Leicester sit top, 3 points clear. Chelsea are in disarray, 14th in the League and 14 points off Champions League football. These are the two big headlines stories from his Premier League that no one thought they would be saying whilst listening to ‘Last Christmas’ and eating a mince pie in December. Yet this Premier League season as truly been remarkable inasmuch as anyone can genuinely beat anyone. All three promoted teams have come up with a combination of tactical proficiency, character and good squad depth. The rise of the middle classes continues with West Ham and Crystal Palace being the pin up boys for the middle table. Then we have the ‘traditional’ top 6; Chelsea, City, Arsenal, United, Liverpool and Tottenham. Our vanguards in Europe trying to bring a trophy home. Yet is the strength of the Premier League causing harm to this countries European exploits?
In the previous two weekends of Premier League, not one of England’s ‘Top 6’ sides went home with a full 6 points. What becomes more amazing though is the teams they were playing against. Manchester United had a tough trip to Leicester, City had two tough games and whilst Tottenham and Chelsea played each other, their following weekend’s games should have been victories. If it is in these games where titles are won or lost, 5 teams will be looking back over these kind of fixtures saying to themselves that ‘we should have won that’ or ‘that is where we dropped points’.
|Team||Match Day 14||Match Day 15|
|Chelsea||0-0 Tottenham (A)||0-1 Bournemouth (H)|
|Man City||3-1 Southampton (H)||0-2 Stoke City (A)|
|Arsenal||1-1 Norwich (A)||3-1 Sunderland (H)|
|Man United||1-1 Leicester (A)||0-0 West Ham (H)|
|Liverpool||1-0 Swansea (H)||0-2 Newcastle (A)|
|Tottenham||0-0 Chelsea (H)||1-1 West Brom (A)|
(Green = Win, Red=Loses)
These two games though are just a small example of fixtures and results that have been occurring all season. It has essentially become a Fantasy Football nightmare as the assumed big-hitters are just as likely to go and lose 3-0 as they are to blow a side out of the water. For the Premier League however, the worrying thing is that this malaise is affecting performances in Europe; and with the English coefficient suffering, imagine a Premier League where only the Top 3 got Champions League football?
This year’s Champions League is a prime example of where the self-proclaimed most exciting league in the world is starting to dramatically fall short of previously set standards. A decade ago we had the magical night in Istanbul as Liverpool overcame a 3-0 deficit to beat AC Milan on penalties. Between the 04/05 and the 09/10 season English teams reached the semi-final on 12 occasions with 6 appearances in the final. The Premier League was producing team’s that beat the best in Europe year in, year out. Yet the tide has turned, the power has changed hands and our Champions League hopefuls have been cut adrift with this season proving the gravest example that the Premier League, whilst exciting, isn’t producing football with the tactical acumen to prosper on Europe’s biggest stage.
Manchester City bless ‘em must wonder why the Champions League hates them so. Consistently in the ‘group of death’, this year was no different as the cliché was dusted off once more. City’s campaign offers a rather strange sense of comfort. The only English side to have secured qualification before the 6th game in the groups, they once more find themselves in second place after being tactically out played twice by a Juventus side struggling to adapt in the post-Pirlo/Tevez world they find themselves in this season. Awaiting them next will inevitably be a Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich and home they will come, the gallant losers who the European footballs Gods hate.
Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea have very little room to hide in campaigns that have all been woefully under-whelming. Chelsea aside, who are just starting to defy logical reasoning in what has gone wrong, United and Arsenal are Premier League title challengers, potentially the best team in English football and they are nowhere to be seen in groups that aren’t essentially very hard.
Manchester United are nowhere near the behemoth they once were but their stature in the game is second to none. Confronted with a group of Wolfsburg, PSV and CSKA Moscow after another summer of spending, another summer of Van Gaal and the retention of David de Gea; represents a winnable group even for an average United side. Wolfsburg undoubtedly would be ear-marked as the difficult tie, yet they were venturing into a world without Kevin be Bruyne and Ivan Perisic. They aren’t the Wolfsburg of last season who could create and score so freely in the Bundesliga. Yet this hasn’t been the case in hand, United have laboured and puffed, they have been unconvincing. Pundits say they could win the league. Van Gaal says they can win the Champions League. If either occur then they would have done so in the most pedestrian way imaginable. It hardly won’t be high up on the billing for Sky Sports Premier League years.
