x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

English football clubs not so premier in Europe

English clubs have struggled this year and have to sort out several things before they can consider becoming the continent's best.

Manchester United’s Robin van Persie, centre, looks despondent after his team went out to Real Madrid in the Uefa Champions League round of 16 on Tuesday. Andrew Yates / AFP
Manchester United’s Robin van Persie, centre, looks despondent after his team went out to Real Madrid in the Uefa Champions League round of 16 on Tuesday. Andrew Yates / AFP

In England, the Premier League is often called the best in the world, especially by broadcasters with a vested interest in boosting the status of the league.

There's a problem: it's not true.

The Premier League may be the most entertaining league in the world, it may have not have the deceit and corruption of other leagues, it may be more competitive than other leagues with every team capable of beating another, but that doesn't make it the best.

If Arsenal are eliminated from the Champions League by Bayern Munich next week, as I firmly expect them to be, no English clubs will be in the last eight of the competition for the first time since 1995/96.

The Italian, Spanish and German leagues are likely to have two teams each. That might be expected as they are three of the four strongest leagues in Europe. The other, the Premier League, would have none.

Is that an anomaly, or proof of a weakening league? A little bit of both. Plus, leagues on the continent are getting stronger and using more home-grown players.

European football is about peaks and troughs, even for the greatest club.

Teams rise, they look like the world beaters for a few years and then they dip. Juventus were the best team in Europe in the late 1990s and now they're looking like a top side for the first time since.

Real Madrid were European champions in 1998 and 2002, but until Jose Mourinho took charge they had gone six successive seasons with getting beyond the last-16 stage.

Valencia reached successive finals in 2000 and 2001. Manchester United reached three finals in four years between 2008 and 2011.

They might have gone on this year had it not been for a red card on Tuesday, but that's football. You need luck, you need decisions to go for you and even then there are no guarantees. Did Bayern Munich deserve to lose against the United side I played for in the 1999 final? Did they deserve to lose to Chelsea in the final last year?

I'm impressed by both Bayern and Dortmund, especially as the majority of their squads are German players.

That's good for club and country.

They're more impressive than the current AC Milan team, one of their weakest in years, yet one with an outstanding team ethic.

Football at the highest level becomes more technical and teams in other countries are more technically advanced than in England.

I know there are exceptions, but let me explain why it's partly the fault of English fans.

In England, tackles are applauded and even encouraged. It's about working as hard as you can and teams are urged to go forward and the fans roar them on.

If the ball is not going forward after six or seven passes, the crowd does not like it. I've been at clubs where the fans have screamed: "Get it in the box!"

Yet the best teams do not play like that. They retain the ball until there is a chance of a good position from which to score a goal.

United and Arsenal play that style, but they are anomalies in English football.

The English cherish the hard-tackling central midfielder and I've heard United fans say that the team miss a Roy Keane-style central midfielder. What they don't say is that in his latter years, Roy had become the type of player he needed to become as football changed – an interceptor rather than a tackler.

He changed; he had to.

If you play in the holding role, you have to be an interceptor and, ideally, have the ability to put a tackle in, though, crucially, not go to ground where you are going to get booked in European competition. And you have to play to the laws of Uefa, as United found out this week.

Yaya Toure is this type of player but there are very, very few like him. Bayern paid a club-record €40 million (Dh190.1m) to buy one of the handful of players like this, Javi Martinez, last July from Athletic Bilbao.

United have Michael Carrick, who is excellent but rarely tackles. He does not need to tackle. He screens the back four, he intercepts and his passing is underrated. I can't believe that he is not an England regular.

Arsenal still miss a Patrick Vieira or Emmanuel Petit. Bayern have Javi Martinez. Chelsea are all over the shop, off the field, changing their manager every 10 minutes.

Liverpool no longer play in the Champions League and cannot attract the best players, while Manchester City are still learning in Europe and have yet to make their breakthrough.

The result is that English teams are not performing in Europe.

It will change, it always does, but while the English teams sort out their sides, their clubs, their managers and their tactics, Europe does not belong to them as it did four or five years ago.

Andrew Cole's column is written with the assistance of the European football correspondent Andy Mitten.


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