Are English clubs getting their mojo back at home?

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As the next round of fixtures begins, the 2017 UEFA Champions League has so far seen a strong overall performance from the Premier League sides, hinting at a resurgence/

Compared to last year, the English teams seem better equipped to handle the rigours of the treacherous UEFA Champions League. | AFP

Q: What is common between 3-pin plug and an English (club) football team?

A: Both are useless in Europe!

Or so the joke went during the 1990s. It is sort of remarkable that this joke wasn’t doing the rounds recently in today’s Twitter banter-fuelled generation. After all, the English club teams haven’t been doing too well in European competition for a while now. But all that seems to have changed in this year’s edition.

 

In the last round of the UEFA Champions league, Europe’s (and indeed, the world’s) premier club competition, Chelsea was felled by the Italian club AS Roma; earlier in the season, they got a great result away against recent heavyweights Atletico Madrid. Elsewhere in the competition, Tottenham Hotspur schooled the under-confident reigning champion Real Madrid 3-1 at Wembley after a creditable draw in the reverse fixture at the Santiago Bernabeu. When the Champions league draw was made, few expected the Spurs to be leading their group after the fourth fixture (with a 3-point lead) when they were drawn together with Madrid and Borussia Dortmund. Manchester City have also blown their rivals away. Liverpool and Manchester United are coasting comfortably (in their easy groups) and look to be their favourites to top their group.

In 20 matches involving English clubs in the 2017-18 UEFA Champions league so far, there have been 15 wins, 4 draws and only 1 loss; their more illustrious continental rivals have struggled in comparision. Are the happy times returning to the English clubs once again? Are the winds of change once again blowing in their direction?

It wasn’t always like this for English football. Back when the joke was originally doing the rounds, consider the various feats of the English teams in the marquee competition. English teams were the dominant force in European football around the late 1970s and mid 1980s. The prized trophy was lifted seven times in nine years by English clubs. Then came the “darkest hour in the history of UEFA competitions” — the Heysel Stadium disaster, when a confrontation between Juventus and Liverpool supporters led to a wall collapse and a stampede which killed 39 fans and injured hundreds. Criminal proceedings followed and English clubs were expelled from European competition. This exile hurt English football in a big way.

In spite of getting an image makeover and launching the English Premier League, English clubs struggled to draw talented foreigners for a while, and also struggled in the European competition. The 1991-92 season marked the first edition since the readmission (technically it was a year earlier, but Liverpool, who were exiled for an additional year, won the league title in 1989-90). From then on till 2002-03, English clubs reached the semifinal stage only four times. English teams have similarly struggled in the UEFA cup as well. When the EPL was beamed to India and most of Asia via satellite, the biggest brand in English football were Manchester United; Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal was the only genuine, consistent rival to Alex Ferguson’s Red Devils.

 

Over the last eight years, only a single player plying his trade in the EPL (Wayne Rooney, once) has made it to the FIFA FIFPro World XI and there've been no English World player of the year / FIFA Ballon d’Or finalist — a damning indictment of the league’s more recent standards.

 

The key moment in English football was the arrival of the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. After Chelsea qualified for the UEFA Champions League, he bought it and transformed a club of under-achievers into a global entity; in a year, he had a Jose “The Special One” Mourinho calling the shots with an expensive squad assembled from all over the world. Their opponents were now forced to adapt. This was also a period of glory for English football where their punts in the transfer market were particularly successful; it also showed in continental competition. After Abramovich’s purchase, English clubs made the semifinals for six years running. The high point was the 2007-08 season where three English clubs reached the semis, two of them contested the finals (with Manchester United triumphing in Moscow against Chelsea), and Cristiano Ronaldo won his first FIFA World Player of the year. This was official proof that the world’s best plied his trade in the English league, and not just a phrase parroted by the overzealous EPL commentators.

The pendulum would swing once again in 2009 with Florentino Perez getting elected again as Real Madrid’s President. With his Galactico’s 2.0, he stripped the English clubs of their top stars, and the English teams had to rebuild. It was a curious era when the Deloitte Football Money league was dominated by English clubs, but struggled to compete with continental competition. Over the last eight years, English clubs reached the semifinals only thrice; the nadir came in the 2012-13 and 2014-15 seasons when no English team made it beyond the pre-quarters. The overzealous EPL commentators duly changed tack calling the English league as the best in the world as it afforded a chance for “anybody to beat anybody on a given day”, that their deficiencies in Europe were attributed to a “crowded Christmas calendar”, and the “intense nature of the league which often left their teams with no gas in the tank when European fixtures came calling” — never mind that these theories weren’t applicable when they were in the ascendancy and that they treated the stepping-stone UEFA Cup/Europa league with barely disguised contempt.

 

The degree to which the league had fallen and was often overhyped can be seen in three points:

One, after their glory era in the ‘70s and ‘80s, a case can be made that English clubs won the premier competition in rather fortuitous circumstances against more deserving teams — Manchester United in added time (1999), Liverpool playing a one-off magical match in Istanbul (2005) and when the ball wouldn’t go in for Bayern against Chelsea (2012); the only time in recent memory that the best team in Europe was English, and deservedly won the competition was in 2008 when they faced another English team in the final.

Two, the top-ranking club as per the UEFA club coefficient is Manchester City in 8th place.

Three, over the last eight years, only a single player plying his trade in the EPL (Wayne Rooney, once) has made it to the FIFA FIFPro World XI and there've no English World player of the year / FIFA Ballon d’Or finalist — a damning indictment of the league’s more recent standards.

But all that seems to be changing with the recent churn in the English Premier League. A host of superstar managers in Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Antonio Conte, Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino have enriched their league. In terms of managerial talent, only Simeone, Zidane, Jardim and the recently sacked Ancelotti are missing. The last two seasons have also marked the biggest investments in recent times with the EPL clubs spending more than £2.5 billion, with new stars such as Paul Pogba rubbing shoulders with Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Sergio Aguero; all this had to tell at some stage.

In addition to all this, the English clubs seem to have found a new tactical formation — the 3-4-3, which is slowly making its mark domestically and in continental competition. Antonio Conte’s Chelsea won last year’s league after making a shift to the system, with the width provided by the fullbacks/wingbacks and the steel by the central midfield. The spare man at the back is also present to mop up the ball. The same system was devastatingly used by Tottenham to stifle Real Madrid when Ronaldo and Benzema were isolated, lonely figures up front at Wembley. How their rivals respond with a counter-tactic of their own remains to be seen after the new year.

 

These have been signs of a revival no doubt, but it must also be noted that the business end of the season is far away at this point. Football seasons are usually defined in April and May, provided the teams are in contention until then. All the talk of “progress” would come to naught if the English teams were to get duly knocked out before the semifinal stage. The English teams have undergone a lot churn in the last two years and are a bit light on the squad depth compared to their continental rivals. The deleterious effects of fixture build-up usually rear their ugly head after February. But compared to last year, the English teams seem better equipped to handle the rigours of challenges on multiple fronts — Guardiola seems to have revamped his defence, Mourinho and Conte have added some firepower up front, and Pochettino’s side have benefitted from stability. These four seem to be best placed to break the footballing version of the glass ceiling come spring.

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