Why England's Best Sides Have Fallen so Far Behind Bayern Munich
It is increasingly difficult to argue that English clubs have not recently fallen a long way behind the standards of my old club, Bayern Munich.
Bayern have been in the Champions League final three of the last four years. The probably should have beaten Chelsea in 2012, but then they bounced back anyway 12 months later and beat Borussia Dortmund at Wembley to become the champions of Europe.
Clearly, the way they are doing things is working successfully—especially when compared with English sides.
If you look at what Bayern did to Barcelona in last year’s semi-finals—winning 7-0 on aggregate, demolishing them at the Nou Camp—and then watched Barcelona this month basically control matters against Manchester City, it just illustrates the gap between Pep Guardiola’s side and the rest.
Although Chelsea did win the competition two years ago, at the moment English sides look some way off the pace when you compare them with Bayern, or even Barcelona and Real Madrid. Paris St-Germain, having invested a lot of money, are also improving rapidly.
But Manchester City have spent as much, or even more, money than PSG. They were perhaps a bit naive in the first game against Barcelona, but I was mightily impressed with them in the second leg, where they matched them in every department and were unlucky not to get in front.
I expect the first game was a huge disappointment because after that it was always a big, big ask to overturn that deficit. I know that they are very young in that competition and have improved in the last two years so I don’t know if it is a mentality, a belief, but I think when you look at that time, the money they have spent, I think they should be closer to Barcelona.
But, more generally, here are some reasons I think English clubs have fallen behind.
The Standard of Premier League Players Has Dipped
I’ll start with the most obvious cause—the quality of the Premier League’s players, overall, is not as good as it was 10 or 15 years ago.
I think if you look at the best players in the world at the moment they come from Spain, Germany and South America. The English players these days are not as good as the so-called "Golden Generation"—that was probably not so golden because they did not perform as a national team—but they had some outstanding individual players. Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen, Frank Lampard, John Terry and Paul Scholes just to name a few.
You had the homegrown talent, and on top of that the foreigners coming in the late '90s and early 2000s.
If you look at Arsenal’s team you had Henry, Overmars, Bergkamp, Pires, Kanu, Vieira. Man Utd had Keane, Beckham, van Nistelrooy. You could have done a world XI out of Premier League players 10 or 15 years ago, but at the moment you would struggle to find two or three or four that would make it into a world XI.
I think back in the day you had some brilliant homegrown players, and I think the foreigners in the league were also better, in the main—there were more players of a greater standard, including World Cup winners like Marcel Desailly. There seemed to be a few at almost every club. I think that is why the Manchester United’s and the Arsenal’s and the Chelsea’s were so competitive in the Champions League —and not so now.
There were so many world-class players, from England and abroad, that were competitive at the top of the Premier League. If you look at the best players now, not too many from the Premier League—let alone English players—would get into a world XI. I don’t think many players would even be considered for the squad, whereas 10 years ago the Premier League would have probably had the majority of the players in a 14- or 18-player squad.
Youth Development Is Not Efficient
I don’t believe for one second that the young talent in Germany, Italy or Spain is better or more developed than it is in England.
I think it is a big problem in England that half the times the clubs buy players—at youth and senior level—so other teams can’t have them, which is a huge problem.
I did a piece recently for The Times (subscription required) with my ex-youth team manager, Hermann Gerland, who is now working on Pep Guardiola’s senior staff.
Bayern only bring in players purely from the region—if there is a really good player from wider Germany, then they make take him, but they will not take any foreign players. I think that is a big problem in England. If you look at the Under-16s, or even earlier then, it is very obvious that there are a lot of foreign kids in the system. If you look at Manchester City for example, they already have players from all over Europe and beyond joining before they are even 18.
The problem with doing that is that you take away a chance from the local kids.
Chelsea demonstrates another modern problem—they’ve got 20 or so players out on loan at the moment. I think it is certainly something that the Premier League must look to restrict because it cannot be for the best that the clubs have 50 or 60 players on their books and just loan them out. I don’t want to say the clubs don’t care about some of their players, but if the players are not good enough for the first team, then they just loan them out and when their contracts are up they just leave.
Certainly there has to be something done about that. How many foreign kids of a certain age you can bring in, for example, I think you need to restrict it to one or two per age group.
Pressure on Managers Makes Them Focus on Quick Fix
If you look at Bayern, they actually tend to keep things simple; they keep their best players and then bring additional world-class players in. They have an ethos where everybody knows what is required of them.
There is hardly anything coming out of the camp now, no negativity, which is obviously easier when you are winning games. But that ethos develops in the youth teams and feeds upwards, while the stability comes from the manager and board-level staff and feeds down.
In England, there are always a lot of changes and, apart from Arsenal, teams change their managers on a regular basis.
The turnover of managers does not help. In England, even if you sign a contract you know that if it doesn’t work out in the first six months, you are gone, so you tend to play the more experienced player over a kid—which is understandable, but at the same time there are some talented kids here who are just wasted.
I spoke to my old youth-team coach at Bayern Munich recently and he told me he had to fight for every player—if you look at all the players he has brought through to the first team over the years, he has brought through so many, but he had to fight for every single one for the director of football or the manager to give them contracts and give them chances.
He pushed them and would not take no for answer. He stood there and said, “These players are good enough for the first team” even when others had doubts. You need a guy in charge of the youth system who the manager of the first team listens to for a start, and has the belief in you that you can do it.
Because it becomes harder now for these players in England because the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea bring in three or four big-name signings every year and it becomes harder and harder for the young players to play. You need someone who believes in the kids and a club that has a philosophy to give them a chance. He’s got to play, but he’s got to be given a chance.
Philipp Lahm is a good example—Gerland had to fight for him, and now Guardiola calls him the cleverest player he has worked with. But Lahm had to go on loan to Stuttgart first to prove his worth, and only when Sir Alex Ferguson showed an interest in him did Bayern’s hierarchy realise what a talent they had on their hands.
Since then they have trusted Gerland’s judgement implicitly.
The Loan System Is Not Being Used Correctly
Lahm’s example raises another point about the loan system. The loan system is another problem because English clubs just send these players of 18 or 19 years of age out on loan to a League One club. If you can’t play in League One, it does not necessarily mean you cannot play in the Premier League, because they are very different leagues.
At Bayern Munich, the likes of David Alaba and Lahm were loaned out to Bundesliga clubs. They played in the same division and learned in the same league and showed what they could do.
I don’t believe for one second that playing 20 games in League One is better than training every day with an Eden Hazard, a Juan Mata, a John Terry. At that age you need to learn and there is where you learn—and I think sometimes English clubs show a lack of care for these players, to give them the best chance to succeed at their club.
Buying (Foreign) Players Has Become an Easy Way out
I’m not sure how it works in detail, but obviously all clubs have scouts and scout players everywhere—but if Bayern do bring a foreign kid in, he has to be an outstanding talent.
If they are not 100 per cent sure about him, then they will stick to the local lad coming through and give him a chance. Very reluctantly they will buy a foreign kid in.
I’m not sure that is true for English clubs. Sometimes you can over-scout. You look at so many players that you forget what you have on the doorstep. I think that is the big problem these days, that you automatically think if a kid comes from Spain or Germany, he has to be better than the English player you’ve already got.
I don’t think that is necessarily the case.