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A league of their own: how English clubs conquered Europe

A league of their own: how English clubs conquered Europe

What can previous eras of national dominance tell us about the current Premier League supremacy?

What can previous eras of national dominance tell us about the current Premier League supremacy?

Jonathan Wilson | June 7th 2019

On June 1st in Madrid, Liverpool won the Champions League, beating Tottenham Hotspur 2-0. A few days previously in Baku, Azerbaijan, Chelsea defeated Arsenal to win the Europa League, the continent’s subsidiary competition. It was an extraordinary moment for English football: never before had all four clubs in the two European finals come from the same country. And the English sides who have dominated Europe this season exclude from their number the best English club of them all – the Premier League champions Manchester City, who were defeated by Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League quarter-finals.

While this double-header was unique, there have been a number of previous occasions where teams from a particular country have held sway in European competitions. Sometimes it has been a single club. Real Madrid won the first five European Cups, the Champions League’s precursor competition, between 1956 and 1960. Italian clubs won four European Cups between 1963 and 1969, and lost in the final in 1967. That was in part down to their mastery of a revolutionary defensive system in which defenders marked the opposing attackers closely; in part down to financial muscle; and, almost certainly, in part down to the illicit influencing of referees. Two officials, György Vadász of Hungary and Francesco Marques Lobo of Portugal, reported offers of bribes and both subsequently found burgeoning careers abruptly curtailed.

The Italian hegemony was followed by four years of Dutch success as Feyenoord won in 1970 before three successive Ajax victories. Again that was underpinned by a tactical revolution as the world struggled to come to terms with Total Football, a dynamic style in which players fluidly swapped positions that allowed the Dutch to exploit the rigidities of catenaccio, Italy’s defensive style of play.

Johann Cruyff playing for Ajax during their defeat of Juventus in the European Cup final in 1973

England’s turn came in the mid-1970s. English teams won in seven of the eight years from 1977: Liverpool four times, Nottingham Forest twice, Aston Villa once. These teams forged a happy compromise between tactical pragmatism and physical aggression that allowed them to negate the opposition and impose themselves when necessary. It’s striking that two of those champions – Forest and Villa – haven’t come top of their domestic league since; English teams may have benefited from strength in depth at home that tempered them for pan-European competition.

At the European Cup final between Juventus and Liverpool in 1985, 39 people, mostly Juventus supporters, were crushed to death after being attacked by Liverpool fans in the Heysel Stadium in Brussels. English teams were subsequently banned from competing in Europe, which left a vacuum in which there was a series of one-off winners before an Italian resurgence. Although AC Milan and Juventus, with wins in 1990, 1991, 1994 and 1996 were the only champions, Italian teams lost in the final in 1992, 1995, 1997 and 1998. Between 1989 and 1999, all but one of the finals of the UEFA Cup – the predecessor of the Europa League – featured at least one Italian side. Their success was built on money, which allowed them to sign the best players in the world. The all-vanquishing AC Milan side of the early part of the decade was spearheaded by the three great Dutchmen: Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit. Inter had three world-class Germans: Lothar Matthäus, Jürgen Klinsmann and Andreas Brehme. But the wealth of Italian clubs was spread relatively evenly, so that by the mid-1990s seven of them – the so-called “Seven Sisters” – stood a plausible chance of winning the league.

No single style predominated. As more football became available to view on television and there was greater movement of players between countries, tactical ideas cross-fertilised with each other. It was no longer possible for a nation to master a previously unseen approach and spring it on an unsuspecting world. Italian football was pre-eminent not because Italian clubs had worked out a new way to play, but because they had the best squads being tested against each other on a weekly basis.

Ruud Gullit celebrates during AC Milan’s 4-0 win over Steaua Bucharest in the 1989 European Cup Final

Over the last 20 years, globalisation has changed football. To speak of one nation dominating now feels almost a category error, since the squads of the world’s best clubs comprise multiple nationalities. The richest teams have become so powerful that a dozen or so Superclubs dominate the rest: Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Arsenal from England; Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund from Germany; Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid from Spain; Paris Saint-Germain from France; and Juventus from Italy.

