Why English football should not overreact…
It was the evening of 28th May and I was in the car on the way back from Old Trafford, having been up north to see the League Two play-off final. This was of course the same day as the Champions League Final, which provided the in-car entertainment on the radio. However, for me the most striking thing from the evening was not necessarily Barcelona’s domination on the field, but the reaction of fans on BBC Radio Five Live, which was nothing short of hysterical.
Let me put this into perspective. Barcelona’s crushing of Manchester United, the English champions of 2011 no less, had disappointed some people to the extent that they were now advocating turning English football upside down and completely changing its fundamental philosophy to base around the Barcelona model – primarily based around the youth system, and around quick passing football. This because of one match.
What people seem to have completely forgotten (or ignored) is that just 3 years ago, that season’s Champions League football was talked about as the zenith of English club football, with three of the semi-finalists being English clubs and an all-English final that went to penalties. So despite this great success being only a short time ago, this one match, because of one club, was still enough for some people to suggest that English football ought to abandon everything that led to that and start again from scratch, even ignoring the point that this was the final of the biggest club competition in the world and there was an English team in it.
The reality is that one match was down to a set of particular circumstances that made it possible. For a start, the current Barcelona side is truly exceptional: solid at the back, outstanding in midfield, deadly in attack, and with arguably the three best players in the world at the moment not only at the club but surely committed to it long term – Messi, Xavi and Iniesta. I have always passed off Josep Guardiola’s work with the team as building on Frank Rijkaard’s team that won the Champions League in 2006, but when I actually looked up the line-up in the final where they beat Arsenal 2-1, I realised that this wasn’t true – though the philosophy is the same, it’s a completely different side, and he has had a major say in its evolution. However, given the club’s (current – it hasn’t always been the case, over-reactors) concentration on the home-grown talent, this is of course something that is only possible if you get talented players coming through from the youth setup.
It’s a once-in-a-generation team which is now reaching its peak – arguably that peak was this year’s final. But there are hints that it’s downhill from here. Puyol not starting the final is perhaps a sign of things to come, because he isn’t getting any younger, and neither is the midfield maestro Xavi, who is now the wrong side of 30, which might prove important given that the team plays at such a high-tempo. And the others around him won’t go on forever either – in particular, I will single out Messi, because he is exceptional but started his professional career very young, and history tells us that players who start young tend to finish young as well, be it due to injuries racking up or a lack of motivation, so it will be interesting to see how much longer he can continue this great form. Plus, I am worried (for them) that there are troubled waters ahead, given the recent hints that they are about to go on a spending spree, chasing Alexis Sanchez, Giuseppe Rossi and, as ever, Cesc Fabregas. Will this disrupt the harmony? Will it be popular in Catalonia? I am intrigued by the effect this might have.
The most important thing to remember, though, is that Barca are not unbeatable – Arsenal, Real Madrid, Hercules and Real Zaragoza have showed this, even if not all of this defeats had all of the members of the first choice XI playing. This is where Manchester United come in. A lot of people will say “if the English champions get thrashed, there’s no hope for anyone else” but this is simply untrue. Manchester United, to put it simply, aren’t very good at the moment, from a European perspective. They lucked into the title by virtue of their rivals having bad runs of form despite having a poor away record and many injuries, to the extent that this side has been widely considered the weakest title-winning side relative to the rest of the league since the inception of the Premier League.
They also had a very good draw in the Champions League itself, with knockout matches against Marseille, a weak Chelsea and Schalke, as opposed to Barca who scraped past Arsenal and then played Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Madrid. But they still got to the final, which is the point everyone seems to have missed – that is an achievement in itself. So what that they lost – they were still there.
Despite all the pre-match hype, it would have been wrong to have considered this year’s final as the match between the two best teams in Europe. I would say that, if you wanted to see that, you should have watched the semi-final between the two Spanish giants – Mourinho’s Madrid, despite their failings, are also an exceptional side and will only get better now that Galactico Project Part 2 is underway and Jose continues to buy every quality midfielder in Europe. And remember that this was Mourinho’s first season in charge, without time to get to grips with Spanish football or the team he has rapidly assembled to gel, and he still managed to snatch a trophy from within Guardiola’s grasp in the Copa del Rey final – next season, I wouldn’t be surprised in Real end Barca’s run of success.
