Monday 22 January 2018

World's richest league enduring famine at top table

There's no excuse for Premier League teams having no impact in Europe

Manchester United defender Marcos Rojo and midfielder Ander Herrera at training in Carrington yesterday. Photo: Paul Ellis/AFP
Manchester United defender Marcos Rojo and midfielder Ander Herrera at training in Carrington yesterday. Photo: Paul Ellis/AFP

Jason Burt

In Europe they call it "making the cut of March" - proving that you are one of the continent's biggest football clubs by reaching the latter stages of the Champions League, every year.

By that standard the Premier League has become a serial failure. Leicester City admirably made the last eight last season, in their first attempt at the competition, Manchester City the last four in the previous campaign, but they have been outriders as the world's richest league has been impoverished on the field. Significantly they also both played as underdogs.

The line-up of quarter-finalists since 2012 - when Chelsea were the last Premier League club to win the Champions League - makes for embarrassing reading ahead of this year's group stage.

In the past six seasons, Spain has provided 17 of the 48 teams. Germany are next with 10, but England (five - including Chelsea, twice, and Manchester United once) are well behind, trailing even France (seven). In the past five seasons, the Premier League has boasted just two Champions League semi-finalists, one less than Atletico Madrid alone.

Antonio Conte. Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP
Antonio Conte. Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP

It is a far cry from 2005-11, when the English clubs were dominant; when Liverpool beat AC Milan in Istanbul, when only Barcelona were able to stop Arsenal in 2006, and United in 2009 and 2011. In 2008 both finalists, and three of the four semi-finalists, were from England, with United beating Chelsea. That year there was panic among Uefa's power brokers that a single-country monopoly was starting to be established.

Now that monopoly belongs to a single club, with Real Madrid having won the Champions League in three of the past four seasons and bidding to become the first team since Bayern Munich, between 1974 and 1976, to win it three times in a row.

The fact that no Premier League club have even gone close is all the more damning given the vast amounts of money available to them. The Deloitte Football Money League currently has United top in revenue generated, followed by Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. City, Arsenal and Chelsea are also in the top 10. England is represented more than any other nation while Uefa's latest licensing benchmark report, published in January, concludes that the Premier League - with six clubs in the top 12 and 14 in the top 30 - is the richest league in Europe.

So why are they not successful? The traditional argument is, as Louis van Gaal called it when he was United manager, the "rat race". The Premier League has a physical intensity and competitiveness that is so exhausting that, by the time March comes around, even the biggest clubs are drained of their resources. The argument is that the Premier League's relentlessness undermines the Champions League challenge.

Players have bought into this. Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic has joked that you need to be a "boxer" first and a footballer second to thrive in England, while Gareth Bale has stated that "in the Premier League you have to be at 100pc for 90 minutes or you will lose".

The implication is that this is not the case in Spain, although it has always appeared an unconvincing argument, given the organisation and competitive qualities of teams such as Levante, who earned a 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu against Bale's Real Madrid on Saturday.


Overall, though, it is more competitive in England, and that is shown by the state of flux at the top: not since Manchester United in 2008-09 have a club retained the title. For eight seasons there has been a different champion, albeit shared between four clubs, with Chelsea winning it three times.

Another fact is this: for all the money spent in England, where do the truly world-class players still play? Those top 10, even top 20 who make that decisive difference? Most are in Spain, Germany and now France, largely at Paris St-Germain. They do not come to England. Another undoubted factor is the old chestnut of there not being a winter break in England, with teams playing more matches over the Christmas period and then going again in January.

There is clear medical data to back up the claim that Germany - in particular - and Spain benefit from players being given a mental as much as physical break.

Then there is a thornier issue, which may also go to the heart of the underachievement of the England team: a lack of tactical and technical game awareness and planning.

One Premier League manager, who is relatively new to England, recently said in private that he remains shocked at how the players do not want to work on tactics or defensive shape and are easily bored on the training pitches.

In Italy and Portugal, players are known to demand tactical work with their coaches. Here it is deemed tedious and, even though the Premier League is now the most cosmopolitan league in the world, it is something of an English malaise.

That is all the more strange given the calibre of coach working at the leading English clubs, which surely suggests this has to change: Antonio Conte, Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp or Mauricio Pochettino could easily be in charge of any leading club in Europe.

This is the first campaign in which there have been five English clubs in the group stages. All five should make it through to the last 16, where they cannot be drawn against each other, meaning there is a strong chance that England will finally have some significant representation.

If they do not "make the cut of March", then it really will be another embarrassment. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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