Is the quality of Premier League football on the decline?
After the first leg of the round of 16 fixtures in the UEFA Champions League questions were once again raised about the performance of the Premier League clubs. Two clubs from the Premier League, Arsenal, and Manchester City were humiliated in their own backyard while the third, Chelsea, salvaged a hard fought draw away to PSG.
Manchester City’s 1-2 defeat at the hands of Barcelona is their third straight loss to the same team and all of them in the same round of the same competition. Last season, City couldn’t defeat a Barcelona team which was arguably the Catalans’ weakest side in the last decade and this season their task will be even more difficult with their opponents in good form.
Arsenal on the other hand got a relatively easier draw in AS Monaco when compared to Manchester City or their own draws in the last four seasons. Their previous four opponents in the first knockout stage in chronological order were Barcelona, AC Milan and Bayern Munich twice in succession, and on each occasion, the Gunners were knocked out. This time around despite playing an AS Monaco side that lost many crucial players, the Gunners were humbled in their own den.
This trend of poor performance from top Premier League clubs in Europe has been going on for the past few seasons and this forces us to ask if the Premier League is still the best league in Europe? But even if that was once true, it's abundantly clear that it's now a delusion, a line repeated out of familiarity rather than any sort of evidence.
Poor results in Europe in the latter half of the past decade
The Premier League’s strongest period was between 2004 and 2009 when it was officially the best league in Europe in terms of coefficient points. This spell coincides with the “big four era”, where Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United repeatedly finished in the top 4 and qualified for the Champions League. Although, in 2005, Everton finished above Liverpool, but they were knocked out in the playoffs round while Liverpool still qualified as the defending champions.
Sadly though, England teams failed to capitalize on their dominance into Champions League titles. In three consecutive years – 2007, 2008 and 2009; three of the final four teams in the UEFA Champions League were from England, but on two occasions, outsiders won the competition and between 2006 and 2009, each of the big four – Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United, were runners up in that order.
It will be interesting to note that despite their dominance, none of the Champions League final victories for English teams over foreign opposition were easy. Manchester United had to score two late goals against Bayern in 1999, Liverpool had to come back from a three-goal deficit against Milan in 2005 and Chelsea were terribly outplayed by Bayern in 2012.
The run of the big four ended in 2010 when Tottenham took the fourth place as Liverpool finished seventh in the league and coincidentally that was also the time the English dominance started to decline.
As you can see from the tables below which show the number of teams from England, Spain and Germany progressing to the different knockout stages of the Champions League in the past decade, between 2009/10 and 2013/14, the number of English teams advancing to the semifinal and even the quarter final have slowly come down, while during the same period the number of Spanish and German teams qualifying past the first knockout stage have come up.
In fact during the 2012/13 season, no English team qualified for the quarter finals and it was the first time that happened since 1996!
Note: Numbers written in red indicate that two teams from the same league played each other in that round. Numbers highlighted in yellow indicate that a team from that league won the title that year.
Despite Chelsea’s triumph in 2012, between 2011 and the present day, English teams have struggled quite a lot against the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid. But, what is more embarrassing is their failure to produce convincing performances against other clubs other European clubs who are relatively weaker on paper and much more financially restricted than these rich Premier League sides.
Note: Numbers written in red indicate that the scores were level after extra time in the final of that season which featured an English team. PPG stands for Points Per Game
The period between 2011 and the present day has easily been the worst period for English teams in terms of performance despite Chelsea’s Champions League and Europa League wins in 2012 and 2013 respectively. In fact, Chelsea’s results in Europe are one of the reasons why the coefficient of England is still so high.
In the 2011/12 season, defending Premier League champions Manchester United were drawn in one of the easiest groups which consisted of SL Benfica, FC Basel and Romanian side Otelul Galati. Despite this, they were relegated to the Europa League along with their neighbours Manchester City. Their performance in the Europa League was equally bad and they were both eliminated in the Round of 16, with Sporting defeating the Red Devils and Athletic Bilbao taking out the Citizens.
