25 Apr 2012

Did Chelsea’s Barca win mask English football’s decline?

Chelsea achieved a remarkable Champions League victory against Barcelona in the Nou Camp – but did the excitement deflect attention from the long-term decline of club football in this country?

Does Chelsea's champipons League defeat of Barcelona prove that English football is still in good health - or did it merely serve to deflect attention from decline of the club game in this country?

Until last night, when Chelsea secured a stunning aggregate win over Barcelona to reach the Champions League final, the performances of English football clubs in European competitions this season had been among the worst for several years.

Manchester United, last year’s Champions League finalists, failed to make it to the knockout stage. It was the same for the fabulously wealthy Manchester City. Arsenal’s campaign ended in the last 16 stage, with the vainglorious 3-0 defeat of AC Milan.

Further humiliation was to come. Neither Manchester club made it beyond the last 16 of the Europa league, to which they had been demoted after Champions League failure. Tottenham Hotspur, Stoke City and Birmingham City did not even make it to the group stage.

Strength in depth

Spanish clubs, by contrast, continue to set new footballing standards. Last night’s defeat notwithstanding, Barcelona are acknowledged as the best club side in the world. They have won the Champions League twice in the last three years and their players were the foundation for the Spanish national side’s recent World Cup and European Championship triumphs.

Athletic Bilbao, who trounced Manchester United, are 40 points behind league leaders Real Madrid.

Meanwhile Real Madrid, who defeated Barcelona at the weekend, look set to win La Liga, Spain’s equivalent of the Premier League. Their recent record against Barcelona is not good, but they may be the only club team in Europe capable of subjecting the Basque side to a true test. And the nine-times European Cup winners could still win this year’s Champions League.

What is more, other Spanish clubs have shone in the Europa league, suggesting La Liga’s strength in depth. Of the four semi-finalists this year, three – Valencia, Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao – are from Spain. Amazingly, Athletic Bilbao, who trounced English champions Manchester United, are currently sixth in Spain’s top flight, a full 40 points behind Real Madrid.

Better footballers

So is English Premier League football on the wane – or has the Spanish game simply got better? Football writer Simon Kuper, author of Soccernomics, believes the latter.

“What’s happened is that Spanish football became extremely good,” he told Channel 4 News. “Spain just produces better footballers than England or any other country.

Spain just produces better footballers than England or any other country. Simon Kuper, football writer

“And the English clubs are quite happy to get knocked out of the Europa league. England has the second best clubs of any league in Europe, which means that, with a bit of luck, Chelsea can even beat Barcelona.”

He predicts Manchester City, who are vying with United for this season’s Premier League crown, will perform better in the Champions League in 2012-13.

“They were in a very strong group this season, with Napoli, Villareal and Bayern Munich. Their other big problem was that their squad had very little Champions League experience. That undoubtedly contributed to their failure in Europe. I think they’ll buy – if they buy – with an eye to that kind of experience.”

Possession football

The remarks identify one of English football’s main weaknesses: some clubs are so wealthy that they appear happy to buy in talent rather than nurturing it.

What is more, Barcelona’s philosophy of possession football – that you can do more on a football pitch if you have the ball than if you do not – has never taken root in England as it has in the other major European footballing countries.

Originating in Holland in the “total football” of the 1970s, the possession game was exported to Spain and further refined. A decade ago Germany adopted the style, and its national side began to reap the benefits in the 2010 World Cup.

It means English clubs – whose academies are not necessarily geared towards teaching possession – could eventually be overtaken by Germany’s Bundesliga, now Europe’s third best league. “I see the Germans rising on the outside track,” says Simon Kuper. “They’ve just done a big TV deal which will bring their clubs a lot more money.”

For the time being, the success of English football – and the pre-eminent worldwide popularity of the Premier League – is probably secure. But the “backs to the wall” defending that gave Chelsea success at the Nou Camp cannot have been enjoyable to play, and is undoubtedly not pretty to watch on a regular basis.

Top-flight English football has been transformed over the past 20 years. It may have to evolve yet further if it is to retain its competitiveness among the thriving leagues of Spain, Germany, Italy and France.