The English Premier League is the richest football league on the planet. It has 14 of the 30 richest clubs in the world, according to an analysis that was published in January by consulting firm Deloitte. No other league boasts more than Italy’s five teams.
This suggests that Liverpool’s place in the UEFA Champions League semifinals — where it currently leads Roma 5-2 on aggregate — should come as no surprise. And yet, an English team still playing at this advanced phase of the tournament has become an anomaly. If Liverpool can hold off Roma on Wednesday, it will be the first English team to make the final in six seasons. That drought only underscores that for the top tier of English soccer, a seemingly bottomless pit of cash to spend on players has not translated into success. In recent years, the domination of the European superclubs — Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid — has combined with the English clubs’ own failings to leave English teams floundering in the Champions League.
A decade ago, this wasn’t the case — the Premier League dominated in the Champions League. In the five seasons from 2004-05 to 2008-09, six of the 10 finalists were English, with four separate clubs — Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United — represented. The 2007-08 season was the apogee of English supremacy: Chelsea and Manchester United met in the final, Liverpool was in the semifinals, and Arsenal made it to the quarterfinals. The following season, English clubs again made up three of the four semifinalists.
But since Manchester United lost the final to Barcelona in 2009, the Premier League’s hold over the Champions League has loosened. From 2009-10 to 2011-12, six English teams, out of a possible 12, reached the quarterfinals; only two — fewer than in each of 2008 and 2009 — reached the semifinals. The downtick in all-around EPL performance in the event was masked by Chelsea, which won the competition in 2012.
The Premier League is widely extolled as the best league in the world. Yet recent results suggest that in terms of the pure quality of its top teams, it has been left behind. In the six seasons since 2012-13, the Premier League has produced six Champions League quarterfinalists. Over that same time period, Spain’s La Liga has had 18 — three every single season — and 11 have subsequently reached the semifinals. Germany’s Bundesliga has produced 10 quarterfinalists.
Indeed, the Premier League is barely keeping pace with two leagues that it considers itself far superior to and that in recent years have generated less than half as much revenue: France’s Ligue 1 (helped by the Qatari billionaires expanding the coffers of Paris Saint-Germain), which has had six quarterfinalists since 2012-13, and Italy’s Serie A, which has had five quarterfinalists but produced two finalists.
What’s worse, the Premier League’s underperformance is not restricted to the Champions League. English teams from outside the big six1 have barely made a dent in the Europa League, consistently losing to sides with far less revenue. Only six of the top 60 teams in the FiveThirtyEight global club soccer rankings are English, and the rankings place the Premier League as the third-strongest league overall, behind La Liga and the Bundesliga.2 It all invites the question: Why has the Premier League endured an era of such sustained mediocrity in spite of its wealth?
The continental super clubs — Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich — have dominated recent editions of the Champions League. Since 2012-13, these three have filled 13 of the total of 24 berths in the semifinals, with Real Madrid making the last four every single year. These clubs possess extraordinary wealth and global appeal: In 2016-17, Real Madrid generated $809.3 million (674.6 million euros) in revenue, Barcelona $777.9 million and Bayern Munich $705.3 million.
Yet the wealthiest club in the world, Manchester United, which generated 2 million more euros than Real Madrid, hasn’t had anywhere near the level of recent success that those clubs have. Manchester United has reached the quarterfinals only once in the past six seasons. (In two of these, the club didn’t even qualify because of where it finished in the EPL table.) This season, it was eliminated in the second round by Sevilla, which isn’t even among the 30 richest clubs in Europe.
Beyond the powerhouses of Bayern, Real and Barca, other clubs have done more with less — and none of them play in England. Atlético Madrid, losing Champions League finalists in both 2014 and 2016, has enjoyed sustained success despite generating significantly less revenue than the English big six. In 2016-17, it earned $327.0 million; by contrast, the big-six team with the lowest revenue, Tottenham, generated $426.7 million.
Other factors are cited to explain the Premier League’s struggles. One study of injuries in soccer found that Premier League players are more likely to get injured in the final months of the season than players in others leagues, suggesting that Premier League teams are handicapped by the lack of a winter break. In Germany, for instance, each Bundesliga team plays only 34 matches a season — rather than 38 in the other main four European domestic leagues — and annually takes three weeks off around Christmas. The top English sides, meanwhile, play throughout this period, sometimes juggling two domestic club tournaments, league play and Champions League — not to mention any international responsibilities. The league is expected to implement a winter break starting in the 2019-20 season.
Yet the Premier League was able to achieve its earlier domination in the Champions League without a winter break.
Another possible reason for the Premier League’s recent Champions League performance problems is that English clubs are being hurt by their league’s competitive balance. In the Premier League, compared with top European leagues, there are fewer easier league matches, when teams can rest players or players can simply exert themselves less. “English teams play in a more competitive league — relatively speaking, each game is harder,” said Rob Wilson, a soccer finance expert from Sheffield Hallam University. He believes that other European clubs “should be able to perform better in Europe as they are less fatigued.”
Although Manchester City cruised to the league title this season, winning with five matches to spare, the Premier League has been more unpredictable than the other main five European leagues in recent years — partly because the Premier League shares its cash around far more equitably than rival leagues do. As the description of the Premier League “big six” suggests, the battle for the top four places — which bring automatic Champions League qualification — is notoriously tough, and no club has retained the title since 2009. In the Bundesliga, meanwhile, Bayern Munich has already sealed its sixth straight title; in La Liga, both Barcelona and Real Madrid have been in the top three every year since 2004; and in Serie A, Juventus is closing in on is seventh straight title.
Yet, for all these mitigating factors, one conclusion is inescapable: English clubs have spent their huge bounty of cash very poorly.
There has long been a notion that there is a premium on English talent — and that English players generally represent worse value than players from other countries. “English players are so overpriced right now it’s a joke,” Rio Ferdinand, a former England captain, lamented in 2015. The 21st Club, a soccer consultancy that advises clubs, has found that English players cost about 20 percent more than equally good players from other nations; clubs are mandated to have eight “locally trained players” out of a maximum of 25 in their squads for the Champions League, a rule mirrored in the Premier League.
English clubs spend so much on signing players partly because they have to compensate for developing fewer elite players through their academy systems than wealthy teams on the continent. English clubs generally invest a lower share of their money in academy structures than continental clubs, and there are fewer young, homegrown players than in the other big five leagues. Developing homegrown talent is cheaper than signing older players, and those homegrown players are generally less likely to move clubs, suggesting that teams can benefit from extra cohesion if they have a homegrown core. When Real Madrid won the Champions League last year, six of its side in the final joined as teenagers; Barcelona has had a similar dependence on players who came through its famed La Masia academy.
Had the Premier League produced Champions League quarterfinalists at the same rate that it produced top-eight teams in the Deloitte Football Money League since 2012-13, 24 English sides — rather than six — would have made it to that round. So Liverpool is not merely fighting for the chance to win Europe’s biggest club competition for the sixth time in its history. It is also fighting to improve the most popular soccer league’s reputation for delivering a poor return on all its cash.