In the very next season, once again two Premier League teams failed to get past the group stages of the Champions League and one of them was Chelsea, who became the first defending Champions to not get past the group stages. Joining Chelsea were defending Premier League Champions Manchester City who finished bottom of their group with no wins!
Last season, the performance was slightly better from the English sides, but when they had to face top clubs like Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich, the gulf in quality between the two sides was clear as daylight.
The performance in the Europa League is not remarkable either, barring Chelsea’s victory in 2013. Spurs have continually featured in the competition but have not even come close to the semi-final stage in a tournament that they can win.
Dip in UEFA Coefficients
The UEFA Coefficients is a ranking system that determines the number of teams participating from a particular association participating in European completions. The coefficient is determined by the results of the clubs of a country in the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League games over the past five seasons.
Due to the good showing by clubs from England in the first decade of the 21st Century, the coefficient of England in the rankings were the highest for a long time and that too by a significant margin for a long period.
This is how the Top 4 of the coefficients table have looked prior to the start of each season given below.
The gradual dip in England’s coefficient is an indicator of how badly their performance has dropped in the recent years. Prior to the start of the current season, Spain overtook England to take the top spot and Germany who were fourth a few years ago have narrowed the margin to England considerably, thanks to the good showing of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in the recent years.
If the current form of English teams is anything to go by, then it won’t be long before England slip to third, but it is unlikely that they will go further down in the near future unless their performance can get even worse while Italian teams win the Champions League and Europa League.
Factors affecting the performance
Hectic Fixture Schedule:
It is well known that teams in England have two domestic cups to play in addition to the League and in the case of some clubs, European completion as well. Moreover, the Premier League teams do not have a winter break in late December or early January to help revitalize their players with some much needed rest.
When this is the case in England, clubs in Spain give their players a break during the holiday period whereas in the case of German and French clubs, the winter break is a month long! Things are even more relaxing for teams in the Bundesliga as they only have to play 34 league games in comparison to the 38 of England or Spain.
With fixtures piling up, players often do not get adequate rest and tiredness starts to creep in, this usually affects the performance of even the most talented players.
Managers like Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger have addressed the issue in the past and considering the extent of truth in it, it may be time for the FA to eradicate the League Cup at least. Yes, it may lead to a loss in revenue, but money is not an issue for the English FA.
Quality of homegrown talent:
It is compulsory for a team in any particular league to have a certain number of homegrown or local players in their squad according to league regulations.
Although England’s famous players from the Golden Generation were extremely unsuccessful on the International stage, they were quite successful with their clubs. So it may not be coincidental that the peak period of English clubs in Europe clashes with the peak period of these English players.
The rise of Spain in International football started with their Euro triumph in 2008 with a very young squad and most of these players would go on to play in their successful 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euro Campaigns. The quality of Spanish players rose considerably in the current century, and much of the success of Barcelona and to an extent Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, were surrounded by the performance from the local players.
In the case of Germany, they were competitive in the international stage consistently since the turn of the century, but their current crop of youngsters are exciting and that was proven when they picked up the World Cup trophy last year. Also, many of these German players were instrumental to the success of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in Europe.
So it is pretty obvious that the talent pool in Spain and Germany have gone up a notch in the recent years and that has helped supplement the top teams from these countries with quality players.
During this period of dominance from Germany and Spain, England’s performance on the International stage has been way below expectations and when you read all these things together, you cannot help but wonder about the quality of local players playing for English clubs.
This might also be one of the reasons why we do not see many England Internationals play abroad while we see many German & Spanish players play their trade across Europe.
Of course, this is just one of possible explanations, but that still doesn’t account for the poor performance of teams like Manchester City and Chelsea who use very few English players on a matchday.
What does the future hold?
Will Premier League teams be able to bridge the gap with other European clubs? That remains to be seen, but as of now it is clear as daylight that the Premier League has lost their way in Europe despite being one of the most competitive leagues.
It will be up to managers like Jose Mourinho with plenty of experience abroad to raise the quality of English football and it is essential for these clubs to bring more quality players from the country to the fore.
Note: The article was drafted before Liverpool were knocked out of Europa League by Besiktas, not that it improves their figures in any way.