English football's arrogance explains failure in Champions League, Europa
The TV revenues are skyrocketing; the transfer fees and wage bills will surely follow this summer. English football has never had it so good. But despite all their wealth, the Premier League's European representatives have endured a humiliating week. Is anyone really getting what they paid for?
In the Champions League, Liverpool were knocked out in the group stage, while Manchester City and Arsenal are unlikely to last much longer in the knockouts. Chelsea will be quietly satisfied with their away goal and a draw in Paris, but it's hardly a foot in the next round.
On Thursday, Liverpool were sent packing out of the Europa League, joined in their failure by Tottenham Hotspur. And let's not forget poor old Hull City, who didn't even make the group stage of Europe's secondary competition. Of all the Premier League sides in Europe, only Everton can be really pleased with themselves, having breathlessly thrashed Young Boys in the latest round of the Europa League. Given the resources of this leviathan of a league, it's a miserable return. And this is not a new development.
Last year, Chelsea just about made it to the semifinal of the Champions League, thanks to a very late Demba Ba goal against Paris Saint-Germain. Arsenal and Manchester United were denied by Bayern Munich in the last 16 and last eight, respectively, and Manchester City were wiped out by Barcelona in the first knockout round. Only Tottenham reached the last 16 in the Europa League, but they didn't go any further.
It was even worse the year before that. Chelsea and City both went out in the Champions League group stages, while Arsenal and Manchester United crashed out in the first knockout round. At least the Europa League offered some solace through Chelsea's victory over Benfica in the final. But Rafa Benitez's triumph was not appreciated by everyone. Jose Mourinho, who would replace him that summer, would later say that he didn't want his players "to feel that the Europa League is our competition."
While being the sort of observation that really warrants a saucer of milk, this rather explains the issue with the Europa League. Rightly or wrongly, many English clubs consider the tournament to be either beneath them, or at the very bottom of their list of priorities. Mauricio Pochettino, quite understandably, preferred to focus on the League Cup final on Sunday against Chelsea. With equal justification given that they play Man City at the weekend, Liverpool left Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson and Philippe Coutinho at home. Everton's manager Roberto Martinez, when asked by ESPN FC in August whether he'd take the competition seriously, said it would be stupid to do otherwise. And lo and behold, he is the last man standing. Albeit with mild concerns about the possibility of relegation in the Premier League.
But it's not so simple in the Champions League where there is no question that the strongest lineups available have been duly deployed. What is open for debate is whether they have been deployed in the right way. While Manuel Pellegrini's enduring belief that you can beat Barcelona by ceding the centre of midfield is interesting, it's hard to argue that results have borne it out.
Similarly, Arsene Wenger's approach of swamping the opposition's half only to leave acres of space defended by wandering Ent Per Mertesacker has yet to bear fruit. You can even go back to Manchester United's exit under Sir Alex Ferguson and you'll recall how poorly the team reacted to the sending off of Nani, and how quickly Real Madrid capitalised with a tactical tweak.
It's not quite a case of "all the gear and no idea," but there are certainly more than enough examples of naivety in the English sides to conclude that there may be an issue here. Tactically, the Premier League isn't performing at the highest level. With, of course, the exception of Chelsea.
Indeed, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich could claim that his roubles have artificially inflated the English coefficient, preserving the fourth Champions League spot for his rivals. In truth, the continuing travails of the Italian clubs should keep England safe for a while yet, even if they drop beneath Germany and into third place next year.
Chelsea, especially under Mourinho, do the Champions League differently. In accordance with the teachings of Sun Tzu, they first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then wait for an opportunity to defeat the enemy. You can be certain that Sun Tzu's "good fighters of old" would never play with two up front against Barcelona.
Perhaps, then, the real reason for England's repeated failings is arrogance. Too many teams believe that they can easily impose their game upon their opponents, or in the Europa League, that they can squeeze through without their strongest players. This, sadly, is a problem that no amount of TV revenues can solve. The Premier League is getting richer, but it doesn't seem to be getting smarter.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.