In the same month that the Premier League revealed yet another mind boggling domestic TV rights deal, extending its financial dominance over its European rivals and, medium term, making even its most mediocre club sides amongst the richest in world football, English clubs once again bombed in the Champions League and Europa League.
For those who argue that the domestic league is the strongest in terms of depth and competition in the world it was yet another embarrassing wake-up call. Despite more than £1bn of investment from Abu Dhabi Manchester City were once again torn to shreds at home by one of Europe’s established elite. However, of more concern were the defeats of Arsenal, by moderate Ligue 1 side Monaco, Liverpool by Besiktas of Turkey and Tottenham by Italians Fiorentina. Only Everton, conquerors of Young Boys of Switzerland, and Chelsea, currently mid-way through a tie with Paris St.Germain remain. How can it be that the strength of the domestic game has plummeted so from the heights of 2007-09, when three English clubs were commonly seen in the semi-finals of the Champions League?
The answer is, as you’d expect, multi-factorial. Individual circumstances at various clubs have no doubt played at part. At Liverpool and Manchester United life-sucking American owners caused investment to dry up, periods from which both clubs are still trying to recover. Elsewhere, excuses are less readily available. For Chelsea and the newly arrived Manchester City money has, until the recent FFP regulations, been no object, whilst at Arsenal a chronic lack of ambition seems to be at least in part to blame. All at a time when the financial power of the Premier League has accelerated to the extent that it’s European competitors cannot be seen for dust.
This should have given English teams an insurmountable advantage over all but the genuine super clubs, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, all capable of producing huge revenue streams regardless of the state or status of their own domestic competition. These riches have come at a time when the other major European Leagues have endured internal struggles. Since the 1980s and early 1990s, when Italian clubs ruled the world, Serie A has declined alarmingly. Mostly council owned facilities, many built or refurbished for the 1990 World Cup, have slowly crumbled and attendances have fallen amid problems with violence and racism. The previously bottomless pockets of corporate owners were sewn shut, leaving even the most storied clubs in a state of turmoil. The Calciopoli scandal further damaged the product and dethroned its most powerful club, Juventus. Whilst there are signs of repair, including a drive to fund new self-owned stadia which would allow greater access to match-day and commercial revenues, this is still a highly depressed footballing nation and league.
Elsewhere, the depth and competitiveness of La Liga in Spain should, in theory, be significantly weakened by the incredibly uneven distribution of television revenues and the scale of the financial advantage held by Real Madrid and Barcelona. Their constant battle for supremacy should come at a cost to those left in their wake, but remarkably the league seems to thrive without access to limitless pots of cash. Atletico’s rise to become domestic champions last term was remarkable, achieved on a budget similar to a mid-range a Premier League club. Below them careful investment, player development and scouting has produced sides who cannot compete with the big boys at the top, but who compare favourably with their equivalents elsewhere in Europe.
Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga are two leagues who are at a distinct disadvantage compared to the riches of the a Premier League. The former, with the exception of Qatari backed PSG, suffers from relatively low attendances and TV and commercial revenues. The latter, with the biggest domestic audience and attendances in Europe, but with a largely fan-friendly model, now suffers from the scale of the dominance of its one ‘superclub’ Bayern, but not before the upstarts from Dortmund gate-crashed the party with a squad built and sustained on a wagebill smaller than that carried by half of the Premier League.
All of these leagues, and the remainder in Europe, suffer from economic disadvantages which should create a situation where Premier League clubs are unassailable for all but the giants. Not only should those clubs at the top of the English domestic pile be at the very least competing with behemoths like Real and Barcelona, but those below them should be decimating the best of the rest in both of UEFA’s premier club competitions. And yet not only are they failing to do so, it is becoming clear that without a change of focus and approach they are in serious danger of getting left behind. How can this be?
For all its money and prestige English football, since the post-Heysel European football ban and the advent of the Premier League, has become increasingly insular. Perhaps it has believed its own hype, positioning itself as the “biggest”, “greatest”, “most competitive” league in the world. For the larger clubs qualifying for the Champions League has become the holy grail, access to the huge money it generates to be invested or squirrelled away to allow for qualifying again the following year, and the year after, and the year after that. The more money you have, the more money you want. The Europa League has never mattered to English clubs in the way that it does on the continent. Here it is regarded as a cumbersome irritant to be avoided at all costs, lest it interfere with the race for a Top Four finish. For those in with a shot of actually winning the Premier League title domestic glory has almost always rated above European football, the latter just a bonus to be taken or left. Perhaps the recent exceptions to this have been Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, the Scot always acutely aware of the importance of continental football in the history of the club, and Jose Mourinho, an outsider already acquainted with the glory it can bring. Contrast with Real Madrid, for whom the trophy with the big ears is an obsession. Or Atletico, for whom success in the Europa League provided a springboard for recent domestic and European excellence. Rather than thinking that, with a domestic title shot beyond them, resources should be poured into a romantic shot at continental glory, English clubs withdraw and concentrate on Champions League qualification.
