It’s a typically cold, dreary evening in the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow back in 2008. The stage is set for what many consider to be the biggest annual match in football – the Champions League Final. The two teams in contention for the prestigious ‘Ol’ Big Ears’ trophy are none other than two English teams in the form of Chelsea and Manchester United.
The former, had seen off a third English team (Liverpool) in the semi-finals after extra-time whilst the latter had a magnificent Paul Scholes strike to thank for their inclusion in the final, beating the current treble holders Barcelona.
The game itself was a close encounter. A Cristiano Ronaldo header saw the Red Devils take the lead only to be pegged back by England’s very own and Chelsea cult hero, Frank Lampard. United would eventually go on to win the match on penalties but what the final and indeed the whole tournament captured was the Premier League’s dominance of European football.
Fast forward 7 years and the only phrase that comes to mind is ‘how the mighty have fallen.’ Last season no English team managed to make it past the round of 16.
The strange thing about this spectacular fall from grace is that it can’t really be attributed to a huge drop in standard of our teams. If you were to walk into any pub, up and down the country at 3pm on a Saturday and strike up a conversation with a group of people, pint in hand, eyes glued to Jeff and the boys presenting Soccer Saturday you would expect most of them to tell you that the Premier League is the best league in the world.
For me – The richest? Yes. Most competitive? Yes. Most entertaining? Absolutely. Best? Not by a long stretch.
In terms of the way it’s run, the philosophy of the game and our attitude towards European football – we’re a million miles behind the likes of Germany and Spain. With both Manchester clubs losing on Tuesday and Arsenal on Wednesday, in matches they were both favourites to win, it appears there are fundamental problems with the way we approach these big Champions League nights.
I believe there to be two main reasons for our teams shortcomings: tactical arrogance and the globalisation of the Premier League. Not convinced? Let me explain…
Starting with tactics, I think it’s fair to say that back in 2008 English teams could dominate European games. They dictated the tempo of play and had stronger players than their opposition. These days, technically, we have fallen down the pecking order. Spanish teams, especially, are able to starve us of the ball leading to us chasing the game for long periods. This results in weary legs and ultimately, being punished.
The problem lies in the fact that we seem to have this over-roaring arrogance that we can still go into these big games and boss them. Arsenal have been drawn in the same group as German champions Bayern Munich and you can bet Wenger will not play an overly defensive game against the Bavarians. The Gunners most certainly do not posses the necessary quality to outplay Bayern and since they seem unwilling to change their style of play, I see them being beaten convincingly. The one English club that you can say know how to play ‘out of possession’ are Mourinho’s Chelsea and it’s no coincidence they are also the last English team to lift the trophy back in 2012.
My second point is the globalisation of the Premier League. Next season the new television deal for the division is worth a staggering £5.1 billion! This will see all 20 teams get a share of this astronomical figure and help them further invest in; new training facilities, stadium expansions and better quality players.
This in turn makes our league far more competitive than any other where-by, the bottom team could beat the top team on any given weekend without everyone being in complete shock. This means the top teams must field their strongest team or close to, every weekend if they are to harbour ambitions of winning the title.
In stark contrast, it can be seen that both Bayern Munich and PSG in Germany and France respectively have very little competition for their domestic titles whilst over in Spain the top teams can afford to play weakened sides when coming up against teams in the bottom half of the La Liga table.
Couple this with there being no winter break in the Premier League and you can start to see why our teams get so worn out when facing fresh-faced, top opposition who are capable of making our boys chase after the ball for 90 minutes.
With an extremely competitive fixture list and no winter break being out of their hands, I’d personally like to see a change of approach by our top teams. They need to stop being so naive when setting up against opposition clearly capable of out-playing them. Unfortunately I can see more of a ‘we’ll just throw loads of money from the new TV deal at top players’ approach being taken instead.
So, at least for the near future, that’s why I just can’t see an English team lifting Europe’s greatest prize.