By Christopher Worrall (@ChrisDWorrall)
As has been noted in a multitude of publications for a number of years, English domination of footballing Europe is a thing of the recent past. From the heights of English sides comprising up to seventy-five percent of the Champions League’s final four, the English top flight has reached the lows of its best barely escaping the group stages. The beginning of this season (2015/16) has been jumped upon as the definite proof of this theory. Out of a possible twenty-four available points, English sides have thus far accumulated just nine between them. One team – Arsenal – haven’t even mustered one. The rot, it seems, has very much set in.
With this decline seemingly so obvious, a variety of reasons have been put forth to explain this fall from continental grace. If imagined as a spectrum of patriotic optimism, we have two extremes that make up most of the core reasonings behind them. To one side, there are those that bemoan the competitiveness of the Premier League – the “greatest league in the world” – for over-working these top teams before their clashes with their fellow European elites. To the other, some say that same league breeds complacency in these teams that consistently end up finishing high enough in the division to quality for Europe. The sheer greatness of their domestic form and league year-on-year breeds the idea that Europe is a lesser competition. The perceived ‘step-down’ attitude is particularly aimed at team’s decisions to rest big players for European ties, such as Arsene Wenger’s decision to drop marquee goalkeeper Petr Cech for both of their Champions League defeats.
As with any sporting argument, both sides have their merits and demerits; neither are grounded in conclusive science. The issue however is not the particular merits of these arguments, but rather the shared emphasis they both choose to place. The fault – the solution or reason for this decline – is to be found internally. Whether because of the domestic league’s strengths or its weaknesses, that is where the blame and/or salvation is said to be found. It is this – this island-nation arrogance that sees all answers within our own borders – that is the real black heart of this far-from modern issue.
To look inwards is to ignore a key ingredient in the English game’s supposed continental decline: the teams that are beating them. Whether it be Porto running through the heart of Chelsea’s geriatrically-paced defence to Juventus’s canniness against Manchester City, there are teams at the other end of this ‘tragedy’ that are deservedly winning football games. The focus is rarely on them; praise is rarely dealt out in the same hefty portions as criticism. This ignorance manifests itself in sections of the press and public discourse as stonewalling discussion of the ‘other’. On the pitch, it also has a manifestation: tactical inflexibility.
The heyday of modern England in Europe – indeed, the heyday of any great side – has been intertwined with degrees of tactical innovation and, crucially, alteration. If sticking to recent history, the three English triumphs in Europe: Chelsea in Munich, Manchester United in Moscow and Liverpool in Istanbul, were triumphant campaigns that featured , among other things, deliberate shifts in tactical approach dependant on the opposition. Whether throughout a campaign or, as in the case of Liverpool, a second half, triumphs were founded on identifying personal weaknesses and altering them accordingly. That was how teams won.
Fast-forward to the present, and so much of that flexibility has gone. For years, Manchester City have often dominated domestic games with a steady possession approach based around overlapping full-backs. When transported to Europe, equally-dominant domestic sides (most notably Dortmund in 2012 and CSKA Moscow in 2014) countered this system, brilliantly exposing flaws in this game with direct passing and runs in the space behind the advanced full-backs. On several occasions, teams supposedly weaker than the two-time domestic champions took points off this great side with alarming ease. In all of these situations, the attitude of City was not to adapt, but to persevere. In place of flexibility, there was a resolute refusal in any other method than the one already established.
Such inflexibility is not uncommon. This season’s Chelsea seemingly refused to counter the continual exploits of their centre’s lack of pace, while Arsenal continue to play, well, like Arsenal. That very statement, a wry roll of the eye at the typical playing style of a particular team, fundamentally outlines the problem. The growing inwardness of the English game, the insistence of its own brilliance and the seeming refusal to change in the face of continental innovations, is both at odds with the flexible triumphs of its recent paths and the reality of high-level football. The recent success stories in Europe: Heyncke’s Bayern; Ancelotti’s Madrid; Enrique’s Barcelona, don’t have notably better squads than England’s notoriously established elite. What they possessed was an acknowledgement of certain flaws and an admission of necessary flexibility in the pursuit of victory on the field. Some call the fixation on a ‘philosophy’ of football the purist form of the game. In reality, especially if unsuccessful, it is basest form of arrogance…an arrogance that looks to continue costing England on the continent in the months and years to come.