Is this the reason for Arsenal and Manchester City's European struggles?

Is this the reason for Arsenal and Manchester City’s European struggles?

In the years between about 2005 and 2009, there grew a debate among the English media about the success of English clubs in Europe. English television pundits tried to stifle a smirk as they bemoaned the rest of Europe, and newspaper columnists struggled to make their pieces look more objective than an exercise in self-congratulatory back-slapping. A theory arose that English clubs would dominate for years to come, and the rest of Europe simply couldn’t keep up. To be fair to them, they had a point. Between 2005 and 2009, English clubs were ever present in the semi-finals; at least one English club always contested a final; and, of course, we had two outright winners in Liverpool (2004-2005) and Manchester United (2007-2008).  Chelsea alone reached the semi finals three times in (2004-2005, 2006-2007, 2008-2009) and should probably have beaten Manchester United in the 2008 final, while Arsenal reached the final (2005-2006), the quarters (2007-2008) and semis (2008-2009) while maintaining a group qualification throughout.  A variety of reasons were put forward for explaining this dominance (the increased money in English football; the supreme and unmatchable pace of the Premier League) but, in any case, theories were borne out by results.

So, heading toward a new decade, would the pundits be proven right? Would we continue to see all-English semi-finals and finals? Perhaps UEFA might make a separate competition in which English clubs would hardly compete, just so the rest of Europe might have their day in the sun. Well, not really, actually. In 2009-2010, English teams only managed to get to the quarter finals; a year later, our hopes rested on Manchester United from the round of 16 onwards. Sure, Chelsea did win a bizarre final in 2011-2012, but only as a distinct underdog; the whole thing had a kind of novelty value about it, as if watching a fourth-round FA cup giant-killing act. Since that time, we have become used to Man City flattering to deceive, Arsenal upholding their tradition of a last-16 exit, and Chelsea finding out that European pretenders like Atletico and PSG might just be the real thing after all. In this year’s Champions League, it seemed at one point that this downhill slide would enter a new low; all English teams have suffered humbling defeats by ‘lesser’ teams, and it seems that Arsenal might not get out of the group at all.[1]

This leads us to ask- what the hell happened? Does karma have a particularly continental sensibility? Is it one of those ‘cycle of football’ of things? What is so special about the year 2009, the year in which it all started to go wrong?

The answer lies with Guardiola’s Barcelona. In 2009, his team won a treble that started them on a run of 14 trophies in four years, including, in 2011, one of the most astonishing Champions League victories in history. Their success was indicative of a larger change in Spain which led the national side to three successive trophies,[2] but, in FC Barcelona, this new football was seen in its purest form. To discuss all the things that his team changed in football would require a hundred articles (and Guillem Ballague has already done a decent job of it in his excellent Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning) but, in shorthand, one can see in most European opposition clear debts to his team; possession-based football, intricate forward passing through midfield, inverted wingers and width from full-backs, fluid and intelligent positional sense, and much higher lines from defenders to compress space into the opposition half. This, of course, doesn’t guarantee a winning formula, and from the negative effect of Puyol’s retirement and Pique’s injuries on Barcelona to the fate of Arsenal’s infamous lack of defensive nous, one can see that a great passing team still needs great players and characters.[3]

Even so, the changes in the post-Barcelona landscape do go some way to explaining the shortcomings of English teams in Europe. European football has always been known as more patient and tactical, but now this has taken on a whole new significance; teams on the continent are very good at retaining possession, opening up space by wide players dragging defenders out of position, and completing quick passing moves with the minimum of space. Premier League teams, raised on the traditional qualities of the English game (pacey wingers, lots of crosses, goals from midfield and, often, long play up to burly centre-forwards) find these things very hard to deal with, and to do themselves- notice how difficult Manchester United find it to play a forward passing game out of midfield under Van Gaal and quickly revert to wing-play to find goals,[4] or how most teams consider it a passing CAM playing between the lines a luxury.[5] Perhaps this is true amid the raw qualities of the English game, but it means that these teams will have to settle for a counter-attacking game a la 2012 Chelsea to find success in the latter stages of the Champions League.

Make no mistake; if English teams don’t get with the program (at least to deal with these qualities, if not to approximate it themselves), we may very well find ourselves one short of a Champions League spot. The wealth of the Premier League means we can keep relying on great players and pieces of individual brilliance and improvisation to beat teams, but this will get harder and harder as the more advanced tactics of European opposition becomes executed with more and more precision. If we can’t adapt, football karma may come knocking again- those Europa League haters who deride the second-tier European competition (and, indeed, our refusal to take it seriously may further explain why other countries are catching our coefficient) may have to give it a more serious consideration when a 4th place finish will only get that much.

River Plato

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[1] At the first time of writing, Manchester City and Chelsea were also just hanging on, resulting in some hasty changes to this article after wins against Sevilla and Dynamo Kiev. Still, anyone who has sat through some unconvincing English performances in Europe this season can see how far we have fallen from the mid to late 2000s.

[2] Aside from the national team’s success, this can be seen in the performance of other Spanish clubs in Europe. Spain is currently top of the European coefficients list by about 20 points.

[3] Barcelona were, of course, helped by having a few of the greatest players in the world, and one of the greatest of all time.

[4] Wing-play and fast counter-attacks are in the DNA of Manchester United, but even fans of more traditionally possession-based or intricate teams in England seem to become frustrated and impatient with slow passing moves.

[5] Thus the oft-mentioned comment that Arsenal’s football is nearest to the ‘Barcelona style’ may be explained by their desire to pack the midfield and attack with CAMs and forgo a lot of width or defensive solidity.