Is the Champions League party over?
Manchester City’s inevitable exit to Barcelona means that, for the second time in three years, there are no English participants in the Quarter-Final stages of the Champions League.
This spells a huge turnaround in fortunes for the English Premier League aka “The Best League in the World” (copyright Richard Scudamore). The graphic below shows that the Premier League have a pretty patchy record overall in the Champions League, however in a five year period from 2004-2009, English teams accounted for 12 of the possible 20 places in the final four of the competition, including two winners and four losing finalists:
That dominance of the final stages of the CL effectively ended when Manchester United were outplayed by Barcelona in the final at Wembley in 2009. Apart from another final appearance from Man Utd in 2011 and the infamous Chelsea win of 2012, the ascendancy has shifted to a handful of Spanish and German clubs, accounting for 15 of the 20 final four places between 2009 and 2014:
The pattern has continued this year, with all four of the English teams knocked out in the Round of 16, leaving Germany and Spain to make up half of the eight quarter-finalists.
So what factors have contributed to the English decline?
Spanish/German dominance of international football
The resurgence of Spanish and German clubs in the CL has coincided with their country’s dominance of international competition – between them they have won all four major international trophies since 2008. In that time, both international sides have featured large contingents from single successful CL clubs – Spain/Barcelona and Germany/Bayern Munich. Does success in the Champions League lead to success at International level? Or vice-versa? Some would point out that both countries have bred their own ‘Golden Generation’ – a highly-skilled group of players who have played together from a very early age. Both groups, it seems, were destined for greatness. There have been mentions of a ‘Golden Generation’ in England before – Fergie’s Fledglings, the West Ham academy of Lampard, Ferdinand, and Cole – but only the Man United win of 1999 can be in any way attributed to any of those players. That United win didn’t lead to any kind of sustained European success, and certainly wasn’t translated onto the international stage – with England flopping miserably at Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup in Japan.
The Inexplicable Failure of Manchester City
Manchester City’s recent successes in the Premier League have turned them into Champions League regulars however their record in that competition is nothing short of terrible. How can a team dominate so regularly in The Best League In The World yet suffer so badly in the Champions League when coming up against poorer and so-called inferior opponents? While Man City’s results in the CL continue to be poor, so will England’s overall average.
The “Round of Arsenal”
The Round of Sixteen has now officially been renamed (by myself) “The Round of Arsenal”. Five years in a row, Arsenal have reached the Round of Sixteen. Five years in a row they have been knocked out at that stage. Now some would say that they have been extremely unlucky coming up against the elite of European football in those ties – Bayern Munich (twice), Barcelona, AC Milan, and now Monaco. Yes they are tough draws, but Arsenal have finished second in their group in all but one of those seasons, inevitably leading to a draw against one of the big boys. Their inability to top their group has cost them dear in the knockout stages.
The Decline of Italian Football
Since Jose Mourinho’s Inter won the trophy in 2009-10, no Italian team has made it past the Quarter Finals of the competition (until this year – thanks for ruining that stat Juventus!). That is in rank contrast to the early years of the Champions League, when either AC Milan or Juventus were finalists in the first six years of the competition, both winning one and losing two. That was followed by a Carlo Ancelotti-inspired purple patch for AC Milan between 2002 and 2007 where they won two further trophies and appeared in another final and a semi-final. However, since the Inter win of 2010, there has been only three quarter-final appearances by Italian clubs. This downturn in fortunes means that one of European’s traditional powerhouses are no longer serious contenders in the Champions League, narrowing the field considerably and providing the Spanish-German clubs even more opportunity to dominate.
Retirement of Alex Ferguson
Manchester United are England’s most regular Champions League entrants with 19 appearances. During Alex Ferguson’s time at the club, they won the trophy twice and reached at least the quarter finals in 12 of the 18 seasons they entered. You can say what you like about old purple-face but he had a pretty decent record in Europe. Since Ferguson’s retirement, they are no longer even guaranteed a place in the competition, never mind a quarter-final spot. Out of the competition all together this year, they are in a race against time to finish fourth this season to avoid missing out for two years in a row for the first time in Champions League history. The fall from grace of the major English competitor in the CL (and the failure of their neighbour replacements) has had a major effect on the Premier League’s impact in the competition.
All of these factors have, in my humble opinion, contributed to the English clubs’ recent lack of success in Europe’s premier club competition. But as we saw at the beginning of the post, the Premier League recovered from very average beginnings in the Champions League to dominate the trophy for the second half of the last decade. Are we now experiencing the trough after the peak? And can English clubs turn this around and start challenging again? The five billion pound influx of TV money from the recently renewed Sky/BT rights deal certainly won’t hinder Premier League clubs from competing in the transfer market. It’s likely that the Best League In The World won’t rely on a highly-trained crop of outstanding talent, innovative coaching, or investment in grassroots to achieve Champions League success. In order to compete they need Rupert Murdoch’s money – billions of it.