Much soul-searching has been undertaken amid the furore of Chelsea’s Champions League exit at the hands of Paris St Germain last week. As ever, the result prompted the television experts to come out after the disaster, critiquing what has gone wrong with ‘our game’.
In this sense, Chelsea’s defeat was the straw that broke the camel’s back, following poor performances from other Premier League clubs in continental competition. First, Manchester City and Arsenal were handed painful tactical lessons in home defeats to Barcelona and Monaco respectively. Then Tottenham and Liverpool were dumped out of the Europa League by Fiorentina and Besiktas. Criticism is thus understandable, if not overdue, but there was a lack of coherence in any of the presented arguments.
Graeme Souness decided to target gamesmanship, stating that the behaviour of Chelsea players in surrounding referee Bjorn Kuipers to encourage the sending off of Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the half hour was poor. Jamie Carragher said that we were all being ‘kidded’ by the prices Premier League clubs were paying for some foreign players.
In between Souness and Carragher sat Thierry Henry, a man who earns £4 million a year for his analysis. Nothing he said sticks in the mind. This in itself was microcosmically symbolic of what the trio were trying, unsuccessfully, to grasp at last Wednesday night, namely: what is wrong with the Premier League? The answer is too much money, not enough thought.
Souness’s belief that gamesmanship must be stamped out may be morally correct but, realistically, is a combination of being both wrong and irrelevant. While such behaviour is indeed questionable, Barcelona used it tactically for years on their way to dominating the game.
What Souness views as unsavoury is actually canniness, and if Premier League teams are to be more competitive they should disregard this viewpoint and continue to do what other successful teams do. Psychological manipulation became a crucial element of top-level football long ago and the notion that being more sporting will win English Premier League clubs more trophies on the continent is baseless.
There may well be some truth to Carragher’s assertion of Premier League clubs being fooled into paying over the odds for some players, but that’s not something that only happens to English football clubs, and those oversized fees aren’t only spent on foreign players.
The areas the pundits attempted to address in the wake of Chelsea’s failings were essentially sportsmanship and transfer policy. Ignoring the former for the aforementioned reasons, the latter is a relevant topic of discussion at this moment, and one look at inflated transfer spending leads us to the context of television revenue.
The Premier League just last month received over £5 billion for its Television rights. It’s a gargantuan sum of money, a huge increase on the previous deal, and that this latest megabucks deal was struck at around the same time as the league’s member clubs fell desperately short against their continental competitors means they should not be treated as separate issues.
There was plenty of faux-incredulity when the deal was announced. While some pundits exchanged knowing smiles, few questioned the money involved and whether it was genuinely worthwhile. Furthermore, nobody dared question if this increased sum was actually going to improve the quality of Premier League football in any tangible way. There was a nonchalant acceptance that this could only be a positive thing and, at worst, it wouldn’t do any harm. Such assumptions were misplaced.
Indeed, the very notion that the Premier League deserves such a huge price tag on its head due to the quality of the product is severely misguided. English clubs have struggled to be competitive in Champions League football over the last five years entering this season.
85% of its entrants in this period have been knocked out prior to the tournament’s semi-final stage. This is a far higher percentage than the respective figures for La Liga (55%) and the German Bundesliga (64%). Worryingly, Premier League teams are beginning to mirror the English national team in that they often exit in the formative stages of the knockout rounds.
Earlier I suggested that the problem with the Premier League is too much money and not enough thought. Allow me to elaborate, as I have read and am aware of statistics that confirm that salary expenditure often closely correlates with success. The distribution of finance certainly plays an important role in achieving results domestically. That’s why teams like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich traditionally dominate their leagues.
Nonetheless, diminishing marginal returns does exist. Consistently upping the level of capital injected into the Premier League is not necessarily going to make its member teams any more competitive in European competition. It can even be argued that it could have the opposite effect.
The recent cases of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City cannot be coincidental. Chelsea were unable or unwilling to press their one-man advantage in the return leg with PSG at Stamford Bridge. Whether Ibrahimovic should have been sent off is irrelevant; Chelsea didn’t make it count.
Arsenal were ruthlessly exposed by the counter-attacking strategy set before them by Monaco in their second round first-leg encounter on February 25th. The night before that dire display, Manchester City unwisely persisted with two up front at home to Barcelona and now find themselves needing to score at least twice in the Nou Camp return leg to have any chance of progressing.
None of these three clubs can claim to be financially lacking relative to their opponents, but all were out-thought by them.
A part of this tactical deficiency lies in the English Premier League’s unrequited love of the individual. While Real Madrid and Barcelona spend gargantuan sums of money, they also pay attention to their youth systems; the most recent examples of this ideal being the promotions of Dani Carvajal, Jesé, Rafinha and Munir El Haddadi Mohamed.
Bayern Munich are similar; they spend big, but they produce well too. Think of Thomas Müller, David Alaba and more recently, Gianluca Gaudino. I could go on. The point here is that these clubs supplement their squad with home-grown talent and build teams with some semblance of a long-term strategy; the English Premier league’s best are still wholly besotted with buying it.
A stunning example of this wildly chaotic policy came in January, when Chelsea decided to dispense of Mohamed Salah; a player who, in his short time with the club went from interesting prospect to squad filler, replacing him with Juan Cuadrado.
Chelsea spent £23 million, not including potential future instalments, to complete this deal, in which Salah and Cuadrado swapped shirts and locations. Since moving to Florence Salah has prospered, scoring freely. Cuadrado has yet to make a real impact in London.
In essence, Chelsea made a loss signing a player who is older and in worse form than the one they let go as part of the very same deal. Perhaps then Carragher was right to identify transfer policy as a crucial area of change in the Premier League. But even then one of his half-baked proposals was to point at Marco Verratti and suggest that an English team should have signed him.
English Premier League clubs receive an incredible amount of money in television revenue, but that does not cure the ailments of an overwhelming focus on individual stars. The new deal could well accelerate a de-intellectualisation of the league as its managers see transfer spending as a way out of poor form, paying less and less attention to the on-pitch details.
A never-ending, continuously increasing pot of gold means English teams can sign more top individual players but it discourages tactical innovation and, as such, could well lead to a significant reduction in the competitiveness of the Premier League’s best against their continental counterparts.
Arsenal and Manchester City have one leg to prove this theory wrong and turn around English fortunes in the Champions League, but something suggests this season’s troubles may just be the beginning.