And now for Arsenal. How it is come to be this tight to qualify is beyond me. Arsenal were never going to win this group. Any points from either Bayern Munich game would have been a bonus, but their first two performances against Olympiakos and Dinamo Zagreb were truly inexcusable. Pundits and Papers alike say it is their year to win the League and yet here they are struggling and losing against teams who aren’t even in the top 30 sides in Europe. Admittedly Arsenal’s performance at the Emirates against Bayern Munich was as impressive as it was ‘un-Arsenal’ like and offers some solace for Arsenal and Premier League fans alike but is another example where England’s best is now struggling to be part of Europe’s elite. Wenger’s record is mightly impressive and beating Olympiakos with the right maths will see him and Arsenal qualify for the knock-out phase for the 16th consecutive season but yet again it won’t be as group winners.
Whilst the format is flawed, it’s too long with too many games. Liverpool and especially Tottenham could genuinely win the Europa League this year. Always derided as a hindrance, in Tottenham’s case, it is a pleasure to see Pochettino taking the competition so seriously. However, as the season progresses questions will start to raise about squad rotation, the Thursday/Sunday dilemma and with Tottenham and now Liverpool adopting high pressing, high energy football at what point does a competition take precedence over the other? Since Fulham’s appearance in the final of Europa League in 09/10, only Chelsea managed to make an appearance in the semi-final since Fulham’s big night. A record which is both surprising as it is shocking, especially how the competition is regarded in the likes of Portugal and Spain. For Premier League sides, the Europa League just isn’t worth the hassle that the competition brings.
Across the channel and on the continent are things any different? Is there a shortage of real competition in the domestic leagues of Germany, Spain, Italy and France that mean clubs do have an extra gear on those European nights? Certainly in the case of France and Germany, the strength of PSG and Bayern Munich respectively allows them to rest players if required for that big second leg game away from home. However in the Europa League, teams such as Bordeaux and Borussia Dortmund certainly have to contend with difficult fixtures both at home and abroad to make a success of their system.
The demise of the Italian league perhaps isolates Juventus’s appearance in the Champions League final last year as an anomaly but certainly in Roma, Napoli and Fiorentina, the Italian League has a case to be represented strongly at least in the closing stages of the Europa League whilst retaining a competitive and closely fought league title. Lastly Spain. You cannot look past the strength of Barcelona and Real Madrid but imagine if Atletico Madrid, Valencia, Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao were playing in the Premier League every weekend; undoubtedly the calibre of opposition would go up as on their day all 4 of us clubs could beat the best England has to offer. Spain’s depth in class is over-shadowed somewhat by just how superior Real Madrid and Barcelona actually are but an Atletico Madrid would happily win the league on this season’s form if they were playing in the Premier League.
This is the conundrum of the Premier League. Across Europe (bar perhaps France), the leagues remain competitive whilst equally stimulating success in Europe. They have their stand out teams like Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus who tend to dominate over a course of a league but that is matched equally with strong performances in the continent’s two biggest footballing prizes. Yet in the Premier League we are faced with inconsistency, whilst teams outside of the top 6 have got stronger, the teams who traditionally feature in those European places have potentially got weaker when compared to their European counterparts. Whilst the league is undoubtedly entertaining, the style of play advocated in the Premier League doesn’t translate to European competition. A focus on work rate and passion doesn’t bread results in Europe. I for one love the Premier League but I can’t help but think this slump in Europe is more endemic of how Premier League teams approach football and the belief that this is the best league in the world. The brand generated by the Premier League itself of excitement and fast-paced physical football could potentially be weakening its own success on Europe’s biggest stages.