English Dominance in Europe: What has Happened to it? – by Josh Fitter
English football used to be the most dominant force in European football. And I have to stress the words USED TO here as this wave of domination has sadly passed. This week Manchester City and Arsenal will play to see if they can reach the Quarter Final of the Champions League after an already dismal performance from Manchester United, who were knocked out at the group stage of the competition, and Chelsea who succumbed to the might of Zlatan Ibrahimović and his PSG team at the round of 16 stage. Arsenal have the mighty task of scoring 3 goals at the Camp Nou to beat Barcelona, and Man City should progress pretty easily after an away win against Dynamo Kiev. Unless a miracle occurs and Arsenal can somehow score 3 against Barcelona without the unbelievable trio of Messi, Neymar and Suarez scoring, there is only going to be 1 English club in the Quarter finals of the Champions League.
English football controlled European football in recent times. Between the 2004-05 season and the 2011-12 season all but one final contained an English team. The Premier League won three Champions League trophies in this time, with Liverpool’s incredible comeback win against AC Milan in the 04/05 season, Manchester United’s win in Russia against Chelsea (an all English final) in the 07/08 season and Chelsea’s “park the bus” formation, which won them the trophy in the 2011/12 season. Only the “once in a lifetime” 1987 generation from La Masia of Messi, Fabregas and Pique as well as the slightly older talents of Xavi Hernandez and Andreas Iniesta gave Spain a tally to match that of the Premier League. Barcelona’s three wins, came of course, against English opposition. Arsenal in the 05/06 season and Manchester united in 2008/09 and 2010/11. It’s an amazing accomplishment for a league to have 4 different teams reach 7 out of 8 finals, in an 8-year span with 3 winners. There hasn’t been this sort of league domination before in the Champions League before, and it may not be seen again.
However, since Chelsea’s win in 2012 against Bayern Munich the Premier League has struggled to compete in Europe. There hasn’t been a winner from England in this time period and worse of all, there has only been 1 semi-finalist and 1 Quarter finalist (excluding Manchester City this season who are more than likely going to reach the Quarter final). This is a dramatic decrease in the success rate of English clubs in Europe. But why has this happened? I believe there are two main reasons why there has been a decline in performance of English clubs in Europe’s top club competition. The competitiveness of the Premier League and also the lack of a winter break, are the explanations of why English clubs are struggling in Europe.
There are 5 top Leagues in Europe, these lie in Spain, Germany, France, Italy and of course England. In 4 of these League’s you are pretty safe in betting the outright winners each year. In Spain, it will be one of Barcelona, Real Madrid and more recently Atletico Madrid. Germany, it’s going to be Bayern Munich and possibly Borussia Dortmund. Italy is most likely going to be Juventus, especially with the lack of improvement from the big Milan clubs. France can end next season now, because PSG will win it without breaking a sweat. But with England, it is almost impossible to predict who is going to win it. In theory, there are 6 “big” clubs in England. Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City. These clubs are usually there or there about at the end of the season. However, there is a saying from Premier League pundits of “anyone can beat anyone” in this league. This statement has been absolutely proven right this season, as Leicester City are currently 5 points clear with 8 games to go. (an honourable mention has to go to AFC Bournemouth who have got impressive wins against Manchester United and Chelsea in consecutive weeks this season).
As a fan, I absolutely love seeing this competitiveness in the Premier League. Every game is exciting and you know your team has to play well if it is going to beat any team in the League. However, when it comes to Europe, this competitiveness in the Premier League hinders our ability to compete with the top teams in Europe. Before Barcelona play Arsenal in the Champions League this week they beat Getafe 6-0 and were able to rest key players such as Javier Mascherano, Ivan Rakitic, and Luis Suarez. In contrast, Arsenal had to play a full team and compete right to the very end in their 2-1 loss to Watford in the FA Cup. After knocking Chelsea out of the Champions League, PSG secured another Ligue 1 title with a 9-0 win against Troyes. This disparity in the relative levels of competition before playing vital Champions League games is one of the massive factors that contributed to English teams not doing well in these European games. Some people might point out the difference in the player’s ability of, for example, of Arsenal and Barcelona as the reason. But I ask you this, if you were more likely to win things and don’t have to work as hard for it, wouldn’t you take this opportunity? The competitive level of the Premier League may be a reason that the real World Class players don’t want to play in the Premier League.
Now I am not saying we need to get rid of the competitiveness of the Premier League. In fact, we should embrace it, it makes us stand out. That’s why it is the best League in the world to watch. However, I do believe that we need to help our top teams compete in Europe. To do this, I believe that a winter break is needed for us to compete in Europe and also keep the competitive nature of the Premier League.
Gary Lineker tweeted “Watching Spurs getting spanked by Dortmund makes you realise that rotating your team rarely works” “What’s more, it’s only really English teams that do it. Not exactly working in Europe, is it?” and “The best players in the world: Messi, Ronaldo and co play practically every game. They don’t get tired or injured often” What Gary has said here is completely true, but I believe the fact that these players get at least a two week break during winter to recover from the first half of the season must play a part in their ability to play near enough every game.
Of the top 5 League’s only England doesn’t have a winter break. Spain stop on December 20th and come back on December 30th. Serie A stops on the same day as La Liga and returns on January 6th. Ligue 1 of France stops December 20th and starts again January 8th. The Bundesliga has the longest winter break, which starts on December 20th and finishes January 22nd. Going back to Gary Lineker’s example of Tottenham vs Dortmund, Spurs had played 7 games while Dortmund were resting during their month off. That’s 630 minutes Spurs spent on the pitch while Dortmund were training. That is a hell of a lot of recovery time for a team to start again. This leads Spurs needing to rest players later in the season whereas Dortmund have almost had a mid-season pre-season.
I think a winter break is desperately needed for English clubs to start competing in Europe again. An easy solution is to start the season a week earlier and copy the Spanish model on how they arrange their fixtures. I believe this break will allow all the players in the Premier League to recuperate enough that will allow the to compete in the Champions League and hopefully start winning it again. This needs to happen sharpish as the Premier League is in danger of losing a Champions League spot and with Leicester, Spurs and possibly West Ham the likelihood of us winning it next year look very small indeed.
By Josh Fitter
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