Big improvement required if four isn’t to become three

Back before Chelsea’s own results got really ominous for Jose Mourinho, the Portuguese issued his own ominous warning for the Premier League as regards their Champions League results. The Stamford Bridge boss had been asked about the fact the domestic competition still wasn’t going to alter fixtures to accommodate clubs playing in Europe.

“My reaction is, while we have four teams in the Champions League, we will not make a big noise of it,” Mourinho said before the Community Shield. “But, one day, when England has only three teams in the Champions League, people will wake up.”

They may have to wake up sooner rather than later. If the results of the last three seasons continue, there is the very real possibility that Italy will overtake England in the Uefa coefficients by the end of this campaign, and reduce the Premier League to just three places. Part of that is down to the difference with which the two countries treat the Europa League, but just as significant is how suddenly English performance in the elite competition has plummeted. One stat says it all: In the last four seasons, the Premier League has had fewer Champions League semi-finalists than in any of the 2006-07, 2007-08 or 2008-09 campaigns alone.

The drop-off has been stark. During that much-praised period of Premier League dominance between 2005 and 2009, the competition occupied 10 of 16 semi-final places — 62.5%. Between 2011 and 2015, however, that has fallen to just two of 16 — 12.5%. The latter is the exact same as the competition had between 1995 and 1999, when England was commonly perceived to still be way behind the European elite in the wake of the Heysel ban.

Of course, it’s nowhere near as bad a situation as the Premier League champions getting knocked out by Legia Warsaw as happened to Blackburn Rovers in 1995-96 — especially given the elite money now being spent. The wonder is still whether there is something deeper to all this, and whether this trend will continue as a consequence.

Mourinho did touch one one issue by pointing out how teams aren’t helped by fixture arrangements, but it would be wrong to pin so much on that when it was exactly the same between 2005 and 2009 too. It is possible that the Premier League is paying the price for its greater competitive intensity, especially when leagues like France and Italy have barely had title races recently, but that still just feels like just one factor of a few. It’s also worth noting that Monaco knocked out Arsenal last season, rather than someone gliding to a title like Paris Saint-Germain.

That itself raises another point, because it’s equally possible that very different individual problems for clubs are adding up to a collective problem that looks the same for everyone but actually isn’t.

Manchester United have after all just been through the biggest change in their entire history, and that after a period where they had been in England’s best performers in Europe along with Chelsea. Liverpool were perhaps unfortunate to get back into the Champions League groups just at the point when they suffered their worst form of Brendan Rodgers’s time, but were also only there in the first place because of what now looks like one exaggerated good season.

Arsenal have meanwhile just been Arsenal, and never really had a particularly distinguished record in the Champions League even in the good times. Manchester City are enduring their own ongoing adjustment to the competition, although have been unfortunate to draw Bayern Munich in the last two group stages and then Barcelona in the last two second-round ties.

That, however, is maybe one of the most important factors. While some of the worst English results are just typical cup one-offs or the type of things that can be fixed — like Arsenal to Monaco or Manchester United to Basle - the Premier League clubs do seem to have a real block with the premium teams.

Of the 15 English sides knocked out since the start of the 2011-12 campaign, six have been from ties against Bayern, Barca or Real. A further two eliminations have been from groups that involved one of those three. What’s more, other than Chelsea beating Barcelona and Bayern on the way to 2012 title, no English side has knocked out one of those super-clubs in that time either.

In short, Premier League sides are not at the level of the real elite. All that money has taken them so far but no further. Just as they can’t buy the biggest players off those three teams, they can’t beat them in the biggest games either.

The Premier League now needs a fairly big improvement this season. That does seem likely. Manchester City will surely go at least a stage further, while Louis van Gaal’s controlled football may be best suited to Europe rather than winning the Premier League.

As regards winning against the best, though - that still looks ominous.


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