The prominence of English teams this season should not be entirely surprising. According to Deloitte, an accountancy firm, six of the ten wealthiest clubs in the world by revenue are from the Premier League, whose teams have benefited from broadcast deals worth £8.1bn over the last three years. The Premier League can afford to buy and employ the best players and staff in the world. It ought to dominate European competitions. The fact that Liverpool last season were the first English Champions League finalists since Chelsea won the competition in 2012 represents significant underachievement.

There was at least one English side in every Champions League final between 2005 and 2009 – and two in 2008. So why did they fall short until recently? Luck certainly plays a part. Despite its name, the Champions League remains, in its latter stages at least, a knockout competition (in the earlier half, teams play each other home and away in groups of four, with the top two teams in each group progressing).

Trevor Francis scores the winning goal during the European Cup Final between Nottingham Forest and Malmö FF in 1979

When the European Cup began in 1955, victory was an arduous quest that required the perfect alignment of the stars. In those days, clubs needed to win their domestic league even to get into the competition again (now, clubs from the best leagues need merely finish in the top four places to qualify). Some of the greatest managers the game has ever seen, such as Matt Busby at Manchester United, Brian Clough at Derby County and Nottingham Forest, and Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley at Liverpool, pursued the European Cup for years before finally claiming it. They suffered freak results, questionable (possibly crooked) refereeing and deserved defeats to better sides along the way.

But in this era, it is overwhelmingly likely that the Superclubs will make it out of the group stages, where there are enough fixtures to compensate for any blips or bad decisions. After the group stages, clubs are only three steps away from the final and can win the tournament with only a little luck, as Chelsea discovered in 2012 when they implausibly won with their weakest team in a decade. If you’re rich enough and hang around long enough, eventually the breaks will go your way. For the last 15 years, the Champions League final has been contested between clubs from only four countries and the competition can feel a little like a game of pass-the-parcel between the Superclubs.

That randomness can lead to barely explicable results. Real Madrid are in the midst of their worst domestic run since the second world war despite enjoying enormous financial advantages over all but one of their rivals in Spain. They have won the league only twice in the last ten seasons, yet they have won four of the last five Champions League finals.

Gareth Bale after scoring for Real Madrid during the 2018 Champions League final against Liverpool

Football at elite level can perhaps best be understood as a coach arranging and drilling his players to create a system that will maximise his team’s chances of success by ensuring they have a great number and better quality of attacking moments than their opponents. Madrid recently have tended not to be cohesive or well organised , which is why they have struggled in the league where consistency is key, but they have been very good at capitalising on a few key moments in Champions League games.

Tactically, Madrid have not innovated but they have benefited from bizarre moments of fortune and their collection of exceptional if mismatched players who have performed extraordinary feats at just the right time. Their success in last season’s Champions League depended not only on spectacular overhead kicks scored by Cristiano Ronaldo in the quarter-final and Gareth Bale in the final, but also on ludicrous goalkeeping errors that gifted them goals in the semi-final and the final.

Luck has certainly played a role in this year’s Champions League finals. In both the quarter-final and semi-final, Tottenham progressed after excruciating late drama – a City goal overturned by the video assistant referee for offside and a winning goal against Ajax that turned out to be the latest ever scored in the competition.

Mauricio Pochettino with his players and coaching staff after Tottenham Hotspur beat Ajax to land a place in the 2019 Champions League final

But the Premier League’s rise has been building for a while. The UEFA club coefficient, which measures the relative performance of each nation’s teams in European competition, shows that the Premier League was the most successful league last season as well as this. Only seven times since the metric was established in 1979 has a country achieved a coefficient of more than 20: two of those occasions have been England in the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 seasons.

