Something is rotten in England. Over the past two days, the country that is allegedly home to the strongest, deepest professional soccer league in the world saw two of its three best teams lose to two of the rest of Europe’s best teams in embarrassingly spectacular fashion on its home soil. The English representatives, Manchester City and Arsenal, did not just lose to their counterparts, FC Barcelona and Bayern München, they had their trousers pulled down in front of a global viewing audience.
If one had to summarize the English sides’ attitude to the matches, it would be harder to find a more fitting image than the obscene gesture made by Arsenal’s goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny after he was sent off late in the first half.
On Tuesday, Manchester City took to the pitch at the Etihad Stadium against Barcelona and were made to look foolish by a Barça side that seemed to be so far ahead of their English opponents that losing Martin Demichelis 54 minutes into play seemed superfluous. Lionel Messi proceeded to convert his penalty kick, while a last minute goal by Dani Alves not only sealed the Citizens’ fate for that match, but also spells almost certain elimination from the competition. Even using the best sites for gambling online, it would take a brave person to wager that Arsenal would score three unanswered goals in Munich in the return leg.
Fast forward 24 hours later, and a disturbingly similar story unfolded at Emirates Stadium in London. Arsenal played host to defending champions and the competition’s presumptive favorites Bayern München and proceeded to act as a welcome mat for the German side. The Gunners played a competitive half hour or so of football, although this is not entirely surprising as Bayern has been notoriously slow starting against strong sides. A questionable call led to the aforementioned red card for Szczesny, and in a moment of depressing English symmetry, at 54 minutes in, Toni Kroos put home a strike from 20 yards out and at 88 minutes, Thomas Müller sentenced Arsenal to the same fate as Manchester City.
There is no nice way to put this: England is in trouble. The Premier League is, ostensibly, the finest collection of football clubs in any country. Serie A has put just one team in to the round of 16. La Liga is, despite the resurgence of Atlético Madrid, still a two-team league. The Bundesliga is the only league that can reasonably be compared to the BPL, having sent four clubs to the round of 16 and featuring enough talent that clubs like Borussia Mönchengladbach can conceivably compete with table leaders Bayern. Nonetheless, the perception in Europe as well as the entire world is that the Bundesliga is, at best, good competition for England.
So if all of that is true, how have England’s best clubs seemingly fallen so far behind the best Spanish and German sides? (And, after watching Paris Saint-Germain dismantle Bayer Leverkusen, one might argue a French side as well.) It is, quite simply, hard to imagine the UEFA Champions League trophy not ending up in Munich, Madrid, Paris or Barcelona when all is said and done.
Arsenal’s lack of a true striker was arguably the key to their undoing at the hands of Bayern. Even if Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud had been available yesterday, Arsenal looked languid against the Germans who have seemingly perfected Pep Guardiola’s tiki-taka style of play, completing 94.6% of their passes and possessing the ball for an astounding 79% of the game. Manchester City, meanwhile, played a sloppy, uninspired match that saw them commit 19 fouls in a sort of desperation act, as they clearly stood almost no chance against their opponents. Barça played an aggressive game that prevented the normally attacking Citizens from controlling the tempo of the game as they so often do against their fellow English sides. To put the results of the past two days in to the simplest of terms, Arsenal and Manchester City were simply outplayed, outclassed and, in general, treated like doormats rather than doormen.
Manchester City, Arsenal or Chelsea will win the Premier League this year. This is less a prediction than it is a fact. Here is another prediction that some may consider a fact as well: Chelsea will be the only side of the three advancing to the Champions League quarterfinals. I’m not discussing Manchester United here because, while I think they will beat Olympiakos and give England two teams in the quarterfinals, their appearance is an aberration brought on by luck and easy draws. They will inevitably be dismantled by whichever club they meet in the round of eight, and I don’t necessarily think that is up for debate.
Chelsea, notwithstanding, England’s best clubs are all fatally flawed in such deep ways that they are unable to compete with the best clubs in the world. We have believed for so long that the Premier League is the best league in the world simply because nothing has led us to believe otherwise. When we watch clubs like Swansea or Newcastle play top-tier clubs competitively, we chalk that up to the depth of talent across the entire Premiership. Perhaps the real reason is because the top-tier clubs just are not that good anymore, and the Premier League is no longer the finest collection of soccer clubs in Europe.