Why the richest league in football can't keep losing in Europe.
It’s starting to become all too predictable. Another season passes with another missed opportunity; another pivotal moment for Premier League teams in Europe swings the wrong way.
Last night saw Chelsea punished for a complacent and lackadaisical performance that at best belies misplaced assuredness and at worst, a serious lack of conviction. Last night we saw the first signs of seemingly uncharacteristic mental fragility in Mourinho’s side – a problem that either isn’t present in the Premier League, or isn’t exposed often enough to be noticed.
Liverpool and Tottenham were recently dumped out of a Europa League competition that is widely seen as second-rate by English fans and clubs alike. In the Champions League two weeks ago Arsenal imploded under the pressure of a regimented and clinical Monaco side, with City setting up a near-impossible second-leg challenge next Wednesday following a 2-1 defeat that exposed a worrying gulf in quality between the two teams.
To compound English football fans concerns, this inferiority may soon be sanctioned by UEFA itself: by knocking the Premier League’s available Champion’s League spots down to 3.Consistent underperformance by English teams in Europe has seen the EPL’s co-efficient ranking start to slip. Whilst the system is complex, the basic maths is that each team has an individual points score based on wins and progression through the stages. The points for each team are combined to give a total for each national league, which is then divided by the number of teams to give a mean score for each nation. The mean score for the last 5 seasons is added together for each league, giving a points total that decides ranking. The top 3 leagues receive 4 Champions League qualifying spots each, with 3 for the next 3 and so on.
Since the all-English Champions League final between United and Chelsea in 2007/8, the Premier League reigned top of the coefficient rankings. In 2012/13 the Spanish La Liga took top spot, and the EPL is now only 2 points ahead of the German Bundesliga. More worrying still, Italian football has been gathering momentum, with Serie A moving further away from the poor performances in the 2010/11 and 2011/12 seasons that are currently holding it back. Two years from now these will no longer factor into their coefficient and as it stands Italy are the only country to have all six of their eligible teams still in the European competitions. England, however, have only four of an original seven – and this is likely to drop to two after the next round of games as City chase goals at the Camp Nou and Arsenal seek to make Champions League history by overturning a two goal deficit in Monaco.
What this means is that if English teams continue to underperform then there is a very real chance that Serie A will, within the next five years, reclaim the four Champions League spots it held throughout the 90’s - at the expense of an ailing English league.
Despite being unquestionably the most valuable football league in the world, the EPL chronically underperforms against its rivals. In the 2012/13 season, the EPL had a recorded revenue of £2.52bn – half a billion higher than the Bundesliga, at £2bn, and almost a billion higher than Serie A, at £1.7bn.
Schalke – with a turnover of £161m in 2012/13 - have performed better than Arsenal – turnover £282m in the same period - over the past five seasons in Europe. Equally, Leverkusen (£78m) are currently ranked higher than Manchester City (£271m); a club who’s rapid injection of cash was clearly intended to support European ambitions.
As TV money explodes and club revenues soar ever higher, fans are left wondering what it is that holds English teams back from European glory.
It may be that the overinflated value of the league – much maligned by fans and media alike - is itself to blame for lackluster performances. Money changes hands faster in the Premier League than anywhere else in the world, and is often on hand to patch up problems that in reality run much deeper than this can solve.
German and Spanish clubs have had more universal success in developing players domestically. English clubs, conversely, have spent millions on players that have been deemed dispensable by their vendors -- almost all of which have been European. Consider Ozil, Di Maria, Sanchez and Fabregas, all of whom came at a high price from clubs that could afford to lose them. Some may have performed well, but they serve only to mask a short-term philosophy that cannot sustain a football league.
Over-investment in out-sourced players has stunted development. This problem is exacerbated by the high levels of competition in the Premier League: there is very rarely a game in which a manager can confidently play academy players knowing they will still secure a result. Compare this to European leagues and the problem becomes obvious. Managers at Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern will find it far easier to phase in youth players than their Premier League counterparts. Internal competition could also be responsible for the way English clubs view the Europa League. It’s obvious that whilst playing in a domestic league as competitive and lucrative as the EPL, managers will be less inclined to field full-strength squads in mid-week fixtures that will weaken their chances come Sunday afternoon.
Whilst there is no single explanation for this European problem, perhaps the most compelling reasoning for this weekends deficiencies was offered by Jamie Carragher (no, really) who pointed to the defence naivety of English teams as a crucial downfall. Looking at the teams its hard to disagree – did Manuel Pelligrini really believe that a holding midfield of James Milner and Fernando would be enough to stop Barcelona from scoring all-important away goals? This naivety was mirrored in Arsenal’s manic pursuit of a late equaliser that would have secured a foothold in a competition that looks increasingly out of their league.
Arsene Wenger claims that Premier League players “expend more energy” in the domestic league, leading to leggy and underwhelming performances in midweek. There may be some truth in that, but this higher level of competition should create more robust teams that are harder to break down. In reality, English teams regularly ship cheap goals more easily than their continental counterparts.
Whatever the cause, the effect is obvious. The loss of a Champions League place is going to hurt every stakeholder in the English football chain: the clubs, the broadcasters, and fundamentally, the fans. The Premier League ecosystem operates with a very clear incentive for four clubs to qualify for the Champions League and not only reap the financial reward but also bring the best players in the world to their doorstep.
But for all its flaws, the Premier League is inarguably the most exciting league in the world. Like them or loathe them, big money TV deals are here for a reason – punters want to watch English football. The structure of Spanish, German and to a lesser extent Italian football might create great players and be more endogenously successful than the Premier League but they are simply unable to offer the same levels of drama and competition. If English football is to build for the future, the money that is being poured onto the top flight needs to be invested wisely. And the snobbery around the Europa league needs to be dispelled – until English teams are making an impact on the Champion’s League, they absolutely cannot turn their noses up at it’s sister competition.