There is, however, a more fundamental reason for the underperformance of English clubs since 2012. The leading clubs have spent much of the last decade in a state of uncertainty and flux. Manchester City were not part of the reigning elite until they received a huge injection of money when they were bought by the Emirati royal family in 2008. They have taken time to adjust to their new-found wealth and gain experience in top-level competitions. Leicester, a middling club, won the league entirely unexpectedly in 2016, with a squad that was never realistically going to be capable of success in European competition the following season. Manchester United failed to plan adequately for a successor to their talismanic manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who retired in 2013. Arsenal endured a slow decline under their inflexible long-term manger Arsène Wenger, who was untouchable for many years until finally edged out of the door last season. Chelsea have suffered from the capriciousness and waning interest of their owner, Roman Abramovich. And Tottenham Hotspur have taken an incremental, fiscally responsible approach to re-establishing themselves as title challengers that has finally born fruit.

Tottenham and Liverpool are now benefiting from stable leadership and long-term planning. Mauricio Pochettino arrived at White Hart Lane in 2014 and Jürgen Klopp at Anfield a year later. Both have had time to instil their ideas and shape the squad according to their needs. The entire league has benefited from their nous, and from the sui generis brilliance of Manchester City’s coach, Pep Guardiola. When English clubs dominated Europe in the late 1970s and early 1980s it was because, to borrow the German title of Raphael Honigstein’s book on the English game, they were “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”. By the time English clubs returned to European football in 1990, after the Heysel ban had been lifted, the game had moved on. English football, particularly in the development of young players, was hampered by the long-ball theories of Charles Hughes, technical director of the Football Association. He marginalised skills such as intricate passing and dribbling that required technical prowess in favour of long, thudding passes from the goalkeeper or defenders to strikers chosen primarily for their height. There was a backlash against this crude approach to the game and various foreign models were held up as panaceas. But chopping and changing between them helped no one.

Jurgen Klopp after Liverpool’s 3-1 win over Bayern Munich took them to the quarter finals of the 2019 Champions League

Klopp and Pochettino both prefer a notably high-tempo, muscular style that was once the essence of English football culture. When Klopp arrived at Liverpool, he explained how he was going to restore the English football that had inspired him to the English. Recent results in youth football, notably England’s success at the Under-20 World Cup in 2017, suggest that problems have largely been resolved.

During the downturn in English teams’ fortunes, it was often said that the physical intensity of the Premier League leaves its players tired in comparison with their European rivals by the time the crucial knockout games come around in the spring. There are more games in England than comparable nations. France is the only one of the other four leading countries to have two cup competitions in addition to the league. English football is quicker and more physically demanding than anywhere else; as a rough measure, there were 26.6% more tackles in the Premier League this season than the German Bundesliga. (Why that should be is another question: Arsène Wenger always blamed the windy English climate, which, he said, made possession harder to control leading to more loose balls to be fought over.)

The influence of the best overseas coaches has made the game in England more patient and cerebral. The Premier League has become a great melting pot from which best practice slowly emerges. Over the past decade the number of passes completed per Premier League game has gone up from 358 to 453 – an increase of 26.5%. Teams have become better at retaining possession, a sign that the skills and perceptiveness of players at English clubs has improved. At the same time, the number of tackles per team per game has dropped from almost 24 to just over 16. The Premier League may be more physically demanding than anywhere else, but it is not as percussive as it used to be. Fatigue, for the elite, is less of a problem than it was.

England has also become the most competitive major league in Europe. Over the last seven seasons, four different clubs have won the Premiership. In contrast, Barcelona and Real Madrid have won 14 of the last 15 Spanish titles; Paris Saint-Germain have won six of the last seven French titles; Bayern wrapped up their seventh straight Bundesliga title this year; Juventus have won the last eight Italian titles. That level of supremacy means complacency can creep in. If a team is rarely tested in its domestic league, it has a tendency to forget how to defend properly, rendering it vulnerable when it has to play other elite clubs in European competition. None of these teams look like they will be challenged in the near future, which suggests that this year’s clean sweep by English teams may not be a one-off. Italy’s success in European competition in the early 1990s was galvanised by the mutual rivalry between the Seven Sisters. England’s may have only just begun.

This piece was amended to include the results of the Champions League and Europa League finals