Despite their new eye-watering multi-billion television rights deal, the blanket failure of Premier League clubs in the Champions League has left England looking like Europe’s poor relation.
After Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal fell, Manchester City’s elimination by Barcelona on Wednesday left England with no quarter-final representatives in Europe’s elite club competition for the second time in three years.
For a country that supplied three of the four semi-finalists in 2007, 2008 and 2009 — and eight of the 16 finalists between 2005 and 2012 — it appears to represent a startling fall from grace.
And with Hull City, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur having all fallen short in the Europa League, Everton were the last English team still standing in Europe prior to the second leg of their last 16 tie against Dynamo Kiev on Thursday.
In the Champions League, English clubs have acquired an unfortunate queasiness about progressing beyond the last 16.
Since 2009-10, 18 of the Premier League’s 24 participants have made it past the group phase, but only eight have progressed to the quarter-finals and only three have gone on to reach the last four.
Attempts to explain the malaise have fallen back on old concerns about England’s draining mid-season schedule, which once moved UEFA president Michel Platini to observe that English clubs were “lions in the winter, but lambs in the spring”.
“This round (of 16) is particularly difficult for English teams,” City manager Manuel Pellegrini told The Guardian this week. “Not having a winter break gives other leagues’ teams an advantage.
“Boxing Day is non-negotiable, a wonderful tradition, and changing it would be absurd, but you can’t play nine games in December and nine in January. It’s a heavy load.”
But although the jam-packed festive programme undoubtedly takes a toll, English teams have not played signficantly more games than their continental opponents.
– Club-specific failings –
Chelsea have played 44 games this season — one fewer than Paris Saint-Germain, the team who eliminated them from the Champions League. Arsenal have played 45 times to Monaco’s 44 and City 42 times to Barcelona’s 44.
Besides, the Christmas schedule did not appear to be an encumbrance during England’s 2004-2009 continental peak.
For others, the explanations lie elsewhere, with former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher claiming the Premier League’s vast wealth — the new TV deal is worth £5.1 billion ($7.8 billion, 6.9 billion euros) — has allowed sloppiness to creep into clubs’ recruitment practices.
“With the new TV deal, the clubs get a lot of money,” he said. “You can bring a player in, but if it doesn’t quite work out, you still have the money to bring another in.”
Any evaluation of the English teams’ woes in this season’s Champions League must, however, also take into account the major club-specific failings that led to each side’s elimination.
Chelsea showed complacency by electing not to press home their advantage following the dismissal of PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the second leg of their last 16 tie, enabling the French champions to claim a 2-2 draw that sent them through on away goals.
Arsenal paid the price for kamikaze attacking — a habitual failing — in their 3-1 first-leg loss to Monaco, while in setting City out in a porous 4-4-2 formation, Pellegrini allowed Barcelona to take control of their tie with a 2-1 first-leg win.
Success is also cyclical, and with Manchester United currently in transition following legendary former manager Alex Ferguson’s retirement, England have lost their dominant European force of the last 20 years.
According to Steven Gerrard, who saw Liverpool bounce back from a fourth-round UEFA Cup exit in 2004 to win the Champions League the following season, it is too soon for soul-searching.
“I don’t think it has been our year, but I don’t think it is a crisis,” said the Liverpool captain.
“It has happened before where teams have gone out early and then come back the next year and won it. It’s not a major problem. It’s just that this season, English teams have not been good enough.”