It has been quite a 10 years for English football. For the past decade, English clubs have been dominant in the Champions League; winning the trophy three times and appearing in seven finals. And yet, last year clubs like United and City failed to get out the group and Arsenal were taught a lesson by an average Milan side. Of course Chelsea went on to win it, yet the manner in which they did showed an admittance that they weren’t as good as others. Their defend at all costs mentality was their only way of overcoming sides like Barca and Bayern.
One of The Whitehouse Address’s earlier articles was titled “If you think the English league is the best, you are deluded”. The article came on the back of Arsenal’s exit from the Champions League to Milan and after the poor campaigns of the Manchester clubs. At that time Chelsea were not looking great also. (Take a note of the article I wrote about what Chelsea needed to do to succeed in Europe; see here spot on?)
In the article I wrote;
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.
I stand by this still now. Is the English exciting, yes it is. The last game of last season highlighted that. Yet don’t other leagues have exciting games? Of course they do. Yet we are told by our media that other leagues are boring.
A cliché about Italian football is that it's boring and too defensive. Do people watch Italian football? In the past several years it has become more attacking, there are more goals and the quality of the games are very high. Are there some 0-0 draws, of course, yet doesn't that happen in every league?
In Spain, many profess that outside Madrid and Barcelona, there is very little else. How delusional and ignorant? Did anyone see Bilbao play last season, see how they outplayed the mighty Man Utd? Has anyone witnessed Atletico Madrid win the Europa League twice in three years? And in particular see them destroy the Champions League holders Chelsea this season? And of course there are the consistent Valencia and ever impressive Malaga.
We have a problem in our culture of finding slow games boring, monotonous and “poor”. We love goals, we live for highlights, incidents and high tempo football. We find the game boring unless it's played at 100mph. The game however has changed.
This past decade the English style has proved effective. The power, speed and intensity of the games were too much for many sides across Europe. English sides overpowered “foreign” sides and from this we believed we were the best. It gave English sides a belief that they were superior to the rest. It led the media to portray English sides as Europe's strongest and continually made out the English league is the best. It also made English sides lazy.
Why have English sides lost their magic?
Now of course it sounds amusing to think of the English demise when only last season Chelsea conquered Europe. And the year before that United were in the final. Yet the manner in how both sides won and lost their respective games highlights where English sides have gone in terms of quality.
The truth is that the power and strength which made England so dominant for the past decade has been replaced by a more technical and tactical game. The changes in the modern game have seemingly surprised many English sides, the game has changed and yet English clubs hung onto the past decades style with a desire to retain their power. The power started seeping out of the teams after the 2008 final between United and Chelsea. That following summer Spain won the Euro’s and in 2008/09 Barcelona under Guardiola brought into the focus the future of football.
An exodus of talent from the league has not helped either. With the losses of Ronaldo and Tevez, United reverted back to a style suiting the 90’s. Liverpool did not just lose Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano from their side. They lost arguably a more important man, Rafa Benitez. His tactical knowledge was a big reason for Liverpool’s success in Europe. He knew the European game and thus was able to succeed.
The same is true of Jose Mourinho. He made Chelsea a big player not just domestically but in Europe. Of course he had money to buy talent, yet he possessed talent. His ability to bring a team together, to motivate and inspire them were key in his success. And importantly he had a great tactical brain. For me, since these two managers departed England, English football has suffered.
The English dominance was really built on the quality of foreign imports over the development of our own talent. This applies both to players and to managers. When was the last time an English coach won a European trophy? Howard Kendall in 1985. And has there been an English manager to win the Premier League? No. England has serious issues in terms of it's player and manager development. We are told he great we are and are shocked when we fall short all too often. Yet the truth is we are a 2nd rate country in terms of English products.
Our league appeals to foreign players due to the money they receive. Yet does it make it the best? As our sides lose their power in Europe, England's inadequacies in developing their own is highlighted further.
A resurgence across Europe
As the past decade went on European sides started to have a resurgence in quality. Barcelona started theirs in 2003 and since then we have seen them effectively dominate European football. And in the past few years we have seen sides like Madrid, Bayern and Dortmund come back as serious contenders.
In Germany we are seeing the rise of their talent from a plan laid down a decade ago. As English football was dominating Europe, Germany were developing players for the country. We are now seeing the emergence of this talent in Ozil, Muller and Reus. And more talent in Draxler, Gotze, Kroos and Schurrle. This development of talent has not just aided the German sides like Bayern, Dortmund and Schalke but has importantly influenced the fortunes of the German national side.
