Leicester City’s Champions League dream ended against Atletico Madrid on Tuesday, making it yet another year without an English team in the semifinals.
Despite the billions of dollars flowing through English football, and its status as the world’s richest league, Champions League success hasn’t been on the cards in a long time. So what gives?
The last time an English team made it to the semis was Chelsea in 2013/14, when they also went out at the hands of Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid. And an English team hasn’t even played in a final since the Blues won it in 2011/12. In that time, the closest England has come in the pursuit of a European title is the two times Wembley hosted the showcase final.
There’s no one answer to England’s European ills, but volume and intensity of competition might be the biggest single factor. England is the only major league with no winter break, plus there’s the added strain of two domestic cup competitions (FA Cup and the EFL Cup) on top of the incredible strain of Champions League.
If you ask Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp, freshly arrived from the Bundesliga, that’s exactly the issue.
“The league’s super intense, it demands a lot from you,” the Liverpool manager told Sport1 of his new digs. “It’s a notch above the Bundesliga.
“Because there are more teams, two cup competitions with replays or two semifinals in the League Cup.”
If English teams are successful, it means they’re dealing with up to four competitions at a time. With that many games to play, no mid-season rest, and the weather and pitch conditions not lending themselves to keeping players fit and healthy, it’s a perfect storm. Factor in the English league’s famed intensity on a week in, week out basis, and it’s no wonder they’re struggling.
“That English clubs have not performed that well in the Champions League is also down to the increasing intensity of the league.
“The competition is higher. The money is there, it’s like a closed circuit. It’s not gone, it is just with someone else.
“The squads are really strong. But the number of games takes strength and Monaco, for instance, took advantage of it against Manchester City.”
It’s clear England’s format doesn’t lend itself to success in Europe. But what’s changed? The Premier League put nine semifinalists in Champions League between 2007 and 2009, with the same rules that exist now. So why aren’t English teams successful?
The Premier League’s bumper TV deals in recent years have brought billions and billions of dollars flowing into the league. With their newfound riches, even the smallest of Premier League sides’ spending power is head and shoulders above many traditionally strong sides around Europe. That type of money generally brings quality players flocking, and the Premier League’s improved as a whole because of this. Whereas previously, a mid-tier team such as Stoke City could never attract Champions League-caliber players like Xherdan Shaquiri or Marko Arnautovic, with the money that’s flowing around the league these days, that sort of previously unheard-of signing has now become commonplace.
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Add that kind of increased parity to an already famously intense competition, and it makes sense that a team like Leicester City can win the Premier League. The top teams may not have improved much, but the teams at the bottom of the league sure have.
In La Liga, the Bundesliga, and Serie A, the biggest clubs regularly pick off the best players from below, continually strengthening each year, and weakening their would-be rivals. It happens every season like clockwork. Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus are the richest, they’re the best, and they stay that way in part because they keep plundering those below them, often for fairly reasonable prices.
That’s not necessarily the case in the Premier League anymore. Now that all the Premier League teams have money, they don’t necessarily have to cough up their best players to stay afloat. The best talent in the league isn’t always floating up to the top teams. Whereas clubs like Valencia have to let their Paco Alcacers and Andre Gomes’ move to Barcelona, in the Premier League, the Evertons of the world can hold onto their Romelu Lukakus because they have the money to do so. Tottenham used to sell Michael Carrick and Dimitar Berbatov to Manchester United, but it’s been years since anyone besides Real Madrid picked off their best players, and now not even the Merengues are picking off the likes of Harry Kane and Dele Alli. England operates on a different plane in the transfer market.
Their hands may be forced by player wishes, but it’s not because they can’t afford to operate at a high level otherwise. And when the big clubs do really want a player from one of the little guys, they’re forced to pay through the nose for it, like in the case of John Stones.
With increased parity comes increased competition. With increased competition, less rest, and more games, it’s a recipe for disaster when it comes to European play. Whereas the biggest teams around continental Europe often have the luxury of rotating against weaker teams, plus a vital winter break in the middle of the season, many of the top English teams are forced to use their first choice teams weekly, with no breaks. That kind of wear and tear can catch up to teams during the business end of the season, and especially during the knockout rounds of Champions League.
Even aside from the intense competition on the domestic front, more and more it seems as if English teams have placed a premium on simply qualifying for Europe than actually succeeding on the continent. The amount of money that comes with securing a top four finish can often be more useful than actually going far in the competition, and in recent years, a number of English clubs have seemed to prioritize the Prem over going far in Champions League. Couple that with the intense demands at home, and you get the lack of success we see now.
There’s no one simple answer for why English teams aren’t winning in Europe, but there is a growing trend. And since Premier League teams aren’t about to start playing fewer matches or cashing smaller checks, it might be some time before we see English teams running roughshod in Europe again.