It is a familiar scenario. With Arsenal demolished by Bayern Munich and Manchester City failing to progress after a thrilling tie against Monaco, there is only one English team in the quarter-finals of this year’s Champions League: the unlikely Leicester City. After another round of disappointment for the Premier League’s finest, the question raises its head once again: why are English teams consistently outclassed in Europe?
Gareth Bale reignited the debate earlier this week, suggesting that one of the league’s biggest strengths, its competitiveness, is in fact a weakness in Europe. The Premier League is often praised for the fact that there is a much smaller difference in quality between its teams than in other European countries, where Barcelona and Real Madrid dominate the Spanish league and Juventus consistently run away with the Italian Serie A. But, according to the Madrid star, the competitiveness of the Premier League works against its sides as teams have to work harder to win and cannot afford to rest key players in the search for European success. The unpredictability of the Premier League is not a bad thing but, when it comes to British chances in Europe, it certainly does not help.
It is considered one of the best leagues in the world, but whether the Premier League attracts the biggest names is more questionable. Superstars like Messi and Ronaldo are hard to compete with, but other big names in this year’s Champions League like Juventus’ Higuain and Dortmund striker Aubameyang, would likely walk into any top English side. Instead, Premier League stars like Bale and Luis Suarez have been sold to European rivals, while current standouts like Alexis Sanchez were squad players in Europe, meaning that individual quality in England is overshadowed by other European squads.
Premier League sides are also lacking tactically in Europe. Arsenal’s ties against Bayern were both forgone conclusions after losing Laurent Koscielny during the match. Wenger’s side’s failure to change their game plan cleared the way for a Bayern onslaught. Arsenal’s stubborn refusal to change the way they play makes them predictable and relatively easy for top teams to play against. It’s not just Arsenal though: arguably no English team has been expert in European tactics since Alex Ferguson’s time at Manchester United.
One possible solution to England’s European problem is the introduction of a winter break. Most European leagues have a break in December, allowing teams to recuperate ahead of Champions League knock out rounds. Instead, English sides come out of the busy festive period fatigued and susceptible to injuries: a significant disadvantage ahead of the season’s crucial European ties.
European football authorities are more cooperative when it comes to helping their teams advance in European competitions. Juventus’ crucial Serie A fixture against Milan was moved to the Friday before their Champions League game on Tuesday so that they could recuperate and prepare. Meanwhile, Arsenal’s league game was played on the Saturday evening before their Champions League fixture. The FA are not as prepared to help English sides, even though it is in English football’s best interests to do so.
An excuse? Maybe. Whether it’s Arsenal drawing Bayern, or Manchester City once again playing Barcelona, English sides seem to keep drawing difficult fixtures. Even Leicester, England’s only success so far, drew European experts Atletico Madrid in their next tie. But while this certainly makes progressing further more difficult, more consistency in the group stages would give English sides a better chance of a winnable draw.
English success in Europe is certainly not impossible. Manchester United won the Champions League in 2008, beating another English side, Chelsea, before reaching the final twice more, and Chelsea famously won in 2012. But former European giants Manchester United and Liverpool have declined in quality in recent years and no one has taken their place. With English sides consistently being outnumbered in the latter stages of the competition, it may be time for the Premier League to rethink its European game plan.
Image courtesy of Ronnie Macdonald