In Champions League action on Tuesday, English club Arsenal played host to Barcelona, the reigning champion of Europe, at its home in north London. Thousands of visibly excited fans gathered to see what they hoped would be a triumph for their beloved Gunners against a side that has come to symbolize excellence in world football.
Of course, as almost any unattached observer could have foretold, it didn’t end well for Arsenal. Though the home team did manage to keep things level through halftime, it looked more and more like a group of doomed men being tasked with the impossible as the match went on. When Barcelona passed the ball around in front of the net, it looked as if it were just waiting for the precise moment to pounce. When Arsenal did, it looked like each player was hoping someone else would take responsibility of putting one on goal.
Normally, a Spanish powerhouse tearing apart a team that has seemed to perennially underachieve in all tournaments not known as the FA Cup would hardly be news in the sporting world. But in this strange season of English football, Arsenal has been by far the best of the Premier League’s “Big Four” and looks like it might seriously contest the league title for the first time in almost a decade.
Tuesday’s result, it seems, was just a reminder of how far England has fallen when compared to the rest of Europe’s top leagues. It’s not a gap that has opened overnight — no British squad other than Chelsea has even particularly threatened international relevance in the last few years — but the annual persistence it has shown is starting to look more and more like a pattern.
Admittedly, not all of the misfortunes of English clubs are entirely their own fault. Teams like Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus have been extremely adept at acquiring elite talent and adopting a collective philosophy in recent years that has left even spendthrift programs like Real Madrid struggling to keep up. With so many of the world’s best players clambering to join these programs, it was easy to justify the comparative dropoff of English competition as just temporary setbacks in the competition over the stars that remained.
But with clubs as renowned as Manchester United and Chelsea now failing to compete even within the Premier League and Arsenal and Manchester City hardly hanging on, a bigger problem must be at play than just a couple transfer sagas going the wrong way.
Transfers, after all, have been just a part of the traditional formula for success in England. For every Cristiano Ronaldo and Didier Drogba, there’s always been a Wayne Rooney or John Terry who spent his entire career dreaming of starting for a particular Premier League side. Those players still exist at the bigger clubs to some extent — Paul Pogba was a Manchester United product, and plenty of British players litter Arsenal’s lineup — but they’ve increasingly been allowed to leave their bases or serve merely as a sideshow for the latest international imports.
The infusion of capital into City and Chelsea seems to have changed the formula for what makes a spectacular Premier League team in the minds of many. As a result, the Big Four have relied increasingly on taking chances in the transfer market in a hope to remain relevant. With La Liga as willing to spend as ever, this hasn’t been an easy calling.
Aside from a few City splurges and United’s huge mistake in Angel Di Maria, players brought into England have come at fairly moderate price tags. In the hyper-competitive market for talent, it’s hard to expect these sums to be capable of remarkably changing a squad’s fortunes overseas. Manchester United’s summer signing of Memphis Depay looked like it might have helped it against its local rivals, but it was difficult to imagine that the 22-year-old held the team’s keys to success in Europe. The same could be said for Chelsea’s reasonably conservative moves or Arsenal’s apparent happiness just to prevent its modestly acquired talent from leaving.
Despite almost everyone chasing these targets, however, developing homegrown English players has, ironically enough, remained a reasonably successful pathway to the top. The two teams that currently sit atop the Premier League table, Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur, both have done so on the back of overlooked local stars like Jamie Vardy and Harry Kane — both of whom have more goals than City’s £38 million Sergio Aguero or Chelsea’s £32 million Diego Costa.
Neither of these sides are likely to shock Europe next season, but the value-for-money proposition they’ve offered has to pose the question of whether clubs like United need some sort of guardian to protect them from such wasteful acquisitions.
Perhaps the success of these upstarts will awaken the Premier League giants to the fact that they need to take the lead on player development before testing the transfer market. With strong, locally-grown cores to build around, the Big Four might not just grow more competitive organically, but they also might become more attractive to international talent and find themselves able to compete again for the best stars from all around.
Until then, it’s going to be quite some time before the next Arsenal can pull one back against a Spanish Armada.
Remind Andrew Mather that he is a U.S. citizen and doesn’t need to stress so much about the inadequate state of foreign soccer teams at firstname.lastname@example.org.