The Premier League makes and spends more money than any other league in football. So why isn’t it the best?
For a little while now England’s representatives have faltered in the Champions League, following a brief spell of domination.
It looks like this year, barring a miracle in either Monaco or Barcelona, England will provide NONE of the eight quarter-finalists for the second time in three seasons.
Fall from grace
From 2005-2009 English sides made a quarter-final in 70% of their attempts. The Premier League provided six of the ten finalists during those five years, and a huge 60% of the semi-finalists.
The change, however, has been drastic.
If Arsenal and Manchester City both falter as expected next midweek, just one sixth of quarter-final teams since 2010 have hailed from England. 2012 saw Chelsea luck their way past Napoli, Barcelona, and eventually Bayern Munich to win the competition – nobody will ever know how.
Just three semi-finalists in six seasons
Where has it all gone wrong?
The last ‘successful’ year in Europe saw three English sides (Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United) joined in the semi-finals by a fresh-faced Pep Guardiola. Leading Barcelona for the first time, Europe was beginning to marvel at how he had the Catalan side playing.
Despite all the individual ability within Guardiola’s special Barcelona sides, the key aspect was the collective.
But the general English interpretation of it has never been a good one.
The pressing issue
With red and blue jerseys swarming the ball whenever that Barcelona played Manchester United or Arsenal, the go-to reading into the style was that ‘Barcelona players chase the ball like mad to put pressure on opponents’.
Guardiola’s Barcelona increased in talent, intensity, and application all the way until their peak in 2011.
By 2012 Jürgen Klopp’s “Mentalitäts-Monster” (mentality monsters) had won consecutive Bundesliga titles and went on to the 2013 Champions League Final, led by their rapid transitions and intense pressing game.
Most recently, Diego Simeone led Atlético Madrid to the La Liga title last season, along with a Champions League final.
But here in England, even when watching these sides, merely work-rate and desire are lauded. No insights into the details of the approach have been divulged to English viewers.
At Arsenal we have players with immense work-rate and desire to win the ball back high up the pitch. Jack Wilshere, Alexis Sánchez, and Danny Welbeck all press as high as possible, but without any structure.
Beckoning their teammates to join them, individuals attempt to press. The lack of success with the approach can only be because it isn’t coached or applied properly.
In the most recent edition of FourFourTwo magazine a poll found 51% of players disagree and 12% strongly disagree with the statement “all footballers understand tactics”.
What a huge indictment of the game in our country.
Dortmund and Atlético superbly tempt teams into passing where they want them to, before surrounding the player on the ball. Last season Dortmund targeted Xabi Alonso, forcing errors and turnovers galore form the Spaniard to win a home leg 2-0 against the eventual winners of the competition.
At Old Trafford last Monday Arsenal pressed the ball about as effectively as ever, putting pressure on passes, forcing passes to certain spaces where it could be pressed more intensely. We also retreated deep into our own half again – like at Manchester City in January – and finally seemed to strike a nice balance between the two approaches.
It helped that Manchester United were often pedestrian and predictable in possession, but perhaps progress is being made by Arséne Wenger’s side.
Away from London Colney, there is clear progress elsewhere in the English game.
Arsenal have desperately struggled to get into a game on four separate occasions this season, three of them in England. Away games against Liverpool, Southampton, and Tottenham have seen Arsenal surrounded in possession of the ball, even deep in our own half.
The other example is in Dortmund, where Mikel Arteta was isolated and Arsenal overrun.
As much as it pains me to say it both Mauricio Pochettino and Brendan Rodgers seem to excel in a more modern style of play than anyone else in England. Hassling in an organised manner and never letting the opposition settle, they’re both also adaptable
Rodgers struggled after losing Luis Suárez to Barcelona and Daniel Sturridge to injury. His disorganised Liverpool, still trying to fit Steven Gerrard in wherever possible, were knocked out of the Champions League in the group stage. Since then he has implemented a (vaguely) new 3-4-3 shape, and Liverpool are a different force.
Pochettino, meanwhile, is implementing his ideals at a second club in just two seasons. Southampton, and now Tottenham, have reaped the rewards of his progressive style, punching well above their weight .
Liverpool, Tottenham, and Southampton (particularly last season) are levelling the playing field against sides with more talent by being built and structured better as teams.
But the focus still is individualistic in England.
Firstly, let’s look at the defence.
Every time a goal goes in we point at a single player. The same goals are conceded over and over again and we still talk about the players, not the system.
Ryan Mason isn’t a better midfielder than Fernandinho, so why do Tottenham look more stable at the back than Manchester City? Because they work as a unit.
Defending is all about space – making the pitch as small as possible.
