As we draw near to Europe’s end of season showpiece, the Champions League final, we are greeted with what has become a familiar sight. For the fifth consecutive year, England has no representative.
In the space of less than a decade, the Premier League has fallen from the dizzying heights of domination into the footballing abyss. Between 2005 and 2012, seven out of eight finals were graced by English clubs, including that famous all-English encounter in Moscow. In the five seasons since, we’ve had only two teams make the semis. Once the belle of the ball, the Premier League is no longer so much as a bridesmaid. It even had to find out about the hen do on Facebook.
It’s a pretty disastrous decline by anyone’s standards, and one that necessarily poses a burning question: what on earth has gone wrong?
In this age of cultish fixation with the managerial demigod, the managerial demigod seems a pertinent place to start. In this season alone, there is evidence to support this. Arsenal were woefully unequipped to deal with the pace and guile of Bayern, and received a monumental drubbing as a result. Likewise, City’s defensive display in their defeat to Monaco’s barely-pubescent youngsters was made to look all the more inept by Juventus’ tactically masterful shut-out in the next round. However, boasting a roll call of Klopp, Mourinho, Guardiola, Wenger, Conte and Pochettino, the Premier League has arguably never been more blessed with managerial genius. Better look elsewhere then.
Yes, it’s true that this country’s clubs are emburdened – and yes, that is the right word – with one extra cup competition. However, due to its almost complete meaninglessness, nobody of any meaningful stature even plays in it. Yes, it’s also true that our sides don’t enjoy the reinvigorating tonic of a winter break, whilst all others do. That could make all the difference, couldn’t it? Well, it didn’t during our mid-noughties heyday. The quest continues.
Ah, the players.
Yes, the search has led us to where all serious analysis of football should really, by rights, begin: the people who actually play the game. However, the details of this do require some minor unpicking. Whilst there has been something of an (admittedly very small) exodus of Britain-based talent in recent years, this isn’t really the answer. For those who have moved away – and perhaps more germanely, for those who have declined to come – it is necessary to question why. Our climate is infamously inferior, but our pay packets certainly aren’t.
Where we are lacking, it seems, is in terms of the genuine possibility of European domination. It’s an old-fashioned, outmoded notion, I know, but footballers do want to win trophies, and English clubs are simply not in the same stratosphere as the best that Spain, Germany and Italy have to offer. It is in that respect something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: our clubs aren’t good enough, and thus can’t attract or keep the requisite players to make them good enough.
Ultimately then, the answer lies at home. We are not producing the talent ourselves to make our league the force that it once was. A very short trip back in time sees an all-conquering Chelsea side led by Terry and Lampard, a United team lynch-pinned by Ferdinand, Rooney, Scholes and Carrick, and of course the one-man show that was Steven Gerrard. What we now offer is Gary Cahill, Jesse Lingard and James Milner.
But perhaps the most compelling proof of this dearth, and its impact on our performance in Europe, comes from a look overseas. With the exception of Real Madrid – who follow no rulebook, bar that of their own distorted version of Monopoly – the high achievers in this latest phase of the ever-evolving Champions League merry-go-round all owe their success to home grown quality. The Bonucci-Chiellini wall erected at Juve; the tiki-taka maelstrom at Barca; the technical perfection at Bayern and Dortmund; all of these are built upon the solid foundations of their own soil. These nations have reaped what they’ve sewn. If we wish to return to the pinnacle of European football, we must do the same.