The Premier League’s knockout culture is undermining English clubs in Europe 2

This has been a really difficult week for English clubs in Europe, there’s no point in denying that.  Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester City all fell rather limply to Spanish, Italian, French and Turkish opponents and, as is now the tradition, that will lead to an evaluation of the Premier League’s place in the continental hierarchy.

It will be very melodramatic and presumably quite dull, but it’s probably warranted: over the last ten years, English sides have become far less frequent visitors to the latter stages of European competition and that’s surely not just a coincidence.

The more alarmist commentators will presumably fall back on the old, tired arguments and attempt to attribute this to familiar, xenophobia-based explanations, but this malaise seems to be more a product of a stylistic problem.

The Premier League has been of immeasurable benefit to its member clubs and, over the past twenty years, it has allowed them to compete financially for the very best players in the world.  As a result, it’s reasonable to look at that array of talent - Alexis Sanchez, Sergio Aguero, Mesut Ozil, Yaya Toure and David Silva - and query why, year-after-year, it seems incapable of affording anything more than domestic success.

There isn’t one single explanation for this, but it’s valid to argue that - outside of its weekend context - English football is becoming a victim of the back-and-forth style which makes it so watchable.

The Greatest League in the World rhetoric is obviously just self-serving marketing jargon, but it’s not without an element of truth.  The Premier League is not really built around subtlety, controlled possession, or resilient defending, its governing mentality is ‘he who attacks best wins’.

While that may be a very entertaining characteristic, it’s not one which translates particularly well into continental football.  Offensive strength is pertinent in the Champions or Europa League, but it’s not the only quality a side needs to be successful.  There are exceptions, but typically the teams who prosper in those tournaments are very balanced: they can attack with ruthless dynamism, but they’re also capable of retaining possession, of protecting narrow leads for long periods of time, and of maintaining a strong hold over the rhythm and speed of a game.

In simple terms, they have more than one gear.

English sides are tactically capable of playing in that way, but the very best teams in the Premier League are used to not having to.  Elite sides win on a Saturday or Sunday by overpowering their opponents, not necessarily by out-thinking them.

Last season, Liverpool came very close to winning the championship because of their attacking potency.  Brendan Rodgers’ side were defensively very average, but somehow that didn’t seem to matter - their attacking excellence was sufficient to carry them to the top of the table.

As fun as it was to watch, it was also quite worrying.

To borrow a phrase from boxing, our best sides - with the current exception of Chelsea - are all knockout artists.  They win because they have the heaviest punch.  Their footwork is awkward and they don’t cover up particularly well, but - against a domestic opponent - those weaknesses are fairly irrelevant.

That doesn’t export particularly well.  Against the very best sides in Europe, games are not one with a flurry of haymakers, but with a more measured approach - and although English teams possess the attributes to compete on that basis, they invariably look very awkward whenever they’re asked to do so.

And why wouldn’t they?  Footballing IQ is a muscle and if it isn’t used very often, it will start to waste.

On Wednesday night, AS Monaco established a 3-1 first-leg lead over Arsenal at The Emirates.  The French side didn’t overpower Arsene Wenger’s team, they frustrated them. Monaco invited Arsenal onto them, closed off their deep passing options, and ruthlessly exploited the vacated space as the English side were panicked into over-committing.

It was a victory with roots in cohesion and, rather uncomfortably, it all felt very familiar.  Even in the prelude to that game, there was something very revealing about the English approach: Monaco were fodder because they had inferior players.   There was no discussion of how Leonardo Jardim might approach the tie tactically, only an assumption that Arsenal should have too much for him and his players.

That’s a very English mentality - and it’s one validated by the Premier League.  That competition respects aggression, power and goals, but very little else and, again, that’s in stark contrast to its European peers.

Naturally, teams in this country are built in accordance with the conditions for domestic success, but the attack-focused principles and basketball-like mentality have become far too entrenched and have helped to create a foreign blueprint for beating English sides.

Increasingly, we are the home-schooled child who is only ever taught one subject and who looks bewildered whenever he’s forced to leave the house.

Maybe the truth about the Premier League is that it truly is the most watchable club competition in the world, but that it has sold its footballing substance in exchange and accidentally put itself at a continental disadvantage?

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