Recently, Pep Guardiola looked vaguely offended when a reporter asked him to comment on the intensity of other leagues. “I hear a lot of times about the intensity of the Premier League when none of you have been in La Liga or the Bundesliga to know how intense it is,” said the coach, who’s previously managed in, you know, La Liga and the Bundesliga. “Why in Spain over the last the last six, seven, eight, nine years do they win or arrive in the finals and semi-finals of European competitions? I think it’s because they’re good. It’s because they have good players.”
There we have it. On the whole, German and Spanish sides have better players than English ones, which surely the last two World Cups taught us, too. It’s not the whole story, but it’ll do as a great, big hammer swing to knock our league down a few pegs. The English go on about it being the best in the world. Pep might not agree.
Nevertheless, English sides haven’t quite reached the dizzy heights of the Barcas, Real, Bayerns, even Atléticos or Dortmunds in recent seasons, and it’s frustrating for fans of those teams. Since Manchester United struck a treble in 1999, only Liverpool, Chelsea and United have managed a triumph each, despite our dominance in developing the best players in the world. Compare that to Barcelona or Real Madrid, who have four of club football’s biggest trophies each in that 17-year period. Since Chelsea lifted it in 2012, Premier League teams have only ventured as far as the semi-finals. But even when our sides have prioritised the European Cup, it’s often come at a cost.
In 2004, Claudio Ranieri’s Chelsea went on a run to the semis, beating Arsène Wenger’s Invincibles in the quarters, and somewhat paving the way for their London rivals to concentrate on their league win. In 2005, Liverpool’s majestic final drama was only heightened by the fact that they’d finished fifth in the league on the way there; a man at UEFA with a big eraser had to re-pencil a place for the holders to compete the following season. That very season in fact, Arsenal were less than 20 minutes away from a first win in Europe. It was also the first year in the Wenger era that the Gunners dropped out of the top two.
The pattern is recognisable in more recent history. Manchester City last season almost sacrificed themselves to fourth place, as Pellegrini pushed his players for the midweek games and reached Europe’s last four as a result. Across in Merseyside, Liverpool missed out altogether on Europe as they went for Europa glory in Klopp’s first season. Chelsea’s famous 2012 win saw them finish sixth in the league that season, and after three European fixtures this season, Leicester City had accumulated more points in their Champions League group than in the Premier League. Arsenal perennially notch similar points tallies, capitulate at similar points in the footballing calendar, and like clockwork, will always crash out of the Champions League at the second hurdle. They also succumb to similar injury worries and can’t seem to hugely improve on the overall quality of the squad year on year: this isn’t a coincidence.
Delving deeper, competing in Europe has a massive effect on a team the weekend after; just this season, Arsenal, City and Tottenham all drew the weekend after the third round of Champions League matches, as the heat started getting to each club in the early stages of the title race. Last season, Arsenal dropped ten points on Premier League weekends directly after Champions League matches, but had they have won all of those points, it would have been enough to level with title winners Leicester, who obviously didn’t have the same problem. Compare this with Manchester City: the Citizens only played four games more in the Champions League than Arsenal, but they dropped a massive 17 points in Premier League games played on the weekend after. Arsenal only finished five points ahead of City and second in the league flattered Wenger’s men, but had City left Europe at the same time as the North Londoners – or even earlier – Pellegrini may well have held that runners-up spot in the league.
The only side to have really bucked this trend in the last twelve years were Manchester United, around 2007-2009, where they won three consecutive league titles, lifted the Champions League in 2008 and came second in 2009. Almost a decade after the historic treble, this was Fergie’s renaissance; Cristiano Ronaldo hit 31 goals in the league and a further eight in Europe. But while Ronaldo sometimes carried United through the bad days, averaging a goal a game domestically, he wasn’t alone up front. Rooney and Tevez chipped in with 18 and 19 goals in all competitions, respectively. Squad rotation was key: only Ronaldo and Ferdinand played every game in Europe and neither made the full 38 matchdays in the Premier League. Giggs made only 26 starts in the league, but it was still more than anyone across the midfield, with Scholes, Carrick, even Hargreaves and Fletcher stepping in when needed. It was a side with an obvious spine, a one-in-a-million world class talent (well, two in a million) and sturdy squad players across every position. On top of that, there were only really three or four teams fighting it out for the title.
The world has changed a lot since then. Cristiano left for Madrid in 2009, and has gone on to win another two Champions League titles; significant, as more stars of that calibre – Bale, Suarez, Modric – also chose to join one of two or three European giants. Sir Alex departed in 2013, and the Premier League blew wide open; after Leicester’s triumph, there were around six clubs in with a shout at the start of the 2016-17 season. Uncertain times domestically has coincided with insecurity in Europe for the likes of Arsenal, City and Chelsea, who have all chosen at key times not to gamble on risking players in two competitions when the fixtures come thick and fast; the financial benefits of just being competitive on two fronts, is worth more than the gamble of winning either.
The truth is, while the money is now rolling in to the Premier League, no one can really replicate what United had that year, when Tevez, Rooney, Ronaldo were firing on all cylinders, with Berbatov signing just a season after. If Arsenal have been priced out of signing just one world class striker, imagine how much a frontline as good as that would cost; players have increased so much in monetary value, clubs don’t need to sell like they used to, that it’s almost impossible to assemble a Premier League squad that can compete with the European big boys, take the FA Cup seriously, and launch a serious assault at the title in a league in which five teams are going for the title and the minnows can outmuscle you when you trek up the country for away matches.
While City dropped the aforementioned 17 league points en route to the semi-final last year, Barcelona dropped just eight on league matches after Champions League games when they completed their treble the year before; six of those were dropped to Real Madrid. Guardiola may well be right about the intensity about Spain, but it helped Barcelona in 2015 to have three of the world’s best five attackers and one of the deepest squads in Europe; they may well have retained the European Cup, but for a weird blip last April.
None of the England’s top four have the resources to go for Europe without the league suffering. The Premier League is far too competitive these days, and as last year’s Balon D’Or showed, few world class players choose to ply their trade outside El Clasico. Maybe Guardiola has a plan to deepen the City squad and replicate what neighbours United achieved twice under Ferguson. Until then, a domestic/European double’s just a pipedream for any English team.