In urgent need of inspiration

Manchester City failed to break the Barcelona barrier for the second year running in the Champions League.-AP

English football is hurting badly. The high of the record television rights deal was quickly forgotten as Premier League sides tumbled out of European competitions. For the first time since the 1992-93 season, no Premier League side has found a place in the last eight of any European competition. Priyansh takes stock.

It happened at the Riverside Stadium, home of Middlesbrough FC. As unlikely a setting it may seem, the venue was witness to the moment English football has yearned for a long time. A very long time! In the grand scheme of things, it meant little. Possibly nothing. But it was momentous enough to be discussed by most football enthusiasts, journalists and others.

On March 30, England’s under-21 side trailed its German counterpart 1-2 till the 78th minute. Then, in a space of four minutes, it scored twice and should have scored a fourth one later. The result carried little meaning; it was a friendly, after all. The manner of victory, albeit impressive, wouldn’t tell you much about either side too. It was the third goal, specifically, that hijacked everyone’s attention.

Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse finished a 35-pass move that witnessed the involvement of all 11 English players on the pitch. Yes, even the goalkeeper. For years English fans looked at continental sides that possessed silky playmakers who never gave the ball away with forlorn dispositions. It was a welcome relief from local teams that preferred to launch the ball forward and put it in the mixer, as they say.

The victory, more importantly the goal, also arrived at a time when English football was hurting badly. The high of the record television rights deal was quickly forgotten as Premier League sides tumbled out of European competitions. Lest it be forgotten, Hull City was the first English club to exit continental football this season when it failed to even make the Europa League group stages.

Liverpool couldn’t qualify from its Champions League group; neither could it benefit from finishing third as Besiktas sent the Reds packing out of Europe’s second-tier competition. The same stage accounted for Tottenham Hotspur too. Everton did one better before Dynamo Kiev mauled Roberto Martinez’s side.

Champions League, for the second time in three seasons, has no English quarterfinalists either. Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City failed in the first knockout stage. Hence, for the first time since the 1992-93 season, no Premier League side has found a place in the last eight of any European competition.

Compare this with the glorious period from 2006 to 2009 when each season saw English clubs take three Champions League semifinal spots. Probably, it’s a bit harsh to expect the same performance every season. And only in 2012, Chelsea became the European champion.

However, it would be disingenuous to say it’s just a phase. There’s no wonder that England’s representatives have been caught off-guard on the continental stage. The most curious case is that of Manchester City. Seasons come and go but the side’s tactical naivety remains deeply rooted. Yet, it has featured in every title race over the period that has seen poor English performance in Europe.

Arsene Wenger’s rigid ways have not helped Arsenal either. While the Frenchman has admirably shown an inclination to change his style of play against better opposition in the League, the collapse against Monaco retained a sense of Arsenal’s common failings.

Chelsea, on the other hand, has remained a veritable force in Europe, its defeat to Paris Saint-Germain notwithstanding. Under Jose Mourinho, one would expect the Blues to maintain their high standards. It’s the other three spots that remain a problem.

There’s nothing to suggest Arsenal, Manchester City or Liverpool would do better in Europe next season. Manchester United looks set to qualify for Champions League, though, and its arrival under Louis van Gaal might bring happier tidings for the English football faithful.

Europa League, despite offering a Champions League spot to the tournament winner, has yet to win admirers in England. Among managers, it’s a tournament much despised for hurting a side’s League campaign. Safe to say, such apprehension doesn’t exist in other European countries. It’s a quintessential English arrogance, or disdain if you like, that hampers its clubs in Europa League.

As for Champions League, its business end offers little scope to sides that don’t belong to the level of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. If one were to consider clubs like Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund that have outdone expectations in Europe’s premier competition, their success would be put down to a style of football that countered the popular tactical system at that time while ushering in a mini-revolution too. It’s not a coincidence that Dortmund and Atletico relied on a heavy pressing approach that did not demand preponderance on possession football. To defeat or challenge the likes of Barcelona and Bayern, there was no other way.

None of the English clubs have pioneered a change in game management like Atletico and Dortmund. One could win the title by playing dour, reactive football like Chelsea did in 2012 but it was a rare success.

In light of these failures, it’s tempting to contemplate the recent recommendations by the Football Association chairman Greg Dyke. The chief administrator in English football has sought to increase the home-grown players’ quota in Premier League clubs’ squads. While managers have by and large welcomed this move, clubs are likely to resist it.

After all, owners see their teams as multi-national products. Many of them claim, with good reason, that the Premier League owes its success to the foreigners. However, it’s important to note that European powerhouses like Barcelona and Bayern have succeeded thanks to an indispensable core of home-grown talent in recent years.

Despite it being not the only recipe for success, it’s an idea that could benefit the national side too. And in times of disappointment, as seen at the Riverside Stadium, there’s nothing like a national side in full flow to lift a country’s mood.