The English sides have come to the end of their cycle of dominance, they are no longer the force they once were.
After a poor Champions League campaign for English teams this season, it must be considered that English clubs have lost their way in Europe. After United, City and Arsenal have all been knocked out of Europe and Chelsea being distinctly poor all season, it would appear that there is a gulf between English teams and those of Italy, Spain and Germany. What has been interesting about the games this season is that these foreign sides have been faster, stronger and more determined than the English sides. Aren’t these characteristics that have epitomised the English sides in the past 10 years?
Hyperinflation from a desperate media
We are told by our media through papers and TV that the English league is the best in the world! Whether for unpredictability or for dominance in Europe, we are constantly told like some Nazi propaganda machine that we are the best. Keep saying it enough and they’ll believe it. Since the start of the Premier league only 4 teams have won it, in the last 10 only 3 have. To say it is unpredictable is nothing short of madness. Perhaps the past two years there has been a change in with the emergence of Man City and Spurs as challengers for the top 4, yet at this time there is a boring nature to the Premier League. In Europe the statistics don’t indicate total dominance; in the past 10 years the Champions League has been won by Liverpool (fortunately) in 2005 and Man Utd (vs Chelsea) in 2008. Liverpool were the last English team to win the Uefa Cup and that was in 2001, since then a Spanish team has won it 4 times. Does this indicate total dominance?
Granted, several years ago there was common trend where English teams were competing in the semi-finals on a regular basis. However as with everything, these things come in cycles. During 2004-2009 the top teams in Italy; through match fixing controversy and major financial issues, Spain; at Real there was transition between the galaticio era and at Barcelona there was a steady build to something great, led by the capture of Ronaldinho. Even in Germany there was a period of transition. Dortmund for instance put themselves in financial ruin in order to win the 1996 Champions League which put the team back years, only now are they recapturing their form and that is through an enforced yet very effective youth policy.
From dominance to mediocre
The English sides have come to the end of their cycle, it is clear for us all to see. Arsenal have not been the same side since the invincible season and even a Champions League final in 2006 did not hide their potential inadequacies which have been shown now. I have commented on Arsenal and their problems before and so I will focus more on Man Utd and Chelsea. United have been outplayed twice by Barcelona in the past 3 years and each time you think that Ferguson will adapt, will learn his lessons, will look to change tactics and the gameplan. He spent £60 million last summer in order to compete against Barcelona and aim to win the Champions League yet surely questions must be asked of the players Ferguson bought; their purpose, how they were supposed to add to a team which had been beaten so comprehensively in the ‘09 and ‘11 finals and whether buying English talent was the right idea. The current side has been outplayed by both Basel and most notably Bilbao this season and questions must be asked as to whether this United team is really any good? If not, then what does it say when they are top of the domestic league!
Ferguson said that he had learnt a lot from the games versus Barcelona. Yet if had learnt his lessons he would have felt that defensive midfielder of someone the ilk of De Rossi or even Scott Parker would have given United more stability, especially in the modern game which now looks to overload the midfield with a three man midfield. In the top games the need for a defensive cover is imperative in order to prevent top players dropping into the holes and dictating play. Owen Hargreaves appeared to be that man, yet injuries curtailed that. This was not the wrong decision to buy a player like Hargreaves though, so a replacement should have been bought. The problem appears to be that Ferguson doubts himself in the transfer market, and it is only British players who have really been successful when he pays a lot of money. No wonder he believes there is no value in the market.
Yet this policy is not good if United want to continue to challenge for top honours. The signings added nothing to the squad which was in need of replacing ageing players in Scholes, Giggs and those not up to scratch in Berbatov, Anderson and Evans. A young GK was not required, everyone knows that experience is key in this position, there is just too much pressure on young shoulders at this club between the sticks and mistakes were bound to happen.
As for Chelsea, they dominated Europe without ever winning it the past 10 years and through a slight of luck on many occasions the European trophy was not won. After Mourinho left his replacements kept his style, why, because the players liked it and it was successful. This season AVB believed he could change this team and produce Barcelona overnight, this was folly. Chelsea have been a shell of their previous selves. I believe they were the team that Guardiola feared the most, which I believe was the reason he brought in Zlatan, after seeing the force and power that Drogba brought. Now this current Chelsea team lack any of the strength, resilience or determination that characterised the previous sides. Like Arsenal, they are just not the intimidating force they once were. Even with AVB now gone this Chelsea side is not the same it was, a few good results have improved confidence yet the Napoli really should have beat them at the Bridge in the 2nd leg and the performance against City was distinctly poor. Champions League football does seem possible next season and so what will happen to the investment and interest of Roman, when all he wants is a Champions League?!
