As another Champions League night ended with English clubs falling to defeat while their Spanish counterparts all won, I thought it was time to ask around and see why those in Spain believe the Premier League is underachieving in Europe.
The Premier League peaked in 2008 when Manchester United met Chelsea in the Champions League final, cementing its status as the best league in the world. However since then, they’ve only managed to win one Champions League title in 2012 and one Europa League victory in 2013, both by Chelsea. It’s worth mentioning that in 2009 and 2011 Manchester United were runners-up in the Champions League.
On the flip side, La Liga has won four Champions League titles (3 for Barcelona, 1 for Real Madrid) and four Europa Leagues (2 for Sevilla, 2 for Atletico Madrid) since 2008 and Atletico Madrid were beaten Champions League finalists back in 2014.
You can butter it up however you wish but one Champions League victory and one Europa League triumph in the last seven years doesn’t make for good reading, especially when the Premier League is branded the best league in the world. Manchester United were unlucky that they came up against arguably the best team of the last decade in Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona – twice – but that still doesn’t excuse the poor showing from England’s representatives overall.
And there’s an even greater concern when it comes to the Europa League performances of the Premier League sides. We’ve already seen Southampton and West Ham bow out in the qualifying rounds after fielding weakened sides leaving only Liverpool and Tottenham to fly the flag for the Premier League. Spain have Villarreal and Athletic Club, who successfully negotiated their way through the qualifying stage.
So let’s go over some of the possible reasons for why La Liga has outshone the Premier League recently:
A greater emphasis is imposed on the squad level as opposed to just the first XI in Spain. They know the value of competition for places and don’t put all their eggs in one basket. The clubs are well structured and the recruitment policy is key in identifying players that can not only offer something different to the side, but ones that can cover any absence. Hedging your bets, so to speak.
Now while some would call the bottom half of La Liga weak, it’s worth noting the level of tactical detail which goes into the planning of each game. Those getting a tiny piece of the TV money pie rely on tactics more than financial muscle to compete with those above them. It’s no surprise to see those that have succeeded at lesser sides are eventually given a chance with one of the better, more well run clubs.
Now the Premier League generally tends to focus on major signings which will improve the starting line-up, often then selling the person who previously held that position. Then once an injury or two pops up the level of the team drops significantly as the options on the bench aren’t good enough.
You’ll also notice how a lot of Spanish sides will rest players in La Liga ahead of a big Champions League game, whereas it’s often the opposite when it comes to the Premier League. And I’m not talking about just Real Madrid and Barcelona but Sevilla, Villarreal and Athletic Club. The base will remain the same but a key component of Sevilla’s Europa League victory last season was Emery’s rotation policy to keep players fresh as they challenged on both fronts. It used to happen more often in England, but not now – perhaps it’s time to go back to the previous format in order to achieve more in Europe.
The Premier League, it could be argued, is more entertaining but that goes back to the lack of tactical nous on display. Think of it as two boxers going toe to toe: as a spectacle it’s great to watch but from a technical standpoint it’s outrageous to leave yourself exposed to a knock-out blow, especially if you’re the better fighter. This is why upsets happen more often in the Premier League as the bigger, better sides on paper allow themselves to get sucked into playing a game which entertains the masses but leaves them open to a shock.
And we aren’t talking about putting 5 men in defence to quell a side with a formidable attacking threat. It’s about knowing your roles at every moment, how your opponent tends to play and how best to snuff out the threat without being overly defensive.
I suppose it’s slowly creeping into the English game as Mourinho is a huge advocate of team preparation ahead of each game. Dossiers, videos and aspects to work on in the training ground for specific matches are key to his philosophy. Andre Villas-Boas was similar although his man management skills were lacking and that cost him his job at both Chelsea and Spurs. Some are great tacticians but not coaches and I think Villas-Boas falls into the second category. He is perhaps someone to have in your coaching staff, but not one to lead.
The level of detail can be seen throughout La Liga and it allows them to prepare better for teams outside of Spain, to adapt to different challenges and styles. The Premier League has a frantic pace to most games but in Europe they don’t appear to know how to react to foreign teams that know by killing the tempo of the game they have a much greater chance of success. The demands of playing at full speed week in, week out take their toll and it’s no surprise to see English sides, coupled with less squad depth and more emphasis on a fixed XI, fade away at the business end of the season.
This is an area where you’d expect the Premier League with all its riches to be way ahead of La Liga but it isn’t. Let’s dismiss Real Madrid and Barcelona for example as they can pay as much if not more than Premier League sides for players. But if we delve deeper you’ll notice that on the whole sides such as Atletico, Valencia, Sevilla and Villarreal sign much better players and for much lower sums.
