The con­ti­nen­tal drift

Sunday Herald - - 19.03.17 SPORT - By Gabriele Mar­cotti

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.

Pho­to­graph: Getty

Le­ices­ter are Eng­land’s only quar­ter-fi­nal rep­re­sen­ta­tives

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