The Premier League may undeniably be the wealthiest and most watched domestic league in the world but those numbers still aren’t carrying into European competition. Once again, there is only one English club in the Champions League last eight.
That makes a mere five in the last six seasons. The question is why. Quite obviously, English clubs are not as good as perceived, but that’s not a reason.
It's a result. In truth, though, there is rarely one single reason for something that sees so many different clubs evidently fail to make the most of their resources.
That can only be down to a combination of factors, all interlinked and influencing each other, and causing another case of English introspection…
1) The reality of the quality does not match the hype
The Premier League may have belatedly started to accumulate all the best managers in the world, but they’re still not really managing the best players in the world. Rather, they're managing the second tier of players. The blunt fact is that the true elite still go to the top two in Spain, with some siphoned off to Bayern Munich. There are a number of examples that illustrate this. Look at Pep Guardiola. The Bayern squad he was in charge of last season still has a depth - and a striker like Robert Lewandowski - beyond anyone in England, to the point a comparison with the Arsenal side they humiliated seemed a gross mismatch even before the game. Now at Manchester City, and despite their resources, Guardiola doesn’t have anything like that level of player, especially in terms of game intelligence. That is not to excuse the problem that the Catalan’s side couldn’t do the elementary thing of defending a set-piece against a relatively more humble team in Monaco, but it’s still the general truth. It’s similar with the side across town. United have famously started to copy the Real Madrid model of bringing in individual stars, but they’re effectively a less powerful, less talented and less intelligent version of the Spanish giants. Because, while a growing Paul Pogba is pinging the ball to Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Old Trafford, a prime Luka Modric is doing the same to Cristiano Ronaldo at the Bernabeu. Likewise, the league leader Chelsea's star playmaker in Eden Hazard - good as he is - is not Leo Messi, or even Neymar. It makes a big difference, and that has a big impact when hype-distorted perceptions of the Premier League's quality are disrupted midweek.
2) The schedule
It is a factor that causes a lot of debate, but also one that everyone at the top level of the Premier League - from Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger to City chief executive Ferran Soriano - firmly believes. Many say they have even heard it brought up as a negative in transfer negotiations for top players: England’s schedule is too demanding. With a full 20 teams, two domestic knock-out competitions, two-legged League Cup semi-finals, replays still in the FA Cup and no winter break, it is hard to deny when laid out. There are obviously caveats to that, not least the fact that Spain also has a 20-team top division, as well as two-legged cup ties. What complicates it further in the eyes of those involved, however, is the timing of it all. By the stage the Champions League last-16 starts in February, English clubs will have on average played at least two games more than their French and Italian counterparts and up to four more than the Italian and German sides. Added to that is the absence of a winter break, that allows clubs a bit of a recharge and maybe even a recalibration of what they’re doing, as well as the space to actually re-assess with, combined with the way other national federations give their teams more time before Champions League games. That is something that Jose Mourinho has regularly and fairly complained about in the past, and that is known to bother Wenger. The cumulative effect is that foreign legs are often not just that bit better, but that bit fresher.
3) A higher concentration of similar-resourced clubs
For all the separate debate about what league is the most difficult, the simple numbers do show that - due to the broadcasting deal - there is a much steadier gradient to the Premier League clubs in terms of wealth, without the same massive gaps between sides who should be next to each other in the table. That does have an effect on how “gruelling” games are from week to week, and has also helped create a more competitive and volatile top tier. Even if some from foreign competitions fairly reject the idea that their leagues are easier, it is difficult to dispute that England has more sides that can challenge for both the title and the Champions League places in the last half-decade. There also isn’t the same gap, say, between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur as there is between Bayern Munich and Hoffenheim. That again has an incremental effect on how fresh a team is, because it means English sides can take less chances with line-ups in what would seem easier games. It also has a more substantial effect…
4) A more diverse range of Champions League qualifiers
This is especially relevant to why England is not performing as well as in the ‘big four’ era of 2004-09, and reflects why there has been such a transformation from that period when they so dominated the semi-finals. Consider the regular complexion of the last eight. Although Spain has had 17 quarter-finalists in the same spell England has had just five, six of La Liga’s have been Barcelona’s, six Real Madrid and four Atletico Madrid. That helps develop a lot of experience and nous as to how to play these games, as well as an aura that both attracts players and intimidates opposition. By contrast, two of England’s four qualifiers are usually made up of Arsenal, who - for a variety of reasons unconnected to the Champions League - are guaranteed to bring the average down by getting knocked out in the last 16, and ‘An Other’ who temporarily dip into the competition like Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. It is perhaps less of a surprise, in that context, that both of those got knocked out in the group stage in their last Champions League campaigns. English clubs are no longer able to build up the same durability in the competition, and there is not the same safety net for those suffering one of those natural seasons where clubs just sometimes struggle.
5) The tactical style
After all this time, it’s still there, still an issue. The more frenetic style of the Premier League is still a factor. It requires managers with their own individual ideas at the top clubs to adapt to it, with that in turn slightly compromising them for Europe. Tottenham are arguably a key example. Those close to the squad say that, while their pressing style works superbly against almost all clubs in England because of their inherent willingness to push, it just doesn’t have the same effect against the patience of European sides. To alter it enough for Europe, however, would also run the danger of compromising it too much for the top-four chase domestically. It is a bit of a dilemma. It is also no surprise that England had its best Champions League performance in the ‘control’ era of Rafa Benitez and Mourinho, with even Sir Alex Ferguson adapting his approach to be so much more calculating and less cavaliering. Since the rise of Guardiola’s Barca and the deep influence of the pressing-passing game, however, goal rates have shot back up. The Champions League has become so much more open, but English clubs have since struggled to intelligently close out gaps within it. Appointing those managers ahead of the tactical curve is one solution, but still only goes some of the way…
6) Money, and how it makes a club think
Is it possible that the money has actually become a disadvantage? Has it gone full circle? Has it meant that the first solution to any problem is to just reactively buy your way out of it, rather than proactively think about what else can be done. To a degree, even this trend of appointing super-managers is a symptom of the issue, since they simply won't have the same effect if they are not at the peak of a structure that fully suits them. It is something that many clubs like Sevilla and Borussia Dortmund have exemplified. For all the turnover they regularly face, any change still conforms to a guiding idea and connected structure. English clubs tend to sway between extremes more, simply because the money means they can.
It has not, however, translated into the European triumphs that it should.