Is it possible that the so called dominance of the past decade has restricted the top English teams from adapting and evolving in their tactics and their personal? Was a period of decline necessary for sides to re-evaluate what they are doing? Surely English clubs are in this process now.
It is clear that the top English sides have learnt their lessons and are trying to adapt to the modern game. It is pleasing to see these changes coming in. The past few years has seen talent like Mata, Hazard, Aguero, Silva, Kagawa and Cazorla come across to play in the league. It is evidence that the game is changing and the style of play needed to be a dominant, successful side in Europe requires a new style of playing, much different to that which English sides used to such good effect in the past decade.
For me Man City appear to be the most suited to compete. It may be a few years till this team wins a Champions League, however they appear the best placed to succeed. However, Man City have struggled again in Europe due to their manager getting his tactics wrong. Man City's owners will need to bring in a better manager to make City a more dominant force in Europe.
The arrogance of English sides
What we have seen in the past few seasons in Europe is that English sides have underestimated their opposition. United were arrogant enough to believe that their 2ndstring were good enough to overcome Champions League “minnows”. Well they were wrong last year and Ferguson has certainly learnt his lesson this time. Yet they are still struggling and having to comeback in games. This is surely worrying for United fans?
We have seen Man City come unstuck in Europe again. Arsenal and Chelsea have faltered too. It shows to me that these sides and managers have disrespected their opponents believing them to be inferior and thus an easy win. Unfortunately for these managers, this is not the English league, where the opposition is much weaker and where often it is simply the quality of players which wins games.
Europe is different, it is harder and more demanding. You can argue that there are no easy games in the Champions League anymore. So when you hear Mancini say he did not prepare his side adequately for the game against Ajax, you really do question his knowledge of the needs and requirements of European football.
And then there's the Europa League. If there is a tournament which is treated with such contempt and frustration then this it. Now I understand that there are far too many matches in the Europa League and that this has the potential to cause issues to one's domestic campaign. Yet, it is European competition. A place where many fans love their club to be. What I don't believe they want is their managers choosing reserves and youth team players for matches.
It is an embarrassment that the last team to win the "2nd tier" European competition was Liverpool. Only Fulham have reached the final in the competition since then. Yet the Europa League prepares and propels careers. Jose Mourinho's success in the then UEFA Cup gave him and his side the belief to go and win the Champions League the following season. Andre Villas-Boas' career has been accelerated due to the success with Porto.
Yet English sides look upon this competition as a burden, not an opportunity. For me, it is another example of English sides portraying arrogance towards a competition they deem beneath them, yet in which they have no right or expectation to disregard.
Exposed defences are a cause for concern
Another interesting change in recent seasons, which was seen very much so last season, was the openness of the English sides defensively. In the days of Mourinho, Benitez and United under Queiroz, English sides were defensively strong and many matches were low scoring affairs. In the past few years defence has almost been abandoned for a “Kevin Keegan” approach to football. We’ll score more than them style of football.
I am sorry but at the top levels, the team with the best defence is more than not the team who comes 1st. Is it not worrying therefore that all the English sides right now are conceding too many goals. It appears English sides 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.
For me, it is fitting that the defeats to English sides this week corresponds to that of 10 years ago. It shows me that English football has reached the end of its dominant cycle. It has been coming for a few years in all honesty, yet it was this week which has highlighted it fully.
English football is going through a crisis. Changes in youth football and the development of English talent will take at least a decade to see the fruits. What is necessary for the present day is that English clubs understand that the top sides around Europe have improved and thus English clubs in Europe cannot stroll into games with an arrogance and belief that they will simply win the game. What the managers need to do is prepare their players seriously for these games, both tactically and mentally. Ignorance and the undermining of the opposition cannot happen anymore.
The Champions League is the best tournament in world football, those who argue against it are delusional in my opinion. If English clubs wish to keep competing and progressing past the group stages and reaching finals, then they need to show the competition and their opposition more respect.
A decade of easing through in Europe is over. English clubs are certainly adapting their styles to suit the European game. They now need to improve their mindsets if they wish to regain that dominance. Something tells me that the next decade will not be easy, yet perhaps English fans, media and teams need a jolt of realism and need to understand that there is much quality outside these isles. If they watched more of it, perhaps they’d learn something and maybe then would show more humility.
The truth is, many of Europe's top sides have caught up and overtaken England's top sides due to English sides becoming lazy and reliant on their old methods. The game, coaching and tactics have evolved and improved, English football has been found out, the period of dominance is over, the arrogance needs to end also.