Manchester City’s defeat to AS Monaco in the Champions League ten days ago posed familiar questions. No English club has won the competition since Chelsea in 2012 and, in each season since, one or more of its domestic sides has fallen in underwhelming circumstances.
That disappointment isn’t just a product of British insularity, either. While the Premier League undeniably has an inflated opinion of itself, even those immune to its marketing bluster would concede that its clubs have failed to reach their potential. Their reputations may well be swollen by visibility, but these are still well endowed clubs who should be achieving more. In this more recent example, Monaco might well be a team of tremendous potential, but City possessed the more developed players and were managed by a coach of greater pedigree than Leonardo Jardim.
Yet they lost. And yet that felt rather typical.
A common tactic in this situation is to praise the victorious underdog and chartacterise the resulting suprise as a product of oversight or arrogance. The rather disingenuous implication, of course, being that regular Ligue 1 watchers assumed that City would be eliminated and that the result was only eye-opening to those who restrict their viewing to British football.
But there must be more to this, because there is always a Monaco and there is always a Manchester City. That is to say, there is always a foreign side totalling more than the sum of their parts, and at least one English team made to look like a collection of shiny-but-clunky objects. It’s not a situation confined to the Champions League, either, with the Europa League routinely drawing similarly unflattering comparisons: Tottenham were eliminated by Genk this year after parachuting in, Southampton lost in the group stage, and West Ham were humiliatingly defeated by Astra Giurgiu in the qualifying phase.
All of those results come with asterisks and the fates of the clubs, in both competitions, can be explained by a combination of bad luck, poor discipline and drifting focus, but it’s difficult to ignore the overriding theme of English teams looking surprisingly inferior abroad. Their strengths, which are not illusory, appear to count for far less on the continent than they do domestically. Rather than portraying the Premier League as a false footballing prophet, which seems to be the voguing habit, perhaps it’s more accurate to acknowledge that its financial muscularity, despite the many advantages it brings, has diluted the collective ability to construct teams – a hidden deficiency at home, but one which is exposed beyond these shores.
Even in isolation, the tie between Monaco and Manchester City provided a pertinent example of just that. How was such a youthful team playing in a relatively inferior league not just able to compete with a club of such resources and man power, but able to conclusively better them for sustained periods. Beyond the surface concerns about City’s defending and their goalkeeping situation, the answer is probably relatively simple: the two sides are built upon different principles.
Despite an initial burst of transfer aggression under Dmitry Rybolovlev’s ownership, Monaco recently begun a move towards a more sustainable model. Radamel Falcao and Joao Moutinho may remain as monuments to that initial approach, but they aren’t representative of the side which has grown out around them. To think of Monaco today is to picture Bernardo Silva, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Fabinho, and Thomas Lemar, all players who have joined within the last three years and none of whom arrived with the reputations they have subsequently acquired. None of them were unknowns (Silva was in fact the incontestable star of the 2015 European u21 Championship), but that they are all now fixtures in gossip columns and transfer exclusives is a consequence of what they have collectively achieved at the Stade Louis II.
And that’s really the point: to watch Monaco now is to see stars, none so bright as the homegrown Kylian Mbappe, but it is also to watch a side of impressive harmony. Like an intricate mechanism with precisely carved pieces and heavily greased gears, they are every inch a football team who appear to have been built with an objective in mind. They retain flaws and the rush to compare them with Ajax’s mid-1990s European Cup-winning side is premature, but they are impressive nonetheless and a team who, for want of a more intellectual description, just appears to “work”.
That’s hardly a groundbreaking observation, but – tellingly – it’s not one which is often made about Premier League teams. In time, Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, a meticulous construction who have been drilled to semi-flawlessness, may prove an exception, but the tendency in this country is for sides to be decorated with players rather than built from them. At the top of the division, within the clubs who routinely challenge for honours and compete for the continental places, the prevailing attitude is one of growth-through-acquisition: the signing of off-the-peg players with the aim of immediate improvement. It’s a necessity. In a league with such commercial pull and a television contract which would make Croesus blush, it’s entirely natural that an arm’s race mentality should develop. If Manchester United don’t sign a blue ribbon midfielder every summer, Manchester City will. If Arsenal baulk at an exorbitant asking-price, Chelsea will go ahead and meet it; whatever its merits, that seems to be the approach – and it typically comes at the cost of steadier progress, one underwritten by more watertight principles and bound by tighter tactical understandings.
Is it coincidence, for instance, that this country’s best Champions League performer in 2016/17 has been the one with the smallest pool of star players and the greatest reliance on cohesion? Leicester City’s progress through their group was serene and though they will likely fall to Atletico Madrid in the quarter-finals, their performances have supported the notion that, beneath the opulent Real Madrid level, glinting individuals don’t shine quite as brightly abroad as they do at home.
At this stage of British football’s evolution, the “buy big” approach can’t even really be described as a criticism: Premier League success is now worth more than European progression, so it makes sense for its clubs to pursue these year-to-year bumps. Had Antonio Conte not spent £24m on Marcos Alonso late in the summer transfer window, Chelsea would currently lack the symmetry that has helped make them so successful this season. On the other hand, if the club played in a league in which year-to-year improvements weren’t so dramatic, perhaps Conte would have had the opportunity to carve a more rounded left-sided wing-back over a longer period of time.
Maybe. It’s difficult to know. What seems certain, though, is that the lack of purchasing power available to major clubs outside England (with the obvious, notable exceptions) can be as much a benefit as it is a hindrance. Neatly, Monaco perhaps provide the best example of why. Their initial mentality under Rybolovlev was both highly aggressive and extremely English. They may have started from a lower level (at the time of the takeover they were playing in Ligue2), but their market behaviour was previously typical of an elite Premier League side: buy the best players available, pursue immediate improvement, and sack managers incapable of maximising that investment. It’s a revealing irony then, that with that initial exuberance chastened and reshaped by the Financial Fair Play regulations, the side are now thriving off the back of more modest objectives.
More modest, but also more sound. Monaco remain a fabulously wealthy club and have trodden this path purposefully rather than out of fiscal necessity. Nevertheless, they remain at a comparative disadvantage in continental terms and appear to think now in mini-eras rather than single seasons. The cost of that is a slower rate of improvement and exposure to transfer-market predators, but the benefits are self-evident: they are a team of wonderful chemistry and rare attacking verve. Built, rather than bought.
This may appear to be little more than English apologism, but maybe this is where the balance needs to be struck? Secondary and tertiary issues remain relevant, like how to tally the Premier League’s winter break-less schedule with the long European campaign, but perhaps the primary issue is more philosophical: if success in England and Europe depends on different factors, how do British clubs marry the necessity of short-term gains with the continent’s emphasis on more evergreen qualities?