This needs players to move as a unit, not individuals. They need great understanding of their roles, and of the team’s style. I just don’t see that in England, like I do in Spain or Germany, even with the elite clubs.
Offensively we are also too individualistic here. Can’t score enough goals? Sign another forward.
In England, against defences who simply sit back, that’s enough. Chelsea signed Diego Costa and Cesc Fábregas because they couldn’t break defences down last season.
More money means more talent. More talent generally means more wins.
European football is more in-depth than that.
It isn’t just about the quality of your attacking players, but how you get them to attack. Can they deal with being pressed? Arsenal left Mikel Arteta isolated in Dortmund, playing into the hands of the opposition. With Santi Cazorla deeper Arsenal are able to break free from pressure more, launching more direct and decisive attacking moves.
When there is an issue, Premier League clubs just buy a different player. The problems are way deeper than that, but it papers over the cracks.
Players can, and do, press in England.
As I’ve already mentioned, Arsenal have three players who seek to press as often as possible. The issue is one of coherence.
From most Premier League sides there is no implemented style of pressing, no noticeable teaching of pressing – triggers, when to press, exactly how to press.
We put pressure on the ball, yes, but the only reward is when a member of the opposition makes a mistake.
Jürgen Klopp calls pressing “the best playmaker“, offering the ability to win the ball back with the opposition not defensively set. Premier League clubs simply don’t force errors as the top teams in Europe try to.
The whole team needs to move as one when pressing the ball. Not just one energetic midfielder running around like mad trying to encourage his teammates to join him.
It’s all about the collective.
There are issues within the Premier League that are either less complex to fix, or simply can’t be fixed.
The former was expressed by Mesut Özil last year when he looked back on his first Premier League season:
“The pace was massive. The matches were exhausting. Always forward and backwards,” he said. “Even against the smaller clubs even if it was 3-0. In Spain, the opponents stopped fighting when it was 2-0.”
English clubs don’t ‘stop’ when they’re behind. You really do have to earn the right to play in the Premier League – teams will focus on defending, but they won’t roll over for you.
In the Bundesliga Paderborn lost 6-0 at home against Bayern Munich last month. The reaction of manager André Breitnereiter? Well, naturally, he was pleased.
“Thank you for this great experience!” chimed Breitenreiter after the game, hailing the German champions.
Teams don’t offer the big clubs that much respect in England. No matter the score, you will more or less play against 38×90 minutes of hard graft. Disorganised graft, yes, but you still have to physically exert yourselves for the whole game.
Another issue is completely manageable.
Chelsea’s line-up all season has been pretty much the same. Of the starting eleven against PSG, ten players had played over 30 of Chelsea’s 43 games so far this season.
Whether or not it is because lots of money is spend on, and paid to, these players we can’t know, but certainly in Chelsea’s case there is not enough rotation.
Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool are very much the same – when fit, the same players will start.
Players need a rest, especially without a break in the winter, but by the time they reach the later stages of the Champions League players in England have already played way more games than their European counterparts.
Two domestic cups, no winter break, and minimal rotation is a recipe for disaster.
José Mourinho’s Chelsea will surely win the Premier League this season. They have enough talent to win games, and are sensible enough to defend with discipline.
But that is all. And domestically it’s enough.
Under Mourinho, they are too passive.
Earlier this season they were extremely defensive and threw away a lead against 10-man Manchester City. Now they’ve been dumped out of Europe by 10-man PSG, despite leading more than once.
Mourinho doesn’t allow his teams to really grab the initiative in big games because he’s afraid of losing, and such an approach just doesn’t work as well when you have high quality players. With fewer men, PSG were the side playing quick football, putting more pressure on the ball, trying to win it back sooner.
Mourinho, arguably in charge of the squad best equipped to challenge in Europe, failed because of a feeble approach. His Chelsea lost to Pochettino’s Tottenham side this season, drew with Ronald Koeman’s Southampton, and (in 90 minutes) twice failed to beat Brendan Rodgers’ new look Liverpool in the Capital One Cup.
There are so many fantastic offensive players that European football hasn’t regularly rewarded passive defensive football for a long time. You have to press the ball as one, you have to seek the ball, because the higher you win it back, the more dangerous you are.
European football is of a far higher standard, and is stretching away from us in England more and more each year.
The money in the Premier League buys the world’s best players, but alone they can’t win anything. English clubs seem to lack the nous to win games against good sides with aggressive (not in a Stoke sense) tactics.
Dortmund and Atlético have made far greater impressions in the Champions League than any English club in recent years, coming from comparatively modest backgrounds with smaller resources. Their superior understanding, cohesion, and setups have led them both to within seconds of club football’s greatest prize.
European football has advanced a lot.
England hasn’t gone with it.