The continental drift
THE numbers are pretty brutal. Leicester City’s improbable advance to the last eight of the Champions League brings the number of quarter-finalists from the Premier League in the past six years to five. That doesn’t just pale by comparison relative to Spain (17) or Germany (10), but is also less than France’s seven.
So, yeah, there’s a bit of a problem here. And the trouble with assessing the reasons behind the Premier League’s failure against foreign opposition is that there’s a cacophony of background nonsense, some of it agenda-driven, to contend with. “It’s overhyped rubbish!”. “The players earn way too much, they’re not hungry!”. “The league is way too intense!”. “There’s a vast Uefa/EU conspiracy!”
Don’t be fooled by the fine margins either. Sure, Manchester City went out on the away goals rule this year. But it works both ways. In other seasons, away goals favoured the English. And, given the disparity in resources so often on display, it really shouldn’t come down to away goals anyway.
There’s also an obvious caveat. For the past six years, three European clubs – Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern – have been not just marginally better, but substantially better than anything England (or anyone else) has had to offer. That skews the numbers because, frankly, the likes of Valencia and Sevilla, Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Monchengladbach are not making regular trips to the elite eight.
The other point to make is that six seasons – 24 clubs – is not a massive sample. Especially when Madrid, Barca and Bayern are a lot better than any of their English counterparts. Indeed, that trio have knocked out Premier League sides on six occasions.
Take those six, add in the five who did make it to the quarter-finals and you’re left with 13 English attempts that were snuffed out either in the group stage or the round of 16. And that, simply put, is gross underachievement.
Thus, the question to ask is what makes the Premier League different? There’s an extra cup competition and no winter break. That’s often the first answer. And there probably is some validity to it. Except, of course, the League Cup was around and there was no mid-season break some seven, eight years ago, when English clubs were doing far better.
There’s the supposed gruelling intensity of the Premier League too. You know, the idea that every game is so competitive, that it’s just brutally draining?
That may have held true 20 years ago, but the game has changed. For all the stereotypes spouted by earnest-looking dead-eyed former pros turned pundits, the days of Spanish clubs playing pretty football at two miles an hour in baking hot sun ended a long time ago.
The game is as homogenous around Europe as it is has ever been. The pace is often comparable. As for competitiveness, results have shown that the old “Where else but in the Premier League would you see such an upset?!?” trope is simply a myth propagated by the folks on Sky. Maybe one overlooked difference is that European clubs – at least the top ones – feel more stable. It’s not just the managers – though in the six-year period above Chelsea have had five, Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester United four and Manchester City three – it’s the entire footballing direction. And, here, it’s down to that much-reviled figure, the director of football or his equivalent.
At Bayern or Real Madrid, the sporting direction isn’t dictated by the manager, who is essentially a first-team coach. It’s the club that decides transfers, runs the academy and appoints the manager.
In England, at most clubs, thanks to the age-old cult of the manager, the guy who runs the training sessions and sits in the dugout is also expected to micro-manage everything, including being ultimately responsible for transfers and contracts. He is the face of the club and often its only voice. While you know where the buck stops, you also get three nasty side effects. First, you have managers tasked with deciding things that aren’t part of their skill set. Secondly, you have guys making short-term decisions because, crucially, their livelihood depends on it. Thirdly, when the manager moves on, you need to start from scratch.
Most big European clubs don’t have those problems. They have stability and continuity. And while some clubs on these shores have moved towards a director of football model, in most cases (Chelsea being an exception) he reports to – and is often hired by – the manager. Which rather defeats the purpose.
It’s not going to be an instant fix and, indeed, you run into a chicken-and-egg situation: directors of football are rare in England, so clubs don’t hire them because there isn’t much of a talent pool. And there isn’t much of a talent pool because clubs don’t hire them.
But if the situation is going to change in the medium-term, there are only so many things Premier League clubs can do, beyond continuing to throw money at top players and coaches. This is one change they ought to at least try. After all, things aren’t going to get much worse, are they?
YOU can forget “hot and cold” ball conspiracies if Friday’s Champions League draw is anything to go by. The four bookmakers’ favourites to win the trophy – Real Madrid, Bayern, Barcelona and Juventus – end up facing each other in blockbuster games filled with subtexts. Bayern v Real is a classic master v apprentice clash between Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane, while Barcelona taking on Juventus is a repeat of the 2014-15 final as well as perhaps our final look at Max Allegri and Luis Enrique, at least with their current teams.
The other two clashes have clearly defined themes. You have staunch defending and set-pieces in one (Atletico Madrid v Leicester) and its polar opposite (prolific, free-scoring attacks) in the other, in which Borussia Dortmund take on Monaco.
From a neutral’s perspective, it’s a heck of a draw, even if it means two realistic potential champions bowing out early.
Leicester are England’s only quarter-final representatives