What this says about English soccer now is difficult to ascertain. Last year, England seemed doomed to disappointment – only to see Chelsea mount a remarkable comeback against Napoli and go on to win the whole tournament. Few think this year’s Arsenal squad has any of the grit of last year’s Chelsea team (or this year’s, for that matter) and after the exit of Manchester United last week, it is perhaps time to reflect on where the English game stands.
This year’s Premier League campaign has been poor. Last season, there were battles up and down the table and it took until stoppage time on the final day of the season to crown a winner. This season, United have stormed out to a lead and look to have sealed the title in late February. There is little drama outside of the normal relegation fights, and the quality of many of the games has been poor. Much of England’s club game looks very average.
Some of this is due to fatigue: the best players in the world have flocked to the Premier League and a lot of them look simply worn out. Financial fair play has also caused some clubs to rethink big expenditures. But most troubling is that the quality of the native English player remains far behind the rest of the big European nations. There are a few bright lights – Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere – but most of the top English players look good when they are surrounded by top players from around the globe – and rather poor when they are not.
Part of this is cultural: the home nations emphasize the wrong skills in their youth training, and this has carried over into the top-flight. A startling number of young British players say their main focus is on tackling – which, is in fact, the least important part of the game at the highest level. This has made the Premier League an engagingly physical league at its best – and a dull slog at its worst.
As it happens, the best league to watch this season has been in Germany, where the Bundesliga has managed to combine technical prowess with devastating power. There’s a reason that so many German teams are in play: they move the ball quickly, the players run off the ball well, and they have been rigorously skilled in how to shift tactics on the fly. Moreover, the German teams have such a strong youth base to build off that they have more depth than their English counterparts.
That’s why, even as Bayern enters this match missing three key players, Franck Ribery (injured), Bastian Schweinsteiger and Jerome Boateng (both suspended), few are thinking that Arsenal can mount much of a challenge. Arsenal’s manager Arsene Wenger has admitted as much, telling the press that Bayern are “clearly superior.” Bayern hold a commanding 3-1 lead and three away goals. Arsenal will be missing their best player and are scrambling just to make the top four in England.
What he hasn’t said is that a big reason for his woes is that the club has been unable to develop home-grown talent. If Bayern wished to, it could field an all-German starting XI of quality. Arsenal has only two English players that could possibly compete in Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott. This has left the Gunners bidding on scraps from the rest of Europe.
And Wilshere cannot play in this match due to a swollen ankle, the latest in a long string of injury problems for the midfielder — this one will sideline him for three weeks. Lukas Podolski and Bacary Sagna are also out injured as well as reportedly out the door. But Arsenal also have little left: a glance down their roster shows a series of increasingly unappetizing choices, and the foreign imports they have brought in have been spectacularly ill-suited to both the Premier League and Europe.
Arsenal’s misses have been stunning: Olivier Giroud, Gervinho, Andrey Arshavin, Marouane Chamakh are among a good dozen who came and flopped under pressure. The players who have stood out – Wilshere, Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott – have frequently been forced to carry the game by themselves, with little to show for their efforts.
Arsenal will try to give a good accounting, but it’s hard not to see the club’s woes as a symptom of a larger problem. The English game, which is rough, fast and frequently lacking in technical quality, has been surpassed by the tactical and technical play in Spain and Germany. One wonders if the Premier League itself is entering a period of decline – or whether this season is just a blip.
No matter what the answer is, it’s likely to be cold comfort to Arsenal fans. They are already expecting to leave Munich disappointed.