The English in Europe

There’s always a debate over which European league is the best. The arguments always take a different path according to which criteria are used to assess the competitions. A Bundesliga aficionado will come at you hard with impeccably high fan attendance figures, mercurial stadia and passionate fan support with – bar Bayern Munich – relatively good financial equality between clubs. A La Liga advocate will always argue that the Spanish league houses the world’s best talents as well as cite Spanish clubs’ recent domination of European competitions. English fans’ best retort has predictably been the high competitive level between Premier League teams. The ferocious fight for the league title and European berths, as well as the unpredictability in results between “top” and “bottom” teams, making it the hardest league to predict, is the main attraction there.

Comparing anything that doesn’t have the same variables is almost moronic and argumentative for the sake of it. That said, this is football and it will happen. So where do all these leagues have similar variables? European competitions, where the they face each other. I wanted to touch upon English teams’, perhaps perceived, recent failures in Europe and analyze some factors that might be responsible.

As recently as last week we saw Liverpool and Tottenham crash out of the Europa League, to what many English supporters would call inferior opposition. We also saw Arsenal get demolished at home in the Champions league 3-1 by Monaco and Manchester City go gung-ho 4-4-2 at the Etihad against Barcelona and lose 2-1. Chances are slim for these two to progress. The exceptions were Chelsea getting a positive 1-1 draw away at the Parc des Princes and Everton progressing in the Europa League. Overall though, some very disappointing English performances. This made me take a look back at recent English sides’ performances in Europe.

Let’s limit this to the last decade. Since 2005 in the Champions League, we have had eight English finalists. Between 2005 and 2009, there was an English club in every Champions League final for those five years. One year was even an all-English final between Chelsea and Manchester United. What a great return from the English teams! Impressive!

Now, how many CL trophies did they take back to England when facing foreign opposition. 4? 3?. Nope. One. One trophy out of four. That’s not good enough. Arsenal lost to Barcelona, Liverpool to Milan, and United to Barcelona. In the next five years, two more English clubs made the finals acquiring one trophy between them. That’s three trophies in ten years, and only two against foreign opposition. Of those two, Liverpool were down to Milan 3-0, and Chelsea were down 1-0 until the last minute of the game to Bayern Munich. Hardly dominant performances.

Champions League

Now let’s look at the Europa League. In the past decade, English clubs took only three out of a possible 20 finalist spots. Compare that to Spain’s seven and you see the English teams have underperformed. There has been a consensus in England that the Europa League just isn’t prestigious enough or it doesn’t hold high importance with managers. A top four finish for teams like Tottenham or Liverpool is much more valuable (or has been until this season, as winning the EL now qualifies you for next season’s CL). I don’t know what the actual numbers are, but I’m willing to bet that most English fans would rather win the FA Cup than the Europa League. This Spanish dominance of the Europa League is often used by La Liga supporters to demonstrate that La Liga’s middle tier teams are much more competitive and able than their English counterparts.

Europe League

Lets analyze some of the variables that might explain the recent English failure in Europe:

Number of Games and Priorities:

Both the German and Spanish competitions have one domestic cup. The English competitions have two; The FA Cup and the Capital One cup. That alone accounts for up to a possible extra eight games per season. These games are also usually allocated for midweek slots which means an increase in fatigue for the teams participating. Having to rotate your squad and keep them fresh between four competitions is significantly more work than three.

This also comes into play when the English sides are in the Europa League. You would think managers would favour that competition over the Capital One Cup, but it’s not that clear. The English like their local rivalry and they cherish it probably more so than their continental ones. Tottenham fans, for example, would be much more excited for a Capital One Cup quarter-final against Arsenal, than its Europa League equivalent against Basel.

Winter Break:

This has been, and will remain a major talking point. This is the clearest difference between these top three leagues. The German league gets a month off in December and January and the Spanish competitions take a break for a couple of weeks, while the Premier League does not. In England they play on Boxing Day as well as New Year’s Day. Every single England national team manager has complained that these hectic ten days in December – where teams can play up to four games – takes its toll on the players and affects their performances for the rest of the season. That being said, the fans will not accept any change. The English supporters love their Christmas-period football and are always looking to use it as their main source of entertainment over the festive period.

The Champions League knock-out phase starts in February and many point to the winter break as a reason the non-English clubs look much more refreshed and fit. The recent English failures in Europe have been largely attributed to the lack of down time and rejuvenation that is missing with no winter break.

Style of Play:

As much as I agree about the winter break being a factor, I believe the largest one is style of play. For me, a Champions League winning side needs to have flair, technical ability and world class players. The English sides, often due to the nature of the Premier League, put a lot of importance on grit, determination and hard work. This serves them well locally in a league format, but when transferred to knockout phases in Europe, it just doesn’t seem to work. This seems very similar to the reason the English National side have been an utter and complete failure for the past decade internationally.

Lets look at when English teams have done well in the CL. Manchester United reached the final twice in a row in 2008 and 2009, due to the sheer talent in their squad at the time, as well as the foreign tactical impetus of Carlos Quieroz. World class players in Rooney, Ronaldo, and Tevez were a frightening attack; a technical attacking trio. With a solid back line and keeper, they were set. Barcelona and Bayern Munich both reached the finals three times in the last decade, Milan and Liverpool twice, and Real Madrid, Dortmund and Atletico Madrid once. Almost all the teams in the finals, bar the Mourinho (and Di Matteo, come to think of it) teams of Inter and Chelsea, have reached the finals playing technical, attractive, positive possession football, utilizing world class talent.

What we see now is a fragile Arsenal team, a direct-football Manchester United side and a young Liverpool squad. The only teams capable of taking on their Spanish and German counterparts are Manchester City and Chelsea at the moment. Manchester City will keep getting tough Champions League groups and knock-out draws due to their inexperience in the competition while Chelsea will continue to do well but will never win over the neutrals doing it.

The solution to getting the English back on the European map is two pronged; a non-traditionally English style of play, and a less hectic schedule. The non-English part is quite ironic, but it’s essential. The clubs and managers need to realize that positive football in Europe is the way to succeed. Excluding having Jose as your coach, negative counter attacking tactics will only get you so far. Also, it would be quite helpful if the opposition players didn’t have a 30 day rest period while the Premier League slogs through four games in ten days. I would bet my house (if I had one), that the FA will never scrap winter football. It’s not just a sporting event anymore, but an event engrained into the English social fabric and one marked on the calendar in thick red pen. Christmas time means an overload of football, and everyone loves it.

So, that leaves the style of play. Good luck.

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