The Sweeper: The End of the Big Four

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The funeral rites have been read, the autopsies are coming-in, and all of a sudden England’s fleeting dominance of the UEFA Champions League is a page in the history books already. The British press is all over the elimination of English clubs from the tournament already, though some writers do evince some caution to the flood of obituaries.

Oliver Kay says “I told you so”:

Over the past five seasons, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and United have been among the top six teams in Europe – Uefa’s coefficient ranking says as much – but it should not have taken the results of the past few weeks to suggest that their grip on the competition was weakening. The evidence has been there in the Premier League all season; as a collective and, in most cases, individually, the so-called “big four” is not what it was.

This has been illustrated in the Champions League; for all the complaints about injuries, refereeing decisions or gamesmanship, none of the quartet deserved to progress any further than they did. But it has also been abundantly obvious in the Premier League this season. Liverpool’s demise this season – ten defeats in 33 games, as opposed to two in 38 last term – is a separate case, but Arsenal and Chelsea, with five games remaining, have already lost as many league matches as they did in the whole of last season. United have lost seven out of 33 – three more than they did in 38 games last season.

What did people expect? None of the four clubs made any serious investment in their squad last summer, when it was almost as if a non-aggression pact had been settled upon. Financial issues were strongly suspected – and denied publicly as United, in particular, hid behind the excuse of an “inflated transfer market” even though it was their own sale of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid for a world-record fee of £80 million that had done the inflating – but, considering that they all seemed to be in a similar boat, albeit with different factors, they seemed happy enough to take that risk.

What nobody seemed to notice was that, while those four clubs were standing still – or being weakened substantially in the case of Liverpool and United – the rest of Europe was strengthening, secure in the knowledge that the Euro’s strength against the Pound, as well as certain fiscal issues, had given a sudden advantage over the English.

In the Guardian, Paul Hayward is a little more cautious about sweeping generalisations based on a few results:

To talk of regression might be to fall into the trap of lumping results together rather than considering each let-down on its merits but the least that can be said is that Liverpool are in reverse, Chelsea were no match for Mourinho, Arsenal look effete against elite opposition and United have endured the eight-day hell of a Champions League exit and a 2-1 home defeat by Chelsea from which Carlo Ancelotti’s men emerged as favourites for the domestic title. By bed-time Fulham could be England’s last survivors on the continent.

Henry Winter goes further, and suggests the tide could turn back to the Premier League just as easily as it’s gone out this season.

The absence of any Premier League sides in the Champions League last four for the first time since 2003 will be hysterically depicted as a sign of the English in decline. Hold the obituaries. Cancel the wakes. As the semi-final line-up shows, Bayern versus Lyons and Barcelona against Inter Milan, no one European league dominates, surely a welcome development.

Underlying factors undoubtedly work against the English, notably sterling’s weakness against the euro and unfavourable tax conditions compared to Spain, so harming hopes of attracting the top talent. Then again, the most fabulous footballer on the planet, Lionel Messi, cost Barcelona nothing. Better scouting and greater youth development are issues Premier League clubs must address. Uefa’s president, Michel Platini, will probably appreciate the home of debt in football having a few slates removed in a strong gust from the Continent.

Then again, if Jose Mourinho swans back into the Premier League, some of the sparkle returns along with luminaries bewitched by the Pied Piper of Portugal. The Premier League, the home of the adrenalin rush, remains the most watched league in the world, partly for its thrills and spills so this is no time to play the Last Post.

In a balanced take that is perhaps the best of the bunch, Ian Herbert suggests it’s not about the money or terminal decline, but about the coaching.

As a nation, we need not read into the advance of Lyons that our own Barclays Premier League is now lagging behind Ligue 1, any more than Bayern Munich’s progress is decisive proof of a wider German revival. As for Italy, if AC Milan’s old men can remain firmly in the hunt for the title then Serie A is not back to the rude health of the Eighties and Nineties.

In time, there may be cause for our clubs to worry as Platini’s “financial fair play” rules take hold, or the broadcast revenues dwindle, but for now we can hold off the national inquest or the headlines about the demise of the Premier League.

What does stand out is the work of the coaches in José Mourinho of Inter Milan, Louis van Gaal with Bayern and Claude Puel at Lyons. At Barcelona, of course, Pep Guardiola has fine-tuned the game’s most brilliant ensemble. It is not Italian football that is reborn, but Inter thanks to Mourinho’s good work; not German football that is marching again but Van Gaal, who has revived a mighty Bavarian institution.

The angst can be contained to localised hot spots in Manchester and London, although there it may be considerable. Defeat before the semifinals may be unaccustomed to clubs such as United and Chelsea, but these were accidents waiting to happen at the business end of the season.

I’m not so sure it’s so accidental; while a few results is a small sample, there’s no doubt the Premier League’s economic advantage has been cut-back, and with the levels of debt at two of the Big Four along with the continued parsimony of Arsenal and the restricted spending at Chelsea, it’s not about to return any time soon — especially with Platini’s reforms on the horizon.

Quick Hits

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