team they are.You get cycles like that in football. I think the English teams will be back next year.”
It’s far from certain that the Premier League will be right back on top of the pile next season, or even the year after that, and while our representatives appear to have lost a bit of their shine in recent seasons, with none quite having the same aura about them as in years gone by, to write them all off and rule them all out of bouncing back, precisely at a time when a hugely lucrative TV deal has just been brokered, is foolhardy at best and downright ignorant at worst. The thing with cycles is, they tend to be longer than a sample size of one season and those quick to judge would be wise to remember that.
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