A year ago, there was continual consternation among a large cross-section of English soccer fans. For the first time since 1996, no English teams had advanced past the Round of 16 in the European Champions League, a reality that irritated and embarrassed the country’s passionate followers. Probing questions were asked. Strong opinions were offered.
As winter turns to spring again, it seems very little has changed. With the Champions League nearing the end of its first knockout stage, the story line is bleakly familiar for the British: Spain and Germany again are dominant, and the requisite hand-wringing is all but sure to follow.
In many ways, it has already begun. Arsenal and Manchester City play the second legs of their two-game series against Bayern Munich and Barcelona this week. Both teams lost the first legs, at home, by 2-0. The prospects for either club to overturn the deficit are slim.
Next week, Manchester United will play its second leg against Olympiakos. United, which is staggering through an ugly season under its first-year manager, David Moyes, was stunned by the Greeks, 2-0, last month in Piraeus. Barring a stirring comeback, Old Trafford figures to have what is fast becoming its customary funereal feel, too. Already, there have been dire predictions among the country’s news and social media.
Chelsea, the final English team involved in Europe’s top club competition, is in much better shape by comparison; it actually scored in its first leg against Turkey’s Galatasaray, and enters the second leg at home with a 1-1 record. The Blues’ situation, which still might be described as delicate, is what amounts to hope these days around London.
Reactions to the so-called European slide in England generally seem to fall into one of two categories.
Some say that the overall quality of play from English clubs has declined; that despite the riches of the Premier League and its reach, the level of play, particularly when it comes to style and scoring, has not kept up with tactical advances in leagues on the continent.
Roy Keane, a former star for Manchester United and now a television commentator, was outspoken in calling the notion that the Premier League was still the creme de la creme outlandish. Fans, he said on ITV, have been “brainwashed” into thinking the Premier League is the best in the world, and the recent results against Europe’s best are proof of it.
On the other hand, some not only disagree with Keane but also assert the opposite.
Depth hurting clubs
In reality, they say, English clubs are hurt by the depth of the Premier League, in which teams at the bottom of the standings regularly challenge the best clubs. This parity, the theory goes, makes it even more challenging for English teams playing in Europe to be at their best for the midweek games, too.
Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, is among those with this view.
“It is the most level league,” he said recently. “Spain was a good league as well. But this season, I think, the English league is the most difficult. Maybe as well we pay a little bit the price.”
There is no disputing that the gaps between the best and worst teams in England are tighter than in other top European leagues. Through 24 games, Bayern Munich is 20 points ahead of second-place Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga; Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid are separated by 4 points total and are 12 points ahead of the next-closest pursuer in La Liga; Juventus is 14 points beyond Roma, 17 ahead of Napoli in Serie A.
The top nine teams in England are separated by 24 points and the top five by 13. Chelsea leads with 66; Liverpool and Arsenal have 59; Manchester City, which may be in the best position to catch Chelsea, has 57, but has played three fewer games.
The Premier League’s global popularity also means that marquee games are often moved to accommodate television broadcasts, often with no regard for the team’s coming schedule.