Does Champions League Failure Suggest a Premier League in Decline?

Will TideySenior Manager, GlobalMarch 14, 2013

Arsenal's Champions League exit at the hands of Bayern Munich, along with Manchester United's defeat to Real Madrid, has prompted a predictable rush to diagnose the Premier League as being in decline.

This is the first season since 1995-96 that no English club has made it through to the quarterfinals. Some will tell you this is indicative of a trend, a slip in Premier League standards highlighted by the upward trajectory of its contemporary leagues in Spain, Italy and Germany.

Said Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, after watching his team knocked out on away goals by Bayern on Wednesday night, according to MSN, "It means that the rest of European football has caught up with us. We have to take that into consideration when we talk about the Premier League in the future."

A strong counterargument to Wenger's self-serving doom-mongering, of course, is that Chelsea won the whole thing just last year, while United have been in three of the last five finals. 

Equally, might we argue that the difference between Manchester United being in the last eight and not was a single refereeing decision? Wenger's Arsenal may very well be in the quarters too had they avoided drawing the hottest team in Europe in the last 16.

Here are some facts and figures to paint a picture of how Europe's major leagues have fared in the Champions League:

The big question to start with is how we should measure success. If it's on titles won, then the last 10 seasons have been split evenly between Spain, Italy and England—with three successes for each of their respective leagues (the other was claimed by Jose Mourinho's Porto).

If the last decade is scored on weight of numbers reaching the knockout stages, however, with points accumulated based on how deep teams have gone from there (as per the graphic above), then the Premier League wins at a canter. The 2007-08 season, with three English teams in the semifinals and two contesting the final, was as emphatic a statement of supremacy as you can imagine.

The Premier League put three in the semifinals again in the 2008-09 edition, only this time, Pep Guardiola's Barcelona defeated both Chelsea and Manchester United to win it all.

United were the sole Premier League representatives through to the quarters in the 2009-10 tournament, bringing up the suggestion of decline. But the next season, England was back up to three of the last eight again, with Tottenham, Chelsea and United present. United once again lost in the final.

And then Chelsea triumphed in Munich last year.

So what of the 2012-13 failures of English clubs? Here's my take.

Chelsea's can be blamed on a messy period of transition after their greatest success; Manchester City's on their relative inexperience in the tournament; Arsenal's on the fact they are a fading force clinging to life and Manchester United's on a red card that should never have been given.

I'm not sure that's decline—more a moment in time that has served up three of the four English clubs in a process of evolution. The other was just unlucky.

One stat that makes for interesting reading is that the number of goals conceded in the Premier League between 2009 and today has risen from an average of 2.48 to 2.85.

"The change in fortunes (in the Champions League) has coincided with a marked shift in the English game towards more risky, attacking football," reads AFP research, as per MSN.

You can take this number to mean two things: one, that defensive standards are slipping, or two, that Premier League attacks are now such a focus of transfer budgets that an increase in goals scored was inevitable. Either way, it's easy to look back on Arsenal's defending against Bayern at the Emirates and identify a clear weakness.

Of course, we might say the same about Barcelona's defence, or even Bayern's after they shipped two at home to Arsenal.

Such is the acute focus on football that this momentary Premier League blip will be debated in columns like this until the Champions League starts against next season. Sometimes the trends we see have a deeper meaning; sometimes they're just a symptom of the game's cyclical nature. 

It might be fashionable to hail the Bundesliga, Serie A and La Liga as superior to the Premier League today, but don't be surprised if the English clubs come back and put three of four teams in the quarterfinals next time around.

Money talks. And with a new TV deal about to fill the coffers of England's finest, there is nowhere richer.