Last Tuesday night, Arsenal, a London-based club in the Premier League, played host to a seemingly unrivaled and untouchable Barcelona squad. Throughout the game, Arsenal played a compact defense against the Spaniards, but to no avail, as the Gunners dropped the key first leg 2-0, condemned to another early exit from this year’s Champions League.
Like every other game of football, a dynamic rhythm, a life and an emotion exist in each and every match, especially in a competition such as the European Champions League. Thousands of fans watched the game impatiently waiting for Barca’s perfection to take over and win the game. In that way, Barcelona’s comfortable win against Arsenal seemed expected and inevitable.
Why is this, though? Why is the Premier League, supposedly the best league in the world, failing to produce a squad good enough to beat other world-class sides? Even though Arsenal has endured a decade-long Championship drought, save the F.A. Cup, this year was supposed to be different for the Gunners. Arsenal is a strong Premier League title favorite late in the season and looks strong enough to break its decade-long curse.
Thus, Tuesday’s result exposes an ominous pattern for English football as the Premier League stoops to lower and lower levels against the best European teams. What is the cause for English failure against these top-tier teams in head-to-head matchups against top-tier teams such as Barcelona, Juventus and Bayern Munich?
Some of the problem lies in the inability to attract world-class players. For example, ex-star Liverpool striker Luis Suarez almost single-handedly brought an average Liverpool squad a league title before moving to Barcelona. And even before that, a young Cristiano Ronaldo, superstar on the Manchester United team that brought England a Champions League trophy, deserted bleak Manchester for the Spanish capital and Real Madrid.
Others claim that the English academy needs to encourage more homegrown talent. However, this perilous argument fails when considering recent Arsenal failure compared to Manchester City’s recent success. While Man City has relatively no homegrown players, Arsenal’s English rotation involves Theo Walcott, Calum Chambers and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, all of whom went through an English academy system, yet have not brought Arsenal to the top-tier level of Barcelona.
Instead, the problem with English clubs lies in the competitiveness and strength that makes the Premier League and English competition the best and most exciting. Instead of rolling to 10-2 wins such as Real Madrid over Rayo Vallecano or 3-0 cruises from Barcelona against fourth-place Villarreal, English squads must play a more physical and competitive game, which is detrimental to Champions League success.
While La Liga or Bundesliga or Ligue 1, all European power leagues, have become title races between one or two teams, the Premier League provides competition and unpredictability. The last time the Premier League had back-to-back title champions occurred nearly a decade ago. In addition, this year, in an impossible turnaround, last year’s 14th-placed Leicester City now stands at the top of the table and looks sure to clinch a spot in next year’s Champions League.
Leicester’s cinderella run beautifully epitomizes the excitement, competitiveness and taxing game that has become quintessential of the Premier League. Ultimately, however, this competitiveness that makes the Premier League so entertaining is the same reason for its failings in the Champions League.
Before the 2014-15 season, in which Atlético rose to fame by simply competing with the Spanish giants, the champion of Spain had either been Real or Barcelona. That is the definition of a two-horse race.
The same rings true in the recent years with Germany’s Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A or France’s Ligue 1. In all of these leagues, the competition reduces itself down to a one-, maybe two-horse race, in which the competition is already dead by the second half of the season.
The Premier League’s competitiveness attracts viewers from around the world because nearly every game provides a physical, unpredictable battle. While the typical La Liga campaign includes about six competitive matches a season in which the top three teams play each other, the Premier League provides excitement and importance to the title race each and every weekend.
Relating back to Tuesday’s match, Arsenal has played seven competitive games in the last 30 days, averaging a game every four to five days entering into their matchup against Barcelona this past Tuesday. While Barcelona had been defeating fourth-placed Valencia CF by 7 goals in Copa Del Rey or Las Palmas from the Canary Islands, Arsenal faced teams such as Leicester City and sixth-placed Southampton.
Simply put, the English game is just more taxing than the other leagues. This, ultimately, becomes the downfall for English teams who want to succeed in the Premier League.
That’s not to take away from the greatness of Barcelona or Bayern or Juventus. These teams really have the top stars in the world, and the euphoria that Barcelona fans are enjoying at this moment has the promise to continue for at least a couple more seasons. However, the fact remains: If English teams want to compete on the elevated international stage that is the Champions League, the league will have to scale back its competitiveness as a whole.
When Lorenzo sent his editor this column with the above title, his editor thought that it was going to be a history paper and not a football manifesto. Give Lorenzo a crash course in headlining at enzor ‘at’ stanford.edu.