The Premier League is hotly touted as the best league in the world by most people. Action, drama, the best players and the best games all rolled into one multi-billion TV extravaganza meaning that you can watch Liverpool-Chelsea in Paris just as easily as you can watch Burnley-Leicester in Nairobi. However, under all the excitement and money, there is a worrying trend developing – English clubs are being consistently embarrassed in Europe after a few years of dominance. So why is this? What has caused the top Premier League sides to consistently struggle in Europe?
Perhaps the most telling reason is the reemergence of some of the continent’s big clubs as real forces on the European scene. Barcelona floundered for much of the 2000s until Pep Guardiola arrived in 2008 and built one of the greatest sides to ever grace a football pitch. Built around the incredible talents of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, Barcelona passed sides off the pitch and were near unbeatable. Real Madrid’s spending power has always been immense but they have in the past not spent their vast wealth in such a way to build incredible sides. When money is spent on the likes of Julien Faubert then there is a real issue but in recent years, Real have begun to spend in ways that indicate they are interested in building formidable sides. Bale, Ronaldo, James, Isco, Modric, Varane and others have all came in and with Carlo Ancelotti at the helm, Madrid are a real danger once more. Bayern were inconsistent in the mid-2000s with managers changing and the tag of “FC Hollywood” apt for the time. But very gradually, a crop of young talent from the youth set-up began to break through including Thomas Muller and David Alaba which, aided by shrewd signings and stalwalrts like Phillip Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger, has turned Bayern into a dominating machine.
Yet, while these big sides have emerged, the Premier League has also had sides littered with quality players as well. Alexis Sanchez, Eden Hazard, Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure, Robin van Persie, Cesc Fabregas, Carlos Tevez, Vincent Kompany, Luis Suarez and many more all plyed/ply their trade in the Premier League so there is certainly no shortage of quality within the clubs. However, none of last season’s top four won their game in mid-week and of the six English sides in Europe only Everton won with Liverpool and Tottenham both eliminated.
The most interesting argument to be made is that English sides lack a clear identity. Many fans of the Premier League will look at that statement with outrage and prepare some kind of scathing comment to show me how wrong I was but when you take a step back and look at it there is a real case to be made here. The only English side that perhaps can make a case is Arsenal who have been known as the fluid passing team that develops young players. But recently, the fluidity has been lacking and the faith once shown in youngsters is starting to grate on fans who long for spending to fix their immediate problems. And spending is the big issue in this identity crisis the Premier League clubs are having. When a team has a problem, they fix it not by looking internally at a young player like a Barcelona might do but instead they go out and blow millions on a player that may not be quite good enough. Average players command huge fees for Premier League clubs all too willing to spend the money at the expense of an identity.
Take some examples from the continent – Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund. Atletico have had an incredible amount of success under Diego Simeone and that has all been built around the Argentine giving the club and team an identity. Simeone has taken a club that just willingly bought players that looked half decent but would often not perform consistently and made it into a club that bought players who could contribute always. Atletico are now renowned for their work rate and organisation, it is their identity and a far cry from the pre-Simeone years. Jurgen Klopp has done similar in Dortmund where he took a club that was struggling after over-reaching themselves in the pursuit of glory and gave them a high intenstiy, pressing identity. Gone are the overpaid, underperformers and in came players who were hungry to succeed and willing to follow Klopp’s ethos for the club. Identity has been at the heart of the success of both sides and they’ve been on the losing side of the last two finals which says a lot about how good they are.
Most importantly, and sadly for all Premier League fans, is the fact that English sides are quite frankly not as good. That’s both technically and tactically. Sure there are world class players littered across the league but the technical quality of a regular Premier League game is not exceptional and nowhere near the likes of the Bundesliga or even La Liga. For a league that wants to trumpet that it’s the best, the technical quality is not great despite the excitement (which is near unparalleled on a positive note). Tellingly, Liverpool struggled against Swiss champions FC Basel in this season’s Champions League because Basel were technically wonderful and tactically astute. Liverpool, the second best team in England last season, were embarrassed in Switzerland and at Anfield by a side that is a near lock to win their domestic title every season. Manchester City, the champions, struggle every season against Russians CSKA Moscow because they’re better tactically and are technically very good. Premier League sides seem to have forgotten how to play in Europe – gone are the days Liverpool could rock up and win at the Nou Camp or Arsenal can be comfortable in the San Siro. Premier League sides best hope now is to park the bus and pray their luck holds – just like Chelsea did in 2012 – which is a crying shame for the best league in the world.
The Premier League’s obsession with money and excitement for TV is now beginning to hinder it’s clubs in Europe as they all turn into samey brands who struggle when faced with a side that has a clear identity and is technically proficient. The worrying signs of decline have been showing for a couple of years and only now are they beginning to really hit hard. The “best league in the world” is struggling to keep up on its own continent – and looks to be losing ground quicker than ever before.