The moderate quality of recent Premier Leagues also seems to have had the effect of preventing the top sides from pushing themselves. Domestic success and riches can be achieved without the need to create a truly great side, as Chelsea are set to further demonstrate this season. Manchester City won each of their last two Premier League titles before seemingly easing off, sated by the novel experience. Thus, with Champions League football already assured, what incentive is there to invest further and push to become the best in Europe? For clubs like Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal there is no great history of continental success to live up to, although each had isolated successes in its past. The former’s sole European Cup win occurred almost by accident with a side far weaker than that which lost so agonisingly on penalties to Manchester United in Moscow. Those two finalists were driven to greater heights by their domestic rivalry, as Ferguson’s treble winners had been by their titanic battle with Arsenal at home. This success was a rare positive byproduct on English football’s insularity. When the standard is high the competition is fierce, but if the competition becomes weakened for any reason then clubs often look to achieve the bare minimum necessary to reach their ultimate goal. Despite his obsession with the European Cup, this is a trap in to which Ferguson fell in his final years at Manchester United. With financial pressure on the club and the neighbours from across the city getting increasingly noisy, the Scot maintained a side which he surely believed could do no more stumble to the title in his final 3/4 years but which became increasingly off the pace internationally. His focus changed as did the financial realities of his club, and as Manchester United no longer kept a breathless pace and standard of football at the summit of the English game the competition seemed to relax in the knowledge that their goal could be achieved without having to strive for near perfection.
As the money in English football has spiralled so too has the growth in foreign investors in the Premier League, the clubs increasingly being bought and run more as businesses than as sporting institutions striving to be the best. This focus on profit, share price and business debt has changed the dynamic of the domestic game. Whilst this has perhaps left many of the clubs best equipped to adapt to the new FFP regulations, it has also led to a recognition that investment value comes from participation in the Premier League itself and from Champions League qualification. Trophies are not necessary to achieve a return and as the value of the TV deals increase exponentially then owners can profit simply by standing still. Whilst this practice is on the increase elsewhere in Europe it is still largely in its infancy. Whilst revenues remain vital to allow investments in players, decisions are often made to appease fan groups who in some cases are owners or part owners, as members, of the clubs. Presidents must deliver trophies to gain re-election, not numbers on a balance sheet. It is this phenomenon which drives Barca and Real in their eternal battle to triumph over the other, a situation which has created perhaps two of the greatest club sides the world has ever seen. Without direct fan pressure leading to accountability for administrators there is no such drive to achieve in England.
For all of these reasons and perhaps many more Premier League clubs have fallen from grace and perhaps more worryingly are in danger of getting left behind. But maybe change is on the way. The return of Jose Mourinho to Chelsea, a manager for whom parochial rivalries are not enough, has seen the construction of a side which has already left its competitors standing. He is not the sort of manager to stand still, even in times of glory, and his ultimate goal will be to make his side the best in the world. The remaining members of the domestic elite will therefore be faced with a quandary: attempt to keep pace or become increasingly irrelevant. The decisions they make could therefore define the course which the Premier League takes in the next 5+ years. Follow and we could once again see English clubs dominating Europe’s premier competition, fail to keep pace and the descent in to mediocrity may continue. Regardless, little is likely to change for the likes of Spurs, Liverpool or Arsenal, where Arsene Wenger has come to symbolise the culture of acceptance of a Top Four finish. The clubs will continue to view the Europa League as an irritant, a situation which is a real shame given that it represents an opportunity for them to achieve glory at a level some of their fans may only witness once in a generation. Ask fans of Sevilla, Zenit, Valencia and Shakhtar. But for now the majority of English clubs and their owners will continue to bathe in cash and self-admiration, static as the rest of Europe draws level and accelerates away into the distance. In the Premier League money does not make the world go around. Rather, the more there is the more it seems to stand still.