Much has been said and written about Premier League teams’ poor results and performances in the Champions League in recent years, with many wondering why English clubs fail to be able to compete, especially given their resources. Actually, our only quarter-finalist was the side that had spent the least on their squad of all four English clubs; perhaps that’s a pointer towards the reason why.
Personally, I don’t care that English clubs keep getting knocked out. I don’t see it as a blow to national pride. But there is a greater issue at work which is more important: Money.
Many say it is cyclical, that success will inevitably return, it’s just a matter of time. This seems a very weak argument because such cycles don’t actually exist in football. How can they? Suggesting that English clubs just have to hang on in there and wait for the cycle to come back around to favour them is nonsense. There is nothing inevitable about it at all.
Football is not like the merry-go-round of the seasons, with spring always following winter. There are phases of dominance, but that’s not due to some innate football cycle, it’s because of many variable factors coming together, including investment, coaching, good judgement and luck. It isn’t Italy, France, Spain or Germany’s “turn” to be successful. They just have better teams.
A journalist on the Sunday Supplement suggested that Premier League clubs will just buy all the best players from Germany and Spain and Italy and thus will soon enough be able to compete better. This seems an extraordinarily arrogant, jingoistic, cynical and simplistic understanding of the situation, but in some ways, you can’t blame him for making such an assumption because it appears to be the same one that clubs themselves make. For some reason, our top clubs are, with a couple of notable exceptions, largely unable to develop top-notch players themselves, so are reliant on someone, somewhere else doing that for them. Money has become the one and the only option they have to put together a great team, and they seem to have given up on any other way, or any other outlook.
On top of that, fans just seem to want signings. How often do you hear someone saying “we need a £30 million defender” as though that even means anything, or worse still, that lack of spending equates to “lack of ambition”. Maybe it is in our wider cultural nature to think money is always the answer to all our problems, possibly the only answer. Maybe as a country, both politically and culturally, we swallowed that lie down more than most. And so we apply the philosophy to football and put pressure on clubs to spend, rather than innovate and develop their own talent. But as top English clubs spend ever-greater amounts to recruit players, the gap between what such players deliver and the amount of money they cost, seems to grow wider. We might point to Paul Pogba as an example of that concept.
We’re all guilty of thinking money will fix a football club. I noted that in Daniel’s excellent piece on the City v Arsenal semi-final, he states of City’s woes that ‘a reported summer transfer budget of £200m has been mooted, and on this evidence every penny of it will be needed’. That is a good example of the assumption that big money is the solution to all problems, even though in recent years we can all see how this isn’t always the case. If the 181 million they spent last summer didn’t make them better, why will another 200 million do so? That it will is a logic that is hard to resist, but it is far easier to waste money than it is to deploy it effectively, as both Manchester clubs can surely testify. This is the nub of the issue. Financial bullying only works so far.
English clubs, increasingly awash with TV money and rich owners, harvest players from all over the world and it still isn’t helping them compete more successfully in Europe, if anything, the opposite is true. The more they’ve spent, fees driven upwards in the knowledge that the clubs can pay them, the poorer both the results and the performances in Europe have been. Admittedly this is a subjective judgement, but if an English club is playing a top-three side from any major European league, you simply don’t expect them to win over two legs any more. The better European teams always seem more cohesive, more skilful and more organised.
Money is, with bitter irony, holding them back because of the belief that money can buy you success. That is the model that the league has been based on, and there is little other approach. Buy buy buy, to win win win.
Between them since 2008, Manchester City and Manchester United have spent over £1.7 billion on players, Chelsea have barfed out over half a billion in five years, Arsenal around 300 million, Spurs likewise. But it simply doesn’t look well spent.
It’s not as though other top European clubs sometimes don’t spend big money, they do, though not nearly as much – the Premier League spent over 1.3 billion last year on transfers, whereas the Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A all spent around the 500 million mark. But if you look at the last eight of the Champions League, their spend has resulted in far better teams.
In other words, you need money to compete, but you need to spend it well, and when you’ve got almost infinite resources, it would appear that Premier League money is spent in a far less considered way. Just think about the vast amounts of cash City have spent on defenders who played poorly for them.
We saw this phenomenon in the peak ‘Galactico’ period at Real Madrid when they threw limitless money at trying to win the Champions League. But in the last three seasons they’ve spent considerably less than the likes of City and United and won it twice.
So, far from failure just being the revolution of some innate cycle, it is looking increasingly like the buy-to-succeed culture is the root cause of the failure to impress on European stages.
While The Best League in World has undergone a remarkable revision of marketing to The Most Exciting/Competitive, that is masking the slow corruption of quality and cohesion that all the wealth has caused.
Because If it isn’t the ‘buy success’ culture, with its high churn of players given a season or two, what else could be the cause of this consistent failure? There is no ‘English’ style of playing anymore. The united nations of football ensures that the idea that English clubs are not progressing because “our” football is in the dark ages, simply can’t be true. Is it that the managers aren’t up to it? That seems unlikely, at least in some cases. Pep Guardiola has been given a virtually unlimited amount of cash to spend and yet it seems to have made little significant difference. For all of United’s spending, they looked better than Anderlecht, but not by much.
It’s not that money isn’t important. Of course it is. But the evidence is in front of our eyes that the Premier League doesn’t know what to do with its money and seems intent on just crudely throwing more green at the problem, without even entertaining the thought that perhaps doing this is creating more problems than it is solving.