Champions League: England’s European Power Shift

The Barclays Premier League, still widely regarded as the best football league Earth has to offer, is having that reputation slowly whittled down to its inevitable breaking point. After shaky starts to European competitions this season, the fault lines in the quality of English clubs are starting to show and they’re getting ever more difficult to cover up.

Today, we’re crunching numbers.

In the first two Champions League match days of the present season English clubs clocked in with 3 wins and 5 losses. None of those wins were acquired away from home while both Manchester City and Arsenal have fallen to Juventus and Olympiakos respectively in the safety of their own stadiums. In fact Arsenal have taken no points at all from their first two matches because they also lost in Croatia to Dynamo Zagreb. Chelsea might have bowled over minnows Maccabi Tel-Aviv at Stamford Bridge 4-0 on match day one but regressed to losing to Porto, the Portuguese runners-up, two weeks later. Furthermore Manchester United also dropped a result to PSV Eindhoven on opening night.

The Europa League results don’t get much better; you could say they’re worse. Tottenham couldn’t hang of for three points against Monaco last week, only managing a 1-1 draw, a result that Liverpool mimicked at home against last season’s seventh place finishers in the Swiss Super League, Sion. To put things in perspective, had Sion finished in tenth they would have been relegated to the Swiss second division on account that the first division only houses ten clubs. Woof.

On the surface these are teams that the iconic Premier League clubs should be getting results against. Or is that what you’ve been lead to believe?  Recently Slaven Bilić, West Ham’s charismatic Croatian manager, confusedly touched on a daunting outlook – There is a widely accepted pretention that the names of notable English clubs are enough to scrape by on against perceived lesser, inferior teams from elsewhere on the continent.

“Why are people so surprised when Manchester United lose a game against PSV?… It isn’t a shock,” proclaimed Bilić, whose Beşiktas knocked Liverpool out of last season’s Europa League in the round of 32.

“You can lose in Zagreb,” the Croatian continued, referring to Arsenal. “They play football there as well.”

However, even if the opinions of Bilić aren’t the means to penetrate the entrenched concept of English superiority, there are plenty of stats to back it up. It’s an uncomfortable truth for the Premier League loyalist but last season in neither the Champions League nor Europa League did England even provide a quarterfinalist. By the numbers Spain boasted four, followed by Italy with three. France’s Ligue 1, the German Bundesliga, and the Ukrainian Premier League all had two while Russia, Belgium, and Portugal were able to provide one team each. Actually, the Premier League was unable to submit a quarterfinalist for the Champions League in the 2012-13 season too. That’s twice in the last three years.

Following Manchester United’s defeat to Greek outfit Olympiakos back in February 2014, Roy Keane, in typical Roy Keane fashion, had no intention of holding his tongue at his pitch-side punditry desk.

“English teams have fallen behind,” he warned, after assuring that the Premier League was actually not the best league in the world, merely the “best brand.”

Keane-O isn’t the only former Manchester United midfielder to think so. Paul Scholes has remarked this month that the quality of English clubs now falls not only behind Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich but also under that of Paris St. Germain and Juventus as well.

“…I don’t think we (the Premier League) have the best players in Europe or the world,” stated the two-time Champions League winner. “I really don’t think it’s any surprise. When you think about the quality of players we have, do you think any of the players at our top clubs now would get in the Barcelona team? I very much doubt it.”

Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero was Scholes’ only exception. Perhaps, he’s right. The Premier League hasn’t had a player finish in the top three places of the Ballon d’Or since Cristiano Ronaldo won it 2008 while playing for Manchester United; Fernando Torres finished third. Both of those players have now migrated to play in Spain. Before that Liverpool’s Michael Owen was the last English-based player to claim the prize and he too went to play in Spain soon after, as did Arsenal’s Thierry Henry who finished second in 2003 and third in 2006.

All signs point to a shift in power in favor of Spain’s La Liga BBVA. In the previous three seasons only one club from the Barclay’s Premier league has penetrated the semifinals or beyond of either the Champions League or Europa League. It’s Chelsea, who went on to lift the Europa League trophy in 2013 and progress to the Champions League semifinal the year after only to be knocked out by Atlético de Madrid at Stamford Bridge. So England can be scored in that department as such – one team, three appearances (two semifinals, one final) and one trophy. Spain on the other hand scores much higher. They tally five different clubs from La Liga (Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atlético de Madrid, Valencia, and Sevilla) have reached either the semifinal or final of a European competition on fourteen occasions from 2013-2015 and have reaped in the prize of four European trophies, knocking out each other at those late stage in five instances.

Additionally, La Liga has spanked Premier League clubs in head-to-head European meetings in that same time period. An English team has only beaten a Spanish team once in the last 14 attempts in the Champions League (Manchester United 1-0 Real Sociedad in the 2013/14 group stage). Spain has tallied nine wins and has outscored English opposition 22 to 9. The remaining four results were draws.

Take nothing away from the Premier League’s competitiveness. It’s mouthwateringly entertaining and many will argue that its teams one through twenty are better as a whole than their counterparts from around Europe. But wouldn’t that make for better preparation for the Premier League’s table toppers on their European adventures? You’d think so…

So, is it about time for a mass realisation that the undisputed title of “best league in the world” is actually disputed after all? Maybe it is, because even though stats and numbers don’t always tell the full story, they never lie.

Written by Bobby Mohr. 

THE TURF