Raphael Honigstein looks at the Premier League season so far

Why are English teams performing so badly in the Champions League?

Words: Raphael Honigstein
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Montage

Raphael Honigstein looks at some of the theories that are being put forward to explain the recent malaise
Raphael Honigstein

Raphael Honigstein is The Red Bulletin’s expert football columnist and also writes for The Guardian and Süddeutsche Zeitung.
twitter.com/honigstein

Leicester City were the sole English representatives in Friday’s Champions League quarter-final draw. Their opponents, Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, might not be quite the immovable force of two, three years ago, but a win by the Premier League champions would still register as a big upset next month. 

The world’s wealthiest league hasn’t sent two clubs through to the last four since the 2008/2009 season (three) and only contested one final in the last five years - Chelsea’s win in Munich in 2012.  How did we get from domination in Europe’s top club competition a decade ago to this pattern of serial underachievement?

Here’s a look at some of the theories that are being put forward to explain the malaise. 

“It’s the competitiveness of the league”

There’s no doubt that English teams have a tougher time qualifying for the competition than some of their continental counter-parts, especially in the current campaign.

It’s also noticeable that the Premier League’s purple patch in the Champions League coincided with a period of stability at the very top, a time when England would send the same four big sides (Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool) into the group stages for six years running. Manchester City and, to a lesser, extent Tottenham, have disrupted that equilibrium and employed top players (native and international) that could have otherwise strengthened the old top four even further. As a consequence, the elite teams have to pay more money to attract and keep talent compared with some of the continental elite, who hoover up players easier. 

#PL top scorers 1️⃣9️⃣ - @harrykane 1️⃣8️⃣ - @rlukaku9 1️⃣7️⃣ - @diego.costa @alexis_officia1

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Why that kind of sporting and financial competitiveness at the top should negatively impact English team’s chances in Europe to such an extent is harder to understand, however. Are the PL sides maybe additionally hampered by the higher level of their league opponents? In order to scrutinise this “are no easy games” argument, we must disentangle cause and effect, which isn’t a straightforward operation. It’s very hard to say whether the old top four did better in Europe because the domestic competition was weaker, or if the domestic competition was simply made to look weak by teams who regularly challenged for Europe. 

If the general level of play has indeed been raised by the influx of TV money, one would expect to see that reflected in the table. It should, in theory, be more difficult for the top sides to win games now than it was a decade ago. But the evidence for that isn’t there. The top four sides from 2006/2007 to 2010/11 amassed 78.8 points on average per season. The figure for the last five seasons is virtually unchanged, at 78.1 points. That much-hyped increase in standards has either not materialised or if it has, it hasn’t done anything to stop the better teams doing just as well as their predecessors did. 

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“No winter break/ too many games”

While it’s impossible to quantify the effect of the Premier League’s relentless schedule on the club’s chances in Europe, it seems relatively safe to assume that the extra work-load doesn’t help.  The problem with this argument is that it doesn’t shed any light on the English clubs’ decline over the last ten years. They seemed to manage just fine before, and if anything, the advance of sports science and ever deeper squads in the ensuing years should have off-set that disadvantage. 

Premier League festive fixtures 2017-18: Six games in 17 days next Christmas

Arsene Wenger calls it "unfair", Jose Mourinho says it "creates problems" and Sam Allardyce thinks the person responsible for it should be sacked. But with a shortened season next year to help England prepare for the 2018 World Cup, fixture congestion over the festive period could be even worse.

The “winter break” argument becomes even less convincing once we look at this season’s contenders. Tottenham Hotspur were knocked out well before Christmas. Arsenal had a de-facto winter break with 10 days off in between the two legs against Bayern, as well as a further chance to rest key players in their FA Cup win against Sutton United. It was the same story for Manchester City and Leicester City. Ten days without domestic action allowed them to jet off for some warm-weather training in the middle of their last 16 ties. Physically, they appeared every bit as sharp as their continental opponents. Blaming Christmas for early European exits in March doesn’t quite hold up. 

“Top teams are in transition”

If we accept that English clubs aren’t really English anymore – geography aside – then the focus on common denominators for failure in the Champions League is perhaps misguided. There are a host of individual reasons one could look at instead, from Tottenham Hotspur’s trouble with Wembley and their relative inexperience to Arsenal’s chronic tactical ineptitude on the bigger stage. Manchester City are still in transition under Pep Guardiola, and it’s simply unlucky that the Premier League’s best team, Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, didn’t qualify for the competition. Manchester United, under José Mourinho, might have been better suited to the top European competition than the two London clubs. 

🙌 #CFC #Chelsea

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The problem with this kind of micro-analysis is that it tells us nothing about the collective underachievement of English clubs since the heyday of Chelsea v Man United in the final at Moscow nine years ago. 

Perhaps individual problems are exacerbated or perpetuated by more structural problems – for example, an over-reliance on all-powerful managers in lieu of more long-term planning. With the exception of Chelsea, none of the big English clubs have been able to build and sustain functioning sides over the course of the last few years, in marked contrast to, say Bayern, Barcelona, Real Madrid or Juventus, who’ve seen relatively little change in key personnel despite frequent managerial changes.

In England, there’s constant upheaval, with little expertise at board level and new managers in charge of rebuilding processes that don’t come to fruition before the next guy starts all over again. Not even Arsène Wenger, the one manager in charge for any reasonable amount of time, has been able to put together a recognisable, durable side.

Unless more top clubs follow Chelsea’s lead in implementing a strategic transfer policy that’s independent of the man on the bench, transition is likely to become a permanent state, weakening the prospects of sides that would much better with a smarter use of their considerable resources.

That’s the bottom line, really: for all the relative disadvantages the Premier League ecosystem throws up, you would have expected them to come up with effective strategies to overcome them. Their failure to do so can be explained, but not excused. 

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