HAS THERE ever been a more unsettled managerial landscape in Europe than the one unfolding at the moment? Real Madrid’s coach, Zinedine Zidane has left the club once more, leaving an incendiary letter in the media to explain why he has departed. Inter Milan, who won their first scudetto since 2010, have waved goodbye to Antonio Conte, who didn’t much like the prospect of selling his title-winning squad after being told the club needed to launch an € 80 million fire sale.
Juventus, who had a disappointing season under Andrea Pirlo, have replaced him with former coach Max Allegri. Tottenham have suggested they are talking to Paris Saint-Germain’s Mauricio Pochettino, their old boss with “unfinished business” now the narrative, and Real Madrid are keen on taking Everton’s Carlo Ancelotti back to the Bernabéu for a second stint as manager. There’s talk of Ronald Koeman leaving Barcelona, so much so that the poor fellow has been sick with worry. The merry-go-round is spinning very fast.
There’s always plenty of activity in the close season, but 2020-21 has literally only just ended and a worrying percentage of the continent’s top clubs are in a state of flux. The harsh facts of financial life mean that the top jobs at Real, Barca, Inter and Juve don’t look especially appealing at the moment. Inter are not the only club who need to offload some high-earning and under-utilised players.
It isn’t just the natural scheme of things that is driving this game of musical chairs. The European Super League’s abandonement has something to do with it and nobody will be too surprised to hear that money is at the root of the problem. Inter, for example, are at the mercy of their owners, the Chinese Suning group who have their own economic problems. Real and Barca both owe back tax and are heavily in debt and embroiled in internal politics. This cocktail of stress couldn’t have come at a worse time for both.
Almost every major club lost money in 2019-20 and the prospect of worse to come is very real. It may partly explain why, in 2020-21, there was a changing of the guard in France (Lille), Italy (Inter), Spain (Atlético Madrid) and Portugal (Sporting).
Clubs like Real and Barca may have to accept they are going through a period of transition. Pundits have pointed to the Real Madrid-free Spain squad for Euro 2020 squad but nobody should be too surprised as only 30% of Real’s squad is Spanish and two of the seven are over 30 (Ramos 35 and Nacho 31).
With Spurs, Real and Juve all talking to managers who were once employed by them, there is a feeling the talent pool in football management might be a little shallow at present – or is it merely that clubs themselves that are rather shallow in their thinking?
At the moment, three of the best coaches in the game are all working in England: Pep Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel. The Premier League, which had a lower than normal managerial churn in 2020-21, has won the Champions League twice in three years and has provided five finalists over the past four seasons. The Premier has suffered during the pandemic, but not as much as some leagues. The size of the broadcasting fee does act as a cushion even in its reduced state. Even the well-run Bundesliga can only look on with envy at the huge difference between their own TV deal and the riches bestowed upon the Premier.
Two all-England finals in three seasons should send a strong signal to the rest of Europe, but there may be another reason why English clubs are coming to the fore. With Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo both in the autumn of their careers, clubs like Barcelona and Real are simply not as effective. Messi is now playing with youngsters, although the signing of Sergio Agüero will make him feel he is among friends. Ronaldo departed Madrid in 2018 and signed for Juventus. Real, who had won four Champions League titles in five years, have not gone close since.
With the march of time and the deteriorating finances of the Spanish giants, the English clubs have become more dominant, even though most made losses in 2019-20. Nevertheless, Manchester City and Chelsea, along with Paris Saint-Germain, have reasons not to be as fearful of the financial crisis as others and all three have reached Champions League finals in the past two seasons.
It has been coming, though. Since 2003-04 when Roman Abramovich changed the face of the game in England and beyond, Premier League clubs have provided 13 Champions League finalists and four winners. Only Spain’s La Liga, with 10 finalists, come anywhere near the Premier. In the past four seasons, English clubs have taken 16 places in the knockout stage of the competition, two more than Spain, and five of 16 semi-final berths.
It’s no secret that of the top dozen clubs in Europe, indeed the world, six are Premier League clubs: United and City, the London trio of Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham and, of course, Liverpool. Although Arsenal have dropped out of contention at the moment, it is likely this group will, more often than not, provide the bulk of the four places allotted to the Premier by the Champions League.
UEFA will surely be hoping that a repeat of 2019 and 2021 will not be forthcoming for a while. Domestic skirmishes as Champions League finals are not what the competition is all about. Chelsea versus Manchester City was the eighth one-country final and the third all-English clash since 2008. Two all-English in three years could be interpreted as something of a signal, an indication of a sea change. It is, arguably, what we all anticipated when big money started to pour into the Premier League.
It is no coincidence that three of the last four finalists are the much-maligned beneficiaries of “new money”, clubs that have been able to slalom their way through the pandemic, despite its financial pressures. It’s too early to be absolutely sure that it points the way towards a trend, but the advantages of having rich benefactors of a certain kind may soon be very obvious to all – if it wasn’t already.