I originally published this article on the OddsModel website on the 23rd February 2016, just ahead of the start of the first legs of the 2015/16 Champions League Last 16 knockout ties.
Since then Chelsea have been knocked out (quite comfortably) by PSG, and Arsenal were beaten at home (again – comfortably) by Barcelona. Man City did win 3-1 in Kiev though.
In the 5 UEFA Champions League seasons from 04/5 to 08/9, English clubs made up 12 of the 20 semi-finalists.
In the 5 completed seasons since then they have only had 3 semi-finalists out of 20.
What is going on?
Are England’s richest teams really getting worse?
For anybody (like me) who is interested in measuring the relative strengths of different leagues around Europe, the UEFA Champions League is a well-designed experiment. Each season delivers a reasonable sample size of inter-country games, and the current structure of an initial league stage and then two-legged knockout ties smooths out a lot of the luck (good and bad) than can hamper finding ‘fair’ results in football cup competitions. Generally speaking, the cream rises to the top in the Champions League.
So when England provided 3 of the 4 semi-finalists in three consecutive seasons from 06/7 to 08/9 we could say with some certainty that the English Premier League was the dominant force in European football. And with the top English clubs getting exponentially richer since – with billionaire ownership and the commercial juggernaut of the league’s TV rights deals helping to fund them – this level of success seemed well set.
But something has gone wrong. This season, at time of writing (just before Arsenal and Man City play the 1st legs of their L16 ties) the betting markets forecast that England will only have 1 team in the Quarter Finals, and none in the Semi Finals.
The betting markets agree with the evidence of English clubs’ decline in recent years…
It’s seldom wise to make bold claims based on a limited sample size of games, especially when much hinges on a small number of goals (inc. the ‘away goals’ rule). And of course English clubs could just have been unlucky with their draws in the last few seasons – having the misfortune to run into the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich regularly in the competition will knock a dent in any country’s record. But the decline in England’s teams’ performances has been evident in the group stages too, so they have been performing worse against all of the continent’s teams.
The graph below show English teams’ results in the group stages, looking at the average number of points they won in their 6 group games.
The pattern of success of top level football teams can largely be predicted by following the money. The richer the club the bigger the salary budget they can employ. Player salaries are pretty efficient at differentiating talent levels, and collective player talent is by far the biggest factor in the level of performance that a team will achieve. So the richest clubs have the best players; become the best teams, play at the highest level, and have the most success. That’s not a romantic way of looking at football, but it represents reality.
Back in early September we built a simple model to predict the outcome of this season’s Champions League groups. The only input to the model was the reported income of each club in 2014 (taken from SportingIntelligence.com). The model knew nothing about the teams, what country the club came from, who the players were, who the manager was etc. Only how much income each had generated in the previous year, which we used as a proxy for their current salary budget.
The output of the model, and the actual results are shown below.
The correlation between club income and success in the Champions League groups is striking. There is a genuinely free market for playing (and coaching) talent across Europe now. So in a footballing world where wealth is king, and the English Premier League is getting richer relative to its European counterparts, English clubs are performing way worse than they should.
The evidence seems pretty clear that England’s top teams have declined in the last few years. The question is, why?
Perhaps it has something to do with the structure of the top end of the English league, where there are several teams vying for Champions League places, and the championship is shared around more than with the virtual monopolies in Italy (Juventus), Germany (Bayern), France (PSG) and Spain (either Barcelona or Real Madrid). Although, how to explain Atletico Madrid?
Perhaps it’s just a cyclical thing, and it’s England’s turn to have a bad run, something which no amount of money can prevent.
One pet theory of ours is that England’s richest teams have become overly analytical. They spend too much time concerning themselves with ‘what’ they are doing, and not enough on ‘how’ they are doing it (‘it aint what you do, it’s the way that you do it’ – as some wise philosophers once said).
We understand that there are players in the Premier League who are now financially incentivised in their contracts based on the pass completion % they achieve over a season. Some English clubs feed back to their players data on their every movement in training, and in games – including during half time in games. If true, this sort of bad use of analytics could explain the decline.
Football is a fast-moving and fluid game involving enormous complexity and subtlety in the relationships between player movements. It demands improvisation, especially in attacking play, as well as physical aggression, commitment and intensity.
The optimum mental balance for a footballer is to have the majority of his actions governed by the sub-conscious part of his brain, because this is much faster than the conscious part (or, they should employ the ‘computer‘ part of the brain, more than the ‘human’, as per Dr Steve Peter’s model of the human brain). The sub-conscious contains all the accumulated expertise of a lifetime’s training and practice, and it has a far better relationship with a player’s ‘muscle memory’.
In a football match, if you have to think about doing something before you do it, then it’s normally too late – the moment has gone. Thinking too much rather than ‘just doing it’ can rob sportsmen of an edge in their intensity, which is harmful to their performance.
English clubs have fallen for the ‘Moneyball’ idea more than any others in European football. They have been engaged in an arms race to hire a fleet of analysts, and to implement their ideas. But football is very different structurally to a staccato sport like baseball. It has more in common with basketball, where even the ‘stats’ poster boy Shane Battier readily acknowledges the dangers in becoming overly analytical. This investment in analytics has coincided with English clubs’ decline as a force in European competition.
Simply a coincidence? Possibly. But as the bookmakers’ current favourites for the English Premier League (Arsenal) get set to take on the favourites for La Liga (Barcelona) tonight, the bookmakers give Barca roughly an 85% chance to go through.
Barcelona are exceptional and would be favourites to beat anybody. But what is clear is that England’s top teams are in a rut, not just compared to the European elite, but they are doing worse against the poorer clubs in the rest of Europe too.
In the new European order dominated by the richest clubs of Spain, Germany, Italy and France, the wealthiest English clubs are being left behind with the also-rans.