The Premier League is regarded by so many as the best league in world soccer. But why then do Premier League teams struggle so much when they take their game to the continent? The English flag is being flown the highest by Everton, who are currently 12th in the Premier League table. Why can a team like Manchester City look so dominant on a Saturday and look so poor three days later? Is it squad depth? Tactical naivety? Why has this become such a consistent narrative?
English clubs have the money required to be successful in Europe on a consistent basis. The squads are generally deeper in England for this reason. But often in midweek these players, including some regulars look off the pace, leggy, lacking sharpness and a step behind their counterparts from the continent. Part of that is tactical, and no doubt look to how easily Leonardo Jardim’s weakened AS Monaco had their way with a full strength Arsenal squad as proof of that. Tactics are only part of the story however, because English teams have still pulled off some great results in Europe recently.
Is it squad depth? Chelsea and Manchester City have gone with deliberately thinner squads, which has hurt their performances in Europe, especially on the three day turnarounds from a Premier League game to a Champions League one. Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur both used heavily rotated squads in their Europa League return legs, and both of those teams on paper should have been good enough to beat their opposition of Besiktas and Fiorentina respectively. But they looked off the pace by a fair margin, or to be even more frank, disinterested. But that alone cannot tell the story, neither is the picture fully crystalized when combined with tactical observations.
Everton have blitzed their Europa League opposition this season, including their demolition of Swiss side Young Boys, but that is certainly misleading. Young Boys are not Barcelona, or Besiktas or Fiorentina or even Monaco, and Everton’s league form has been, like their Europa League predecessor teams from England, dreadful. So Roberto Martinez has put all of his eggs in the Europa League basket seeing that they are more than likely safe from relegation despite that. All the while Chelsea have Jose Mourinho, his tactical nouse, and the ability to grind out results that the rest of England’s European contingent can’t match.
The Premier League possesses something that other European leagues do not – quality from top to bottom. English teams simply have bigger challenges ahead on the weekend than they will have in midweek European ties, meaning that English sides will put in weakened sides during their mid-week matches. The teams feel there is more to gain domestically than there is from Europe, which is why those matches tend to have lower priority, even from Champions League sides.
But the real issue here is the crowded fixture list for Premier League clubs. The way the 38 games are crammed together, plus two domestic cups, does not bode well for any side having to add in a minimum of six European group stage fixtures into their program. Even with the prize for winning the Europa League now being a Champions League birth the following season, English clubs are still prioritizing the league path to success. And for clubs a competition higher, if they are handed a difficult draw, they end up being completely outclassed and left to search for the same answers they looked for the season prior. It’s a no-win situation.
For English clubs to succeed in Europe, they need to be given the incentive to succeed. So far, the only teams who have that are teams whose Premier League campaigns have been derailed, or whose Premier League aspirations are the second priority; which rarely is the case.
For clubs around in Europe, they view European competition as a privilege. In England, it’s viewed as a nuisance or a mountain too difficult to climb.
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