Of all the teams equipped to challenge in Europe this generation it appears that Man City appear to be the most suited to compete. What they lack at this time is the experience required to challenge regularly. Experience of playing in Europe, the travel and schedule differences, balancing league and cup effectively and being able to compete on both. What City need is to win their domestic league first; by winning that they build confidence, learn how to win and develop the mindset of being winners. It may be a few years till this team wins a Champions League, however they appear the best placed to succeed. This season Man City struggled because Mancini got his tactics wrong, especially away; playing too attacking and looking to dominate too much exposed them to counter attacks which in the Champions League results in a goal more than in the league. They should learn from this however and be stronger for it next year, although with Mancini is another thing. If he fails to win anything this season, which is likely, then he must go. For all the investment and importantly the averageness of sides around them, the Premier League should have been simple, relatively speaking. Yet they have faltered at times and he has not exactly looked the calmest of men in recent times.
On the continent
Now it would appear that the cycle has come around, that those teams who were struggling this past decade have now steadied their-selves and are ready to show their force in Europe again. Milan’s performances this season have not always been as good as last night yet last night indicates that they are a team who can play on the big stage again. With their forward three of Zlatan, Robinho and Boateng and with a defensive block which includes the excellent Thiago Silva and Mexes, they have a balance which could be formidable in Europe. Possessing three attacking players who possess speed, skill, intelligence and precision are key to being a successful team. Added to this a defensive block which is organised and disciplined and there appears to be a remedy for success.
Looking around the top teams in Europe at this time, a three pronged attack appears to be conducive to success; Napoli, one of the most exciting teams in this years Champions League possess excellent players in Cavani, Hamsik and Lavezzi. Madrid have Ronaldo, Benzema and Ozil, Barca possess Messi, Sanchez and Fabregas. Bayern have Muller, Robben and Gomez. With these kinds of attacking players, there is not a need to abandon a defensive position and seek to overload the attack leaving the defence vulnerable; a team can be more balanced. These teams base their tactics on the 4-2-3-1 which has become such a potent tactic to success. Yet it is only Man City who adopted this formation in England.
Has the so called success or dominance of the past decade restricted the top English teams from adapting and evolving in their tactics and their personal? I believe so and I also believe that we have a new period in European football where the Germans in Bayern and Dortmund along with the Spanish of Barca and Madrid and in Italy, next season especially from Napoli, Milan and a very impressive and reformed Juventus all are showing signs of getting back to where they were pre 2000. When watching all these teams they show ingenuity, solidity and they mix attack and defence to perfection. In England this season the top teams have struggled to balance attack and defence and this has resulted in the crazy scorelines that indicate not improved attacking teams but very much poorer organised defensive teams. This is not good for European football and it has showed in the performances of our domestic teams in Europe this season.
As always with good teams, they often possess the best players. And what is of note is that there appears more and more better players around Europe than in England. To mention a few; Gotze, Kroos, Muller, Cavani, Hamsik, El Sheeraway, Thiago Silva, Ozil and Benzema! As for possessing world class players, can England say we own the best? I believe only Rooney, Van Perise, Silva, Aguero, Kompany and Yaya Toure are genuine world class and of those I can see a few of those leaving these shores in the coming seasons.
Fifa are not deluded and their World XI is dominated by players from the top 2 Spanish sides. This is because these are simply the best sides in the world at this time. When people say the Spanish league is not competitive they are correct, there is such a gulf between those two and the rest. In the past several seasons the English league has seen real quality leave, Ronaldo and Fabregas in particular have been huge losses to the league. The English sides have shown a gulf between Barca and Madrid as United, Arsenal and Tottenham will confess. With the emergence of Italian football again and the youth policy of Germany beginning to blossom, then as a fan of foreign football, the coming years are very bright, yet for those want to see their team succeed in Europe in the coming years, I think you should be happy with a quarter final.
No longer the best
If you still believe the English league is the best then you are deluded. Perhaps you enjoy it because the league is competitive, yet isn’t this an indication of greatness, it is an indication of mediocrity. Too many teams filled with mainly average players playing very average football. English sides have done very well for a long time now yet there is a change upon us, some of the teams have not adapted quick enough, yet there is time to improve and adapt.
What is required is more quality coming to the league, not leaving. Without Man City I worry what the standard of player would be like here. It is important that English teams address their needs and quickly, we do not want a generation where we miss out on playing on the big stage. We should not look to change our culture completely, strength and determination are great characteristics of the English game, yet what we are lacking is players with real skill and creativity who can perform on the highest stage, we need this through players from abroad and more importantly coming through our youth Academies.