Diego Simeone, Marcelino, Unai Emery, Nuno and Valverde are all heavily involved in who comes in and who leaves every summer. They work closely with a director of football or of a similar equivalent and have a long list of potential targets and, for the most part, try to get the business done early in order to secure those closest to the top of said lists.
There is clearly a set strategy at each club for identifying players at an early stage of their development and bringing them over to Spain. This strategy, alongside the youth academy which we’ll touch upon later, provide a solid base for the side to grow. Valencia signed Mustafi for about €8m, Andre Gomes for €15m and Otamendi for €12m. All of those players had at least doubled their initial fee within 12 months. Mustafi and Gomes linked with €50m moves away whereas Otamendi joined City earlier this summer for €45m.
Sevilla signed Fernando Llorente, Konoplyanka, Krohn-Dehli, Adil Rami, Gael Kakuta and Steven N’Zonzi for a combined £12m. They could sell them all in January and probably raise at least triple that. It’s about having a great scouting network and establishing contacts, displaying a clear direction and making the players feel wanted. It’s about identifying the areas which need improving and moving quickly to secure them.
Villarreal signed Soldado for little over £7m and then added Malaga youngsters Samuel and Castillejo for around £11m. Cedric Bakambu is another they signed for less than £6m which is astonishing with the lack of genuine goalscorers around these days. Denis Suarez, a promising youngster, arrived for less than £3m.
Why can’t English sides find more of these types of signings? Why can’t they sign these players before they hit the ground running elsewhere, thus having to pay double the original price?
One area I think we can all agree on is that for all the money which is pumped into the Premier League year on year it continues to underperform in regards to producing youngsters, or more specifically academy graduates through to the first team picture.
Barcelona’s sustained success is built on a core of players that came through the academy. Villarreal and Valencia also have renowned youth academies. I can only talk about the latter in detail but they basically swoop up any promising youngsters in the area from the ages of 5 and 6. There are multiple teams in each age group so no one slips through the net.
The academy side has taken a slight knock since the introduction of Peter Lim but he’s also invested a lot of money so that it continues to produce quality youngsters. Jose Luis Gaya and Paco Alcacer the most prominent of those that came through their academy and both have saved the club around £30-40m – the lowest price it’d cost to sign them now. There are others like Salva Ruiz and Robert Ibañez who are on loan at Granada and Victor Camarasa who joined Levante at the age of 17. Carles Gil made the move to Aston Villa after struggling to break into the first team at Valencia.
Chelsea only have Ruben Loftus-Cheek in their squad who recently came through their academy. Manchester United have James Wilson – who has since been sent out on loan – and Sam Johnstone to have come through their academy, although Johnstone is unlikely to play much this season either. Manchester City don’t have any youth academy products in their squad this term – Kelechi Iheanacho joined when he was already 17. Liverpool have Jon Flanagan and Jordan Rossiter from their youth academy. Tottenham fair a little better as they have Harry Kane, Ryan Mason and Andros Townsend who have come up through the ranks with the club. Alex Pritchard technically began at West Ham so won’t be included.
Tottenham themselves have invested a lot of time and money into the academy and it’s beginning to show with some promising youngsters emerging from it - the most notable one being Marcus Edwards, who is attracting attention from all over Europe. It’s important other teams don’t abandon their roots in order to search for short-term success.
Southampton and Everton are examples of the benefits you can get from producing top quality prospects. Before, the financial parity amongst Premier League sides wasn’t as great as it is now, so they were forced to sell most of their promising young players but they would be in a much stronger position to reject overtures now. It’s not only good for the Premier League but also the future of the English national side.
One thing Spanish sides don’t lack is the belief that they can win. Recent success at both club level and with the national team has inspired a country to believe in itself. Spanish sides view the Europa League as a major trophy to win and it isn’t about the financial gain, but about the pride and honour of lifting a trophy – any trophy in fact. Just look at how Athletic Club celebrated their Spanish Super Cup victory over Barcelona.
The Premier League is miles ahead of La Liga when it comes to production and marketing. It’s a well-run ship which has maintained a unified stance despite the opportunities for some to break away in search of greater wealth. The product is seen all over the world and the brand is stronger than ever off the pitch, but on it is another matter.
English sides need to remember there are more important things than monetary awards and representing your country in either the Champions League or the Europa League is something they should be proud of and not to be seen as a distraction. It’s about treating both competitions with the respect they deserve. Until that happens they’ll continue to remain in La Liga’s shadow – at least on the pitch.