For the first time in five years, the Champions League will not be won by either Real Madrid or Barcelona. The dominance of the two Spanish giants hadn’t exactly become wholly predictable and boring but neutral fans throughout Europe have been hoping for something different for a while now. Those hopes became reality in spectacular style this season as Liverpool and Tottenham booked their place in the Champions League final thanks to two of the most dramatic semi finals in the history of the competition.
That two English clubs will contest the final of the Champions League is a good enough story for the Premier League but it got better just one day after Tottenham’s success against Ajax as Arsenal and Chelsea made it a clean sweep for English football by making it through to the Europa League final. Three of the four sides in the two major finals are all from the same city for the first time ever, whilst this is also the first season where one country has provided all four finalists.
The fate of English clubs in Europe was a cause for concern amongst Premier League bigwigs just a few short years ago. Clearly, there was a certain amount of luck involved in all four teams’ routes to their respective finals but with the Premier League champions not even among the finalists, the league’s self styled reputation as the best in the world has been seriously enhanced.
It will take a era of sustained dominance before the English top flight can seriously claim to be better than La Liga but could that be something we about to see happen? PL teams enjoyed a strong period of success in Europe between 2005 and 2012. In those eight years Liverpool, Man United and Chelsea all won the Champions League, whilst five times in the same period English sides lost finals as well. Can the current big six match or even better that?
The recent dominance of Real Madrid and Barcelona in Europe was often seen through the prism of the individual battle between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. The teams’ talismans were at the heart of most things that went right for them but they were always more than just one man sides.
Real Madrid and Barcelona are two of the richest football teams in the world and regularly start Champions League matches with benches full of players who would get into any other team in the competition. It was that strength in depth that really made the difference to the two teams as they plotted a path through the knockout stages of the Champions League
Saying that money equals success in football is obviously over simplistic. There are no guarantees in this magical game, especially at the very top level, but it is most definitely something that makes a big difference. Having the money to buy and attract the best players in the world and to put the right coaching staff in position gives teams a better platform from which to build.
Wealthier clubs can employ the best staff in every area and also build and create the best facilities, not to mention being able to lure the best young players to their hugely professional and lavish academies. Of course, even then it can go wrong if things are mismanaged, as the world’s richest club, Manchester United, have so ably demonstrated in recent years. But that said, a team with Huddersfield’s budget will always struggle to compete against the premier League’s wealthy elite.
Each of Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea have a strong financial platform from which to build, certainly as compared to many of their opponents in Europe. That takes nothing away from the work done by their respective managers and backroom staff but it does give them an advantage over teams such as Ajax or Eintracht Frankfurt for example.
Whatever you think of the way the Premier League spends its money, the league deserves nothing but praise for the way it has become so marketable and popular around the world to the benefit of its teams. The four European finalists have made the most of the advantages afforded to them and with no end in sight to the league’s financial dominance compared to much of the rest of Europe, the Premier League really ought to be well represented in the closing stages of both the Champions League and Europa League in the years ahead.
As an indication of the financial might of the English top flight, it is worth noting that in 2019 nine of the richest football clubs in the world (according to Deloitte’s annual report) were English. Italy was next best with four representatives but the Premier League had six inside the top 10! In addition, the summer 2018 transfer window was the fifth in a row where EPL clubs spent more than £1bn in transfer fees. They once again led the spending, contributing 31% to the total outlay by the “Big Five” European leagues.
Competition at Home
One of the most interesting elements of the Premier League teams who are the last four standing in Europe this season is that three of them were pretty disappointing domestically this campaign.
You can take nothing away from Liverpool’s incredible haul of 97 points which saw them miss out on the title by just one point but Tottenham headed into their second leg against Ajax in awful domestic form, Chelsea fans have called for the sacking of Maurizio Sarri on multiple occasions and Arsenal could not close the gap on the top four in Unai Emery’s first season at the club.
The advantages of the Premier League are felt by teams throughout the division. The quality of teams in the top flight has arguably never been higher so it is inevitable that even the best sides will slip up from time to time. Poor results should never been taken in isolation though and the quality of the opposition that Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea face week in week out has undoubtedly helped their chances in continental competition. They are accustomed to facing top sides week in, week out, in a way in which some of their rivals – most notably PSG – are not.
