By Mark Docherty
On 19th May 2012, Didier Drogba stepped up to score a penalty past Manuel Neuer and write himself into Chelsea folklore. Drogba’s last kick in a Chelsea shirt resulted in his side lifting the UEFA Champions League for the first time in the club’s history as they defeated Bayern Munich on penalties at the Allianz Arena. However, since then, no English club has got to the final of Europe’s most famous club competition and our teams are being humiliated far too regularly for my liking.
To be sure, English clubs have come close to achieving success since then, with Chelsea reaching the semi-finals in 2014 before going down to Athletico Madrid and Manchester City reaching the penultimate round last season and losing to Real Madrid, but it is worrying to see how much more success foreign clubs are having in Europe when you consider how many millions English teams spend on new signings every transfer window. While English hopes are still alive in Europe in the form of Manchester City and Leicester City, I would not be especially hopeful of either team progressing beyond the semi-finals, if that.
Arsenal, for example, have just been resoundingly knocked out of Europe by an aggregate margin of eight goals to Bayern Munich, despite having spent more than £77 million in the summer on Lucas Pérez, Shkodran Mustafi, and Granit Xhaka. It is surely not unreasonable, therefore, to expect some improvement on their showing in last year’s Champions League, when they also lost out in the last 16. In fact, the Gunners have crashed out in the last 16 every year since the 2010-11 season, and have gone out at the hands of Bayern on three separate occasions. This year they cannot use the same old excuse of lack of investment in the squad, so there must be some other reason for the consistent failures of English clubs to compete with the very best in the continent.
During the 2000s, there was a period when European football was dominated by English clubs, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United team being regulars in the Champions League final, with Chelsea and Liverpool also making the odd appearance. English clubs were even able to rival the dominance of Pep Guardiola’s famous Barcelona team on Europe’s biggest stage, although they were beaten by Barca in the 2009 and 2011 finals. English dominance in the late 2000s even saw an all-English Champions League final in 2008 when United beat Chelsea in Moscow. However, those heady days seem long ago now and neither Manchester United or Chelsea even qualified to compete in this year’s competition. So, what has changed between then and now?
The simple answer, I would say, is that English domestic football has become far more competitive in the last few years. Since Ferguson’s retirement Manchester United have never really been challenging for the Premier League title, leaving it to be a much closer contest between the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester City, Arsenal, and even Leicester. This means that the best players are open to moving to any of five or six Premier League clubs, whereas in the past they have made their choice between a couple of teams: namely United and Chelsea. This has led to a situation where there is no team currently in England whose squad stands out from the rest the way Ferguson’s United team used to do. The foreign powers have now such problem, as Spanish players choose between Barca and Real Madrid, German players go to Bayern Munich, or possibly Dortmund, and Italian players go to Juventus. In this way, foreign clubs are able to horde all the top quality players in their league, whereas English clubs have to share them with five or six other teams. Therefore, logically, the foreign clubs will almost always have a stronger side as they have the pick of any player in their domestic league.
While there is not much anybody can do about this that would not be to the detriment to the league system, there are other issues which certainly can be dealt with. The salient problem in English football as the crazy sums of money which are handed about for average players. Real Madrid bought Toni Kroos for £24 million in the summer of 2014, while Bayern Munich signed Xabi Alonso on a free transfer when his contract at Real Madrid ran out. Meanwhile, Manchester United paid £27 million for their ‘playmaker’ in Marouane Fellaini. It is difficult to pinpoint why the English transfer system fails in comparison to all other major footballing nations, but it is a problem which must be corrected as soon as possible or we will forever be seeing English clubs breaking the bank for average players.
You never know, I may be proved wrong instantly about the lack of success for English clubs in Europe, as one of Leicester and Manchester City may go on and secure a historic victory in this year’s Champions League final in Dublin. However, assuming that neither is able to go all the way this year, it may be time for a rethink in the way the English game is managed. For me, if clubs can be savvy in the transfer market the way Alex Ferguson was, and foreign clubs have been more recently, then the world’s top players can be tied down to Premier League clubs at a reasonable price, allowing England to be a force to be reckoned with in Europe once more.