It had been a while since Premier League teams were a force in the Champions League, and while two have reached the quarterfinals this season, there's a feeling of opportunity missed for the three eliminated in the last 16.
It all looked so good for the Premier League. It had a record five teams in the last 16 of the Champions League. After the first legs, two were almost guaranteed to go through, two seemed to have the edge and the other had a chance. As it turned out, although Manchester City and Liverpool made it through with minimal fuss, Tottenham, Manchester United and Chelsea all crashed out. Premier League teams are still not quite punching their weight in the Champions League.
Not since Chelsea in 2012 has an English side won the competition, and that felt a little freakish. Last season, the only English quarterfinalist was Leicester City. The season before, the only one was Manchester City. The season before that, there weren’t any English quarterfinalists at all. In that sense, two sides in the quarterfinal and three more within touching distance represents progress, but the questions remain as to why is it so limited and why hasn’t it happened before?
Seven of the eight last-16 ties this season were won by the side with the higher revenue – a statistic that both highlights Manchester United’s failure against Sevilla and suggests that Chelsea’s defeat against Barcelona and Tottenham’s against Juventus shouldn’t provoke too much soul-searching. That said, the latest Deloitte Report into Football Finance shows not merely that United has the highest revenue of any club in the world but that five English sides are in the top 10 and 10 English sides in the top 20.
The Premier League broadcasting deal is so much higher than the television rights any other league can generate that English clubs have an enormous economic advantage. The revenues are also split far more equitably than elsewhere which, in theory at least, means there is less of a gulf between top and bottom in England than there is in, say, Spain or Germany. That means that, although this season suggests the relationship is far from straightforward, the league is more competitive than other top leagues.
That in turn means it is more tiring–a point numerous managers have made in the past to explain away European under-performance–but also that it toughens sides. PSG, for instance, has made a habit of flinching every time it comes up against an opponent that doesn’t just roll over.
If there is progress this season, the Premier League, perhaps, has happened on a happy medium, a competition that is challenging but not over-fatiguing. Or perhaps that’s to impose too restrictive an economic model. The idea that there was a fundamental flaw at the heart of English football that prevented Premier League clubs from prospering in continental competition always seemed a little absurd given its cosmopolitan nature. The wider trends matter, of course, but this is also a story of the individual clubs.
Arsenal has been ailing for some time, a team with a remarkable capacity for blowing big games. That Arsene Wenger’s side is no longer in the Champions League to suffer a thrashing at the hands of Barcelona or Bayern Munich has been a major benefit to England’s overall performance.
But Arsenal is not the only club to have gone through specific problems. Chelsea seems locked in a perpetual cycle of one season good, one season bad, the endless churn of managers undermining campaign after campaign. This season, its Champions League campaign was undermined by defensive sloppiness at key moments.
Manchester United has not been the same since Sir Alex Ferguson left, and the insipid defeat to Sevilla raises serious questions both about Jose Mourinho’s tactical approach and the way the squad has been built. Tottenham had the raw, slightly unsophisticated excitement of the Harry Redknapp years, but has then also gone through a process of rebuilding. This season it was undone by a weird lapse of concentration in each leg that cost it four goals. Even then, it had chances to force the series vs. Juventus into extra time; Spurs’ failure was specific rather than systemic.
Liverpool, undermined by the Hicks-Gillett ownership and the subsequent fallout, then by Brendan Rodgers’ fall from grace, has only slowly begun to rediscover its form. Leicester City could never quite believe it was in the Champions League in the first place and enjoyed a highly creditable campaign last season, reaching the quarterfinal.
Manchester City, meanwhile, has a complicated relationship with the Champions League anyway. Fans remain angry at UEFA after a game away to CSKA was played behind closed doors following crowd trouble involving the Moscow side with no compensation being offered to City fans who had paid for travel and found themselves effectively being punished for another club’s offense.
But it has suffered the Chelsea issue of inconsistency and, then, when it did reach the semifinal two seasons ago it produced two thoroughly limp performances as though overwhelmed by the occasion. As, perhaps, it was–one of the by-products of the competitiveness of the Premier League is that nobody has a place at the top-table as of right; gaining consistent Champions League experience perhaps isn’t as straightforward as it is for the best sides in other countries.
That only two Premier League clubs have made the quarterfinal feels anti-climactic given the position two weeks ago, but this season has seen progress towards the position they should be in when immense wealth and top-class managers come together.
The English, slowly, are coming–and, frankly, it’s about time.