Moreover, all four teams are very much inside the established ‘big six’ of English football. The competition between those six clubs for silverware and the much coveted top four places drives the others on. Fail to improve over the course of a season and the others will pass you by. Competition is the bedrock of the Premier League and it has to be a major positive for the chances of English teams in Europe, even if the lack of competition in the continent’s other major leagues is overblown by the British media.
A Home for the Game’s Best Managers
The relentless competitiveness of the Premier League means that the owners of every club are always looking for an advantage. That might come from investing in the scouting department, building a world class analytics team or working on best practices in terms of injury prevention, diet or even sleep. Ultimately though, teams will win matches thanks to their players and managers.
The Premier League has long been able to attract the best players in the world. True, the game’s biggest stars tend to play for Europe’s elite clubs such as the two Spanish giants, Juventus, Bayern Munich and PSG but the depth of quality in the top flight of English football is unmatched. In more recent years, the quality of the players has been matched by the quality of the managers and it is perhaps that which has had the biggest impact.
The best of the best now ply their trade in the Premier League. That much is obvious with the title race coming down to a Pep Guardiola team against a Jurgen Klopp team. As for the other three teams in European finals, Tottenham have been transformed under Mauricio Pochettino who is one of the most in demand managers in world football coveted by Man United, Real Madrid and others, Arsenal are led by Unai Emery, whose record in the Europa League is second to none, and Maurizio Sarri turned Napoli into a fantastic team even if it’s not quite happened so far with Chelsea.
The rest of the Premier League is full of world class managers. Manuel Pellegrini, Brendan Rodgers and Rafa Benitez would be considered for many of the biggest jobs in football whilst the full gamut of up and coming talent to decades of experience is covered by other top class managers including Eddie Howe, Nuno Espirito Santo, Javi Gracia and Roy Hodgson.
Managers may not have the overarching control of English football clubs that they used to but even with the introduction of huge backroom staffs, the man in the managerial hot seat still has a telling impact on their club’s fortunes. As with the players, the financial rewards for managers in English football are huge but it’s the chance to build something special that is present in more Premier League teams than not that attracts football’s most ambitious managers to these shores. Or it might just be the money!
More Than Just a Results Game
The flip side of the rewards and opportunities provided by the Premier League is the unbelievable pressure to succeed coming from all angles. The boardroom, the fans and the media will all be quick to call out a manager, player or team not doing their job as expected. It’s often said that football is a results game when managers lose their jobs but it’s even tougher than that now in the upper echelons of English football. More than in any other country, football in England is a business, not a sport, and some feel that decisions are made with the sort of ruthlessness that belongs in the boardroom rather than at a football club.
But sometimes not even results are enough for a manager. Clubs know that fans care a great deal about the style with which their teams play. Fans pay their money and want to be entertained. A pragmatic style of football is no longer enough. It was notable how the people decrying Brighton’s decision to sack Chris Hughton largely came from those outside of the club whilst Seagulls fans were much more happy to thank Hughton for his good work and hope a new, more forward thinking manager can take the team forward with a more entertaining style of football.
If defensive, pragmatic football which achieves your pre-season goal is not enough for Brighton fans, it’s certainly not enough for those teams at the top of the table. One of the main issues that led to Jose Mourinho’s demise at Manchester United was that he did not have the team playing with the sort of style that the fans demand. Each of Klopp, Pochettino, Sarri and Emery try to get their teams to play on the front foot and have been able to rely on their attacking quality to get over the line in some tough ties during their European campaigns.
You may think that the style of football a team plays is bound to improve when the quality of their players increases. As mentioned above though, managers have a huge influence on the way their team plays and the shift that Premier League clubs have made away from pragmatism to entertainment is to the benefit both of the league as a product and of English team’s chances in Europe.
Ultimately there can be no doubt that 2018-19 has been a vintage time for English football. The national team enjoyed a fine World Cup and then built on that through the Nations League. The title race between Man City and Liverpool went right to the wire and was the classiest English football has ever seen. The points tally accrued by both sides was stunning and testament to how good they have been.
That brilliance is given added authority by the fact that the champions, City, were knocked out of the Champions League in the quarters. Europe has been unable to withstand the brilliance of the Premier League this season. The Champions League will be won by the second or fourth best team in England, whilst the Europa League will be contested by the teams that finished third and fifth. What a year!