The reaction across the footballing circles of social media, and some facets of journalism, was immediate: English football is in decline. Some sort of contagion of mass failure must have suddenly taken hold, and for the first time in over 15 years, perhaps the Premier League is not one of the ‘very best’ leagues in Europe. Let’s not get lost in semantics – trying to define which league is ‘the best’ is contentious to the point of near impossibility and skull-crushing tedium, and therefore, not the point which is going to being discussed now.
However, the stat does read as interesting, if not alarming. English progression to the quarter finals and beyond has almost become a formality. Now that there are no Premier League teams left in the last eight of Europe’s finest competition, the question is inevitably being asked about the quality of the league. There are two ways to look at the European front this season in terms of English performance – either English football as a whole has been struck rapidly and mercilessly by decline, or each major club’s exit can be explained by other factors.
Manchester United progressed from the group stage in their typical fashion. There was to be no repeat of their 2011 slip-up; in a group consisting of Benfica, Basel and Romanian mouthful Otelul Galati, in the 2008 winners only finished in third place. This time, they raced to 12 points ahead of three weaker teams. Then they went and drew Real Madrid in the first knockout phase. The most successful side in the history of the competition, managed by a man who has already claimed two titles with two different clubs from two different countries. The draw, as they say, could have been kinder.
Manchester United could not build upon their respectable 1-1 draw in Madrid, and old boy Ronaldo returned to compound the misery. Of course, the match had its moments. Who could have expected goal machine Luka Modric to step off the bench to batter one home from 25 yards? Then there was that whole Nani kung-fu kick thing, which some United fans seem determined to debate until their retirement. Regardless, Madrid were probably the better side. There is never any shame in losing to Los Blancos.
The same cannot be said for their blue neighbours. There is no doubt that the proverbial draw was, once again, unkind. Manchester City were drawn alongside the aforementioned Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, and Ajax. The Dutch have suffered something of a fall from grace, with the Eredivisie becoming more of a feeder league, and Ajax now feeling a bit like the best schoolboy side in a province, just waiting for the big boys to come along and poach their talent. Dortmund were only drawn into this group because they are slowly building up their coefficient ranking, and will surely soon be considered second, possibly even third, seeds in Europe.
Perhaps City are suffering a hangover of sorts from last year’s league success. Perhaps Mancini is on his way out. Perhaps Man City are still just a bit rubbish at this whole Continental football thing. For whatever reason, most likely a combination of all three, City didn’t win a single game. Only a last minute penalty from Balotelli saved them from a home defeat against Dortmund, the same ground where those pesky Dutch schoolboys stormed into an early 2 goal lead, only to have City fight back for a fortuitous draw. They also managed a decent home draw with Madrid, but none of that really matters considering that they went and lost every away game. Still finding their feet in Europe, it could take City a while to make an impact and be considered one of England’s classic European exports – a category which Chelsea have barged their way into, bags of roubles slung over their shoulders.
Still, you would be forgiven for having expected more from the 2012 Champions in a group consisting of Scudetto winners Juventus, Brazilian/Ukrainian holiday camp Shakhtar Donetsk, and Danish Champions Nordsjælland. Nobody was ever suggesting that the Londoners should destroy the group, but qualification certainly looked possible – if you don’t sack your manager. Which they did, after a 3-0 defeat in Turin. Being honest, the job has perhaps a stretch too far for the spirited di Matteo. It seemed that Abramovich never really wanted to give him the job, and after only awarding Benitez the title of interim manager, it is apparent that the Russian billionaire still hasn’t came to any long term managerial conclusions. However, they’ve now progressed into the final 8 of the Europa League. Say what you will about Benitez, but the Spaniard knows how to handle cup football.
What then can be said of Arsenal? As always, a magnificent business model, and a wonderfully profit-heavy set of books. However, if you’re a fan of football rather than business, then there is a lot to be desired. The Gunners progressed solidly, if unspectacularly, from an average group: Schalke, Olympiakos, and French newbies Montpellier, presumably fielding less Frenchmen than Wenger. Like Manchester United, their knockout draw was harsh, pairing them against Bayern Munich, perennial favourites. The Bavarians, absolutely walking the Bundesliga, won 3-1 in London at a canter. The return leg was won 2-0 by an Arsenal, a result which can offer some consolation. However, their qualification for next year’s tournament is looking less likely as each week of the Premier League progresses. At least this summer fans can rest assured in the assertion that Wenger won’t be selling off their star player, because they don’t have one.
Is English football really in decline? Absolutely not. Leagues across Europe are levelling off. There is becoming less distinction in terms of talent and success, with most major Leagues now capably represented on the continent. That being said, the German Bundesliga could comfortably throw its name into contention when the next round of ‘the best league in Europe’ rears its ugly head, dueling pointlessly with England and Spain.
If people are keen to obsess over stats, then let us not forget that English clubs have provided a finalist in seven of the last eight years, producing three winners.