As the UEFA Champions League started up again last week, fans of English teams were left with the now familiar sight of the richest league in the world being put to shame by decidedly modest opposition. Three out of four English clubs lost, and two to teams that have markedly smaller budgets (although compare Manchester City’s transfer window to Juventus’ and it is clear who held the financial advantage going into that clash).
English teams’ performances in Europe have been poor for several years, Manchester United reached the final in 2010-11, and Chelsea reached the semi-final in Jose Mourinho’s first season back at Stamford Bridge, but Arsenal and Manchester City have underachieved and Liverpool were dire in their return to the top-level of European competition last season.
Apologists believe that the reason English teams perform so poorly is because they are more fatigued than the other participants, but this argument doesn’t hold much water.
One side of it focuses on the supposed strength of the Premier League. The story goes that Arsenal spend so much time running around getting beaten by West Ham on a Sunday that they don’t have the energy to run around on Wednesday, and thus get beaten by Dynamo Zagreb.
By contrast, Real Madrid/Barcelona/Bayern Munich/Juventus play their B teams, still walk-over the opposition 5-0, and then show up refreshed mid-week. It’s just not true.
Generally the winners of the top leagues in Europe finish with around the same number of points. Last season, Juventus and Chelsea both had 87, Barcelona 94, and Bayern 79 (which can be extrapolated up to 88/89 given that they won about 75% of their games but played four fewer). Surely in such weaker leagues, these teams should be racking up 100+ point seasons? Barcelona’s 94 points are not indicative of a weak league but rather of an exceptional team (because they beat the best every other league had to offer as well en-route to a treble). They were also pushed hardest out of all the title winners, while Chelsea won “the hardest league in the world” with 87, and they were strolling at the end with the title wrapped up well before the last or even penultimate game. The Catalan side had to expend additional effort on the Copa Del Rey (and the Champions League), playing more games.
The Premier League is only the third best league in Europe according to UEFA coefficients, and the leagues above it aren’t there because they’re full of mugs. La Liga has three potential title winners (2 and a half, if you want to be pessimistic about Atletico, but really that’s the same as the Premiership), and a further European champion in Sevilla. Valencia and Sevilla, consistently progress further in the Europa League than any English club as well. While Tottenham/Liverpool/Everton always get beaten just at the stage of the tournament when they ‘take it seriously’.
This season Juventus are pants in Serie A, fighting for their lives every weekend, but still managed to beat a City side that really could have played their B-team in most of their domestic matches this season and still romped home.
The other side of the fatigue argument is the additional matches due to a lack of a winter break, and an additional cup competition. However, more matches equal more money, and while the Premier League may not be objectively the best league in the world, it is certainly the richest.
With the huge budgets comes the ability to build huge squads, reducing the impact “tough” league games have, and reducing the impact more games have, because supposedly the depth is there to cope. Huge funds also supposedly attract top management, and top back-end staff, meaning quality recruitment and injury prevention. (Now whether the huge funds have been used wisely is another argument, and perhaps the only one that holds any weight).
Last season, with a much weaker squad than Chelsea and Manchester City, Juventus (who also finished their league with 87 points) played 57 games. While Chelsea, with a huge squad and far more money, didn’t really have tiredness as an excuse as they were out of the cups by March (out of the FA cup in January), they still did worse in Europe.
One reason why English teams aren’t playing to their potential is that they are misusing the resources that they have at their disposal. Arsenal are refusing to pay going rates for players, and City refuse to build a squad that is fit to play in both the Premier League, and in European competition. Referees behave differently domestically and in European cups, and the pace of the game and the strategies employed by opponents also differs.
Manchester City have been relying on the same spine (Kompany, Toure, Silva, Aguero) that won the club its first Premier League title under Roberto Mancini, and have consistently finished either first or second in England, to do the job in Europe as well for the past four years, and it’s just not worked out. Opponents attack and defend against City differently in different competitions, and relying on the same four players will burn them out and injure them, not because they’re playing harder games or the team as a whole is playing more games, but because the squad and coaching have not adapted.
Think back to when Manchester United were always contesting the Champions League and the Premier League to the end of the season, they used the resources at their disposal to revolutionize the concept of squad rotation. In 2007-8, they won the double while not playing the same XI in consecutive matches. In 56 games, shorn of captain Gary Neville through injury for the entire season, no outfield players aside from Wes Brown and Cristiano Ronaldo tops 40 appearances, and only Ronaldo and Vidic started over 30 league games. This was a club that knew it had the resources to build a squad that could go horses for courses to play against the continental style without harming domestic form, and minimizing the impact of lots of matches through rotation. The top Premier League teams of today need to do the same.
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