England’s poor performances in European competition have caused plenty of debate. Camilo Zannoni takes a different look at some of the potential causes and offers that, perhaps, the English are suffering from some of the very things that make their league so appealing.
Much has been made in recent weeks about English teams’ supreme failure to perform in European competition – including on this very site. From the Champions League minnows causing upsets to Europa league competitors being held to draws by relatively weak opposition, it is becoming an issue that may even result in UEFA taking a Champions League spot from the English Premier League, and handing it to Serie A. But would this move be justified? In order to determine whether or not England should really lose a spot to Italy – or any other European league – in the Champions League, more has to be taken into consideration than performances in the competition itself, with domestic duties greatly impacting teams’ capacity to continually perform at the level that is necessary to advance and become successful amongst Europe’s elite.
The most polarising factor that seems to affect English teams is the demanding schedule that dictates the way managers must rotate their squads. Esteban Cambiasso recently weighed in on the criticism facing English sides after their poor start to the group stage, stating “[the schedule] has an effect – the English teams do not arrive rested and relaxed when they come and play in Champions League games. When you have a competition of such a high level at home, it changes things.”
Having played in La Liga, Serie A and the Premier League (for Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Leicester City respectively), Cambiasso provides unique insight, and although he did not play in the Champions League with Leicester City, it doesn’t take away from his experiences in the Premier League, adding that “in the leagues where the big teams can have slightly more simple games, the players can arrive more rested,” a privilege that is afforded to teams like Real Madrid, but utterly lacking in the Premier League.
Gulfs in quality aside, Cambiasso’s point about “rest and relaxation” leading up to those glamorous European nights hits the hardest, with the FA guilty of taking mid-week fixtures a little too lightly. Refusing to realign fixtures to benefit teams facing mid-week games in the Champions League may ensure that the Premier League remains a balanced and level playing field (or keeps the TV companies happy), but even a day’s rest can have an immense impact on recovery. Louis van Gaal, whose Manchester United team lost to Arsenal last weekend, has been vocal about the need for recovery, mentioning that his team “had two weeks with no day off.” One can always trust Van Gaal to say what he means, and this thinly veiled criticism of the demands of English football is more profound when considering the manager’s experience in the Dutch, German and Spanish leagues.
Furthermore, England is the only league in Europe among the top five ‘elite’ leagues that doesn’t enjoy a break over the Christmas period. In complete contrast to the winter travels of Lionel Messi, Thomas Müller, Giorgio Chiellini, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and co., who enjoy up to a month of recovery time after four months of grueling fixtures, the FA attempts to squeeze in as many games as possible, including league and domestic cup matches. Indeed, apart from Ligue 1, the rest of the top five compete in just one domestic cup competition, while English clubs have the fun task of navigating both the Capital One Cup and the FA Cup, with the top teams battling 60+ games per year across four fronts.
In light of all this, playing three games a week for over a month is why people love the Premier League; managers must be shrewd in their team selection, it gives the fans a chaotic period of football with game after game providing quality entertainment, and, arguably the most important point of all, it gives lower table teams an opportunity to cause huge upsets thanks to the necessary squad rotation and the effect that can have on the fluency of a side.
However, to claim that it is only at this time that the bottom half of the table can upheave the higher ranked teams would be farcical and disrespectful. You only need to look at the opening weekend to realise the immense power and quality the lower league teams have over eventual trophy winners; West Ham, who have not won away to Arsenal since 2007, caused arguably the biggest upset of the round by winning 0-2, exposing Arsenal’s frailty, and ultimately justifying the Premier League’s label as the toughest league to play in, a similar sentiment shared just last week when the perpetually struggling Newcastle United drew with last year’s champions, Chelsea, while title favourites Manchester City have lost two of their last three Premier League fixtures to Tottenham and West Ham respectively.
Football elitists will point towards the style of play, stating that the pace and lack of technical proficiency across the league allows teams like West Ham to cause upsets. Pragmatists point towards the money that Premier League clubs have available to boost their squad capacities and bring in those A-List players (see Stoke’s singing of Xherdan Shaqiri) thanks to a less restrictive wage budget. Fanatics say it’s the passion. Regardless, the gulf in quality that exists in other major European leagues is not something that is available to the Premier League, and not just in regards to those vying for the title (which realistically stands at four teams), but for the table as a whole.
Finally, if a well-structured inquiry into the failure of English teams in European competition (at least in recent years) becomes reality, it could uncover some very unsettling truths about how much easier certain teams have it in their respective leagues. However, failing that, it is far more likely that the Premier League will simply have to step up its game in Europe to ensure they don’t lose the coveted ‘4th place trophy’, dubbed so due to the huge monetary gain that comes from qualifying for the Champions League. If the spot does indeed change hands, then I pose the following question: would it be more pertinent to have the 4th placed English and Italian teams (or whoever is placed 3rd and 4th on UEFA’s coefficients table) play-off against each other home and away? It would certainly make for an interesting post-season fixture.