Unfurl the bunting, roll out the barrel, clear the streets for a party: there are four Premier League teams in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. With Chelsea all but through to the last eight of the Europa League and Arsenal in with a chance, these are heady days for the coefficient (even if La Liga has, so far, picked up more points this season). To which the first response should probably be less self-congratulation than, “What took so long?”
It’s 10 years since the Premier League last made up half the quarter-finalists. In 2009, three got to the semi-finals but it was Barcelona who went on to win the competition in what was the first of Pep Guardiola’s four seasons at the club. Given the previous year there had been an all-Premier League final, Manchester United beating Chelsea in Moscow, and that English clubs had got to the final in each of the three seasons before that, this felt normal.
Premier League sides, after all, had enormous advantages in terms of broadcasting rights. They were significantly richer than the rest. Yet in the decade since, only three English clubs have reached finals and only Chelsea have won the Champions League (and that in slightly freakish circumstances). Celebrate the success of this season by all means but Premier League clubs also need to ask what lies behind 10 years of general failure.
There are always individual reasons. Clubs are in transition, they have just changed a manager or they suffer a key injury to a key player at a key time. In the knockout stages there is necessarily an element of randomness. There are always moments that can be pointed to: Nani’s red card against Real Madrid in Sir Alex Ferguson’s last European game as the Manchester United manager, Manchester City’s slack marking as Tiemoué Bakayoko scored an away-goals winner for Monaco, Tottenham’s five minutes of chaos against Juventus last season, Loris Karius’s howlers in the final … but the overall pattern was not good.
So what has changed? Perhaps nothing. It may simply be that those moments of luck have started going the way of Premier League sides. Thrilling as United’s win in Paris was, waiting for an injury-time VAR penalty decision to complete an unprecedented comeback is not a reliable way to win. It helps as well that Arsenal are not there, drawing Bayern or Barcelona as a matter of course then being demolished.
It always feels slightly awkward when managers with squads packed with expensive players with glittering careers speak of their teams lacking experience – Guardiola, who won the Champions League at his first attempt, described City this week as “teenagers” in terms of European experience – but the capacity to see out an awkward away game is perhaps one that can be learned. Spurs and Liverpool in the past fortnight have produced notably mature performances in Germany.
Louis van Gaal, in his time as the United manager, always put Premier League underachievement down to what he called the “rat race” of English players which, he said, left players too exhausted to compete with Europe’s elite. Perhaps that race is a little less rattish now. English football is not the constant battle it once was. There were 63 games last season in which one team had 70% or more of possession, up by a factor of almost 200 on 15 years earlier. That means there are games elite sides win easily and, even when they do not, the football is less attritional than it was.
Premier League teams still enjoy enormous economic advantages. United may have ceded top spot in this season’s Deloitte list of richest clubs by income but there are still six Premier League teams in the top 10. There is a degree of stability among the four who are in the Champions League, three of whom are in at least their third season with the same manager (while the other is enjoying a new-manager bounce at just the right time).
And if there are wider patterns tentatively to be drawn, perhaps the Premier League has happened on a sweet spot of competitiveness for European success: the football is not a constant grind but there are enough good teams about (who else has an acknowledged big six?) to provide a regular challenge and so head off the sort of stagnation that seems always to undermine Paris Saint-Germain and has afflicted Bayern in the past.
But none of that changes the fact that, with the resources they have, Premier League clubs have underperformed in the Champions League over the past decade. Four teams in the quarter-finals is an achievement but it is one that means little if it is not converted into a trophy and one that should not be especially unusual – which in itself should give cause to question the gross inequalities in modern football.