It was less than a year ago some critics were calling for a biopsy on English football, such was the sudden downturn in performance from Premier League clubs in the Champions League.
Between 2012/13 and 2016/17, England boasted just four quarter-finalists, two semi-finalists, neither of whom progressed to the tournament’s final, and even endured two seasons without any clubs progressing beyond the Round of 16. Compare that to the nine campaigns previous; three different Champions League winners, eight finalists, at least two quarter-finalists every season and just one term without a club reaching the semi-finals.
The difference was so severe that reflection became inevitable, the consequential explanations largely falling into the categories of apologist and condemnation. Some argued the Premier League bubble had finally burst, becoming so financially driven and self-absorbed that the quality of football had drastically suffered. Others retorted that the Premier League was in fact so competitive and talent-laden that its idiosyncratic demands had left English clubs at a glaring disadvantage for midweek European competition.
But perhaps the truth is much, much simpler than that. Most aspects of football work in cycles, from preferred formations – such as the recent rise of three-man defences – to offensive and defensive mentalities, from the desire to nurture homegrown talent to the need for bringing in experienced old heads capable of getting the job done. European success is no different, and every country at some stage has enjoyed their heyday.
The question then, is whether the Premier League is due another after so many years of incredible Spanish dominance. La Liga clubs have won twelve of the last 20 Europa League and Champions League honours, while a further three have managed to reach the final – all losing to fellow Spanish opposition. But Liverpool’s Champions League showdown with back-to-back winners Real Madrid in Kiev on Saturday could well prove to be the crucial turning point.
That’s not least because the standard of football at the top end of the Premier League has so drastically raised over the last few seasons. While nothing can be taken away from what Leicester City achieved in 2015/16, their miraculous title win inevitably highlighted how so many major Premier League clubs were caught in painful transition. Even Chelsea the year previous weren’t the most convincing of champions, or for that matter the campaign after – one simple change of formation from Antonio Conte left the rest of the top flight chasing their heels.
Compare that to the situation now. Manchester City are up there with the most dominant teams in Premier League history, and it’s not because the rest of the top six is so poor. In fact, quite the opposite; top six teams have taken more points off the bottom 14 this term than ever before and while the quality of truly elite players may not have particularly changed – with the exception of Mohamed Salah, the Premier League’s flagship entities are all pretty much the same as they were a few years ago – the quality of manager has risen exponentially.
At the same time, Spanish sides aren’t quite what they were. Atletico Madrid regressed back into the Europa League this season and although they were the strongest team in the competition by quite some distance, tellingly dispensing of Arsenal before beating Marseille 3-0 in the final, it’s a far cry from when they twice reached the Champions League final in the space of three years.
Likewise, Barcelona and Real Madrid’s iconic frontlines are reaching the end of their cycles. Neymar has already left for PSG and Luis Suarez has inevitably started to decline with age, just as Cristiano Ronaldo has changed his game from a roaring goalscoring winger to a more static and opportunist centre-forward. That transition has affected Karim Benzema’s form too, and Gareth Bale’s been tied up by injuries. At the same time, Barca have just said farewell to perhaps their least replaceable legend in Andres Iniesta, while Real Madrid – despite reaching this term’s final once again – have trudged through their European campaign, relying on sheer experience and structure rather than the irresistible attacking quality of their 2013/14 and 2015/16 triumphs.
That explains how the Premier League has got to this point, returning to the Champions League final after a six-year absence, but what’s the evidence of staying power? After all, Chelsea’s 2012 triumph defied all odds – they were the only English team to make the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final that year – so could Liverpool prove to be another flash in the pan? Likewise, while Real Madrid and Barcelona’s teams may well be on the decline, they still have the gravitas and financial muscle to rejuvenate their personnel. In terms of stature, they’ll surely always be the two of the biggest clubs in European football.
Well, the idea of cycles comes into play one again, and the fact Liverpool have reached this year’s final is incredibly fitting. The year previous, just one English team made the Champions League semi-final but from the 2005 miracle of Istanbul onwards, the Premier League had at least one representative in seven of the next eight finals. Perhaps that was a manifestation of underlying causes, but perhaps it raised expectations amongst their divisional rivals as well. Since Chelsea’s 2012 title the onus in English football has centred around the incredible competition for the English crown, which no club has successfully retained for a decade now, but from next season Manchester City will have their sights set on Europe’s top honour. Other rivals, particularly Manchester United and Liverpool, will feel obliged to follow them.
The changing rules of the Europa League, combined with the competitiveness of the top six, is another key factor. The Premier League boasts six clubs worthy of Champions League status, but only has four spots to offer them through domestic qualification. Accordingly, as we saw from Manchester United last season, the Europa League has become an equally viable route to Europe’s most coveted prize and during most campaigns, English clubs will be amongst the strongest in the competition. Consequentially, it becomes a numbers game – simply that the Premier League will often have at least one more representative in the Champions League Group Stages than any other nation.
More crucially than that though, the real staying power lays with the managers at the top of the Premier League. Every top six manager comfortably belongs to the world’s top ten, and within that impressive cohort contains some of the most successful bosses in Champions League history. They all come from different backgrounds, they all boast different nationalities and between them they’ve won 24 top flight titles, 22 domestic cups and six European titles. No major league in world football boasts the same level of diversity, experience and success within their top six. Even Rafa Benitez, who finished tenth with Newcastle this season, has a Champions League title, a UEFA Cup and a Europa League title on his CV.
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That’s partly where the Premier League’s incredible competitiveness stems from, which should ensure a higher quality and intensity than its many European counterparts. But the other factor is inevitably money, and the effects of it are clearly showing already. While the Premier League may no longer house the world-record fee, set by PSG on Neymar last summer, wages for 2016 in the top flight were more than double of La Liga’s, the Bundesliga’s or Serie A’s, just as overall transfer spending in English football last summer was more than double that of Spain. Money can’t guarantee success, but eventually that financial power becomes irresistible.
Perhaps the truly determining factor though, is a little more subjective than that. Especially compared to this ageing Real Madrid team, there’s something so futuristic about this Liverpool side – attacking players with no fixed position, relentless power in midfield, wide defenders who play as midfielders and centre-halves who play out of the back. They can counter-attack from all departments, and they structure their attacks in uniquely different ways. The same applies to Manchester City and with both clubs at the very forefront of the Premier League right now, it feels as if English football will be setting the philosophical agenda across Europe in the coming years. That only bodes well for the chances of silverware.