EVERYONE was eulogising about Tottenham’s 3-1 win against Real Madrid, and rightly so. It was a very clear signal to the rest of Europe that English clubs can, once more, be taken very seriously in the UEFA Champions League.
There have been other victories for English clubs against top opposition, but the manner of Tottenham’s win, against the reigning European champions, was enough to convince some people that Premier clubs are back and in contention. Little wonder that Pep Guardiola has predicted an English team could win the competition for the first time since 2012.
The odds may be more in their favour this season. If all goes to plan, the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League will have five Premier clubs – and none will play against each other.
English clubs, UEFA Champions League/European Cup wins
There are some very strong fundamentals to suggest there has been a sea change in Europe, although it won’t mean a lot until the latter stages of the competition. For a start, some of Europe’s heavyweights are not in the best shape at present, although there is plenty of time for that to be put right. Real Madrid have had a difficult start to the season and are already trailing their old rivals Barcelona by some distance. Barca have overcome their grim summer to show they are not finished, but Bayern Munich have sacked their manager early season and have called on Juup Heynckes to get them through the campaign. Paris St. Germain are in fine form and they will also be looking at 2017-18 as a breakthrough season of opportunity.
But has the pendulum really swung the way of Manchester City, Tottenham, Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool? In the summer, Premier League clubs spent around EUR 1.5 billion in the transfer market, a huge chunk of it used to bring more talent from overseas. Premier clubs had a deficit of EUR 800m-plus, confirming enhanced investment in playing resources.
This also indicated that the huge broadcasting revenues being pumped into Premier League clubs – the result of a record deal – are being spent on players, bringing genuine top talent to English football rather than late-career mercenaries.
Premier clubs, combined, will benefit from broadcasting revenues of more than £2.5bn in 2017-18, a figure that is way in excess of the other “big five” football leagues in Europe. It is about time the vast sums of money available to the Premier started to reap rewards and by that, we mean European success. It will soon be six years since Chelsea lifted the trophy and since then, English clubs have barely had a sniff, despite their huge wage bills, TV rewards and growing attendances.
That is clearly changing if you interpret what’s happening at Manchester City and Tottenham as a sign of a fresh dynamic. If you look at the latest research from CIES Football Observatory, you’ll see that these two clubs have the most valued squads in Europe. Then there’s Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool not far behind. Not that these squads are full of English players, they’re actually brimming with foreign imports.
But this does show the financial benefits Premier clubs enjoy are starting to impact the hierarchy of European football. Pundits have already identified there’s suddenly some of Europe’s most coveted players in the Premier – Romelu Lukaku, Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Eden Hazard and Paul Pogba to name but a few.
In fact, more research from CIES reveals that of the top 50 players by transfer valuation, 23 are currently with Premier League clubs, 15 in La Liga, five in Italy, three in Germany and four in France. Six of the 23 in the Premier – Kane, Alli, John Stones, Sterling, Eric Dier and Marcus Rashford – are England internationals, although this not yet filtered through to the performances of the English national team.
Six from 23 does illustrate, however, that there is an over-reliance on imports. Yet another report by CIES shows that English squads have more expatriates than any of the other major leagues – 61.4% of appearances are made my foreign players, considerably more than Spain (40%), Germany (50%) and France (37%). English clubs also have far fewer developed players appearing in the first team – just 5.7% of playing minutes, compared to 21% in Spain. This also translates into a relatively old average squad age of 27.34 years. The conclusion is that English top level football has the money to buy and buy it does, at the expense of bringing through the young players that have done so well at youth level for England.
On the evidence of this season’s performances, the current strategy could be paying off, although question marks remain over the long-term sustainability of a league that relies on hired guns rather than developing its own talent.
In the UEFA Champions League, the five Premier League teams involved have won 15 of their 20 games so far and only Chelsea have lost a match. Tottenham’s victory was the most impressive result so far, but as Jonathan Wilson noted in the Guardian, it also demonstrated that English clubs have an intelligence and tactical flexibility that might have been missing in the past. It’s no coincidence that the front-runners in this shift, City and Spurs, are both managed by men schooled in the art of La Liga.
That game at Wembley may have been Tottenham’s “arrival”, but it will also have sent a strong message to the Bernabeu, the Nou Camp and the Allianz Arena. Something has changed and in terms of resources, the English clubs have the savvy, the money and market acumen that can really make a difference. It should make for a very interesting second phase in the Champions League, but if money does actually talk, then we could see a new name on the trophy when the final is played in Kiev.