Champions League: English slump or cyclical reaction?
It was not so long ago that we would speak of a Big Four: Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, and Liverpool. Those days have gone. So have the days when the Premier League would supply three of the four semi-finalists in the Uefa Champions League, which happened in 2007 and 2008.
In the six seasons from 2003-04 to 2008-09, only once did a club – Everton – breach the status quo in the Premier League. During the period, United won one Uefa Champions League, finished runners-up once, and lost in the semi-finals once. Liverpool also won one Uefa Champions League, finished runners-up once, and lost in the semi-finals once. Chelsea reached four semi-finals and lost once in the final. Arsenal lost in one final.
Since then, to the relief, arguably, of most people, the Big Four fractured in 2010 and, because of Liverpool’s demise, is now but a memory. Chelsea might have won the Champions League last season, and United might have reached the 2011 final, but the balance of power appears to be shifting towards a more egalitarian status. Already in 2012-13, two English teams have bowed out of the competition.
From 2004-09, there was a fear of English clubs that no longer appears to exist. During this period, for example, Liverpool only lost one two-legged tie out of seven to a continental team (Benfica, 2005-06), but lost two out of four ties to Chelsea. Liverpool even won 2-1 away to Barcelona in 2007, while Barcelona were no match for United in 2008, and should have lost to Chelsea in 2009. Arsenal might have won the Champions League in 2006 – against Barcelona – had their goalkeeper, Jens Lehmann, not been sent off in the first half.
Many questions present themselves, the obvious being this: is English football in decline? The answer would only be “yes” if we regarded the 2004-09 period as normal, but, of course, it was not normal; just as the English domination of the European Cup from 1977-84 was not normal.
Trying to find historical determinism out of short-term patterns is a futile pursuit. Better, surely, to accept the view that success in football, like economics, pop music, and everything else, is cyclical. The only inevitable in football, as in all other spheres, is the peaks-and-troughs principle, which should provide succour to those people running Chelsea and Liverpool.