But back to Manchester United. The line-up they put out in the final surely only added to the problem. The key part, as ever with Barcelona, was the centre of the park, and a centre midfield of Ryan Giggs (how old?) and Michael Carrick (how much did they pay for him?) was never going to be able to compete with Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets – three World Cup winners against two players who have 1 World Cup appearance between them (yes, I’m exaggerating, but it just shows the difference in quality). With the rest of the team, I think Man Utd could probably just about argue as being just as good, bar perhaps the obvious lack of a Messi now that Cristiano Ronaldo is in Madrid.
What is particularly baffling, though, is that at the time of writing, Man Utd have just signed Ashley Young. Despite the obvious problem – a lack of quality centre midfielders, a Xavi or an Iniesta – Sir Alex Ferguson, who I always considered to be the wisest manager in the world, has decided the solution is to sign yet another winger, despite having Valencia, Nani, Giggs, Park, Obertan, Fabio, Rafael and even Rooney if necessary who can all play wide roles.
Yes, they do have Fletcher who missed a lot of last season through illness, and Anderson and Darron Gibson, but I don’t really see them as being world class centre midfielders any time soon – and evidently, in the case of the latter pair at least, neither does Ferguson if he thinks playing 37 year old winger Giggs in the centre of midfield in the Champions League final against the best team in the world is a better option.
Not only this but is Ashley Young that good? I do rate him on a Premier League level, and he has performed well for England, but when you compare to Barcelona, who are about to sign the very highly-rated Sanchez, if Ferguson really wants a quality winger, surely he would be best spending a few million more and getting someone with proven ability and Champions League experience in or a notable wonderkid like Sanchez – Young strikes me as another one of those decent English players who does very well at Premier League level and international qualifiers, and thus gets hyped up before inevitably “under-performing” at international championships.
It’s a really odd signing – I don’t believe it strengthens Man Utd’s first XI at all at this stage, when you would think they would need to having just been embarrassed on the biggest stage in club football. David de Gea and Phil Jones are potentially good signings but I think Fergie needs to do a bit more Redknapp-style wheeling and dealing this summer – ship out some of the deadwood and bring in a couple of young talented midfielders, and perhaps a back-up striker too given that Berbatov looks like he will also be departing.
But just because one big club is under-performing doesn’t necessarily mean jumping to extremes about the whole of the national game. This is another great example of English football fans being totally reactionary – laud English football as brilliant when it all goes right, and then demand it to be torn down and started from scratch when it all goes wrong. We have seen this with the national team, due to misconceptions of England being a powerhouse in international football when it never has (and no doubt we will see it again next year when we inevitably crash out of the Euros earlier than expected), and now we are seeing it with club football, something I never thought I’d see given how successful our club sides have been in recent years.
The truth is that it was down to one team being weaker than previously assumed, in part thanks to the inevitable hype from the British media. The other top clubs are also going through transition periods – Chelsea’s great team of the 2000s is now ageing, but the arrival of Andre Villas-Boas will herald big changes that some fans may not like; Arsenal need big changes and a backbone, which may not materialise until Wenger’s gone but they are still not doing that badly, as the Barcelona games showed; Liverpool’s renaissance may just be beginning. Plus Manchester City will spend more this summer and I have a feeling they may launch title challenges at home and on the continent, and Spurs are not too far away from the big boys in terms of quality but lack strength in depth as last season showed – perhaps selling Luka Modric is not such a bad idea after all if they can use the profits to bring in two or three quality players to boost the overall squad.
So it is not all doom and gloom. In fact, I don’t see it being at all negative. Yes, the top English club sides are a little weaker than they were but we still saw all four representatives reach the Champions League knockout stages, with one making the final, two making the quarter-finals, and the other one nearly beat the side that won it. This is still better than the vast majority of the other top footballing nations in Europe.
Further to that, we have had representatives in 6 of the last 7 Champions League finals, something no other nation can say, and 2 of the last 6 UEFA Cup/Europa League finals, which only Spain can better – compare this to France, one of the other great European footballing nations, who haven’t had a representative in any European club final for 7 years and haven’t won anything since PSG won the 1996 Cup Winners’ Cup. The Premier League is still the league everyone else in Europe looks to in awe, and the richest, strongest, most watched second, third, fourth and fifth tiers. And as far as Barcelona is concerned, what goes up must come down – I’ll give them one year more of sustaining their dominance at most, but Real will be back next year and new rivals will emerge over the next couple of years, so they will find it tougher.
But no, I am wrong to be positive. We must tear it all down just because one club lost one game by two goals. How silly of me…