England has a new home for European football, but the scathing soundtrack of post-match pundits remains the same.
An embarrassing gaffe at half-time during BT Sport’s half-time analysis of Arsenal’s defeat to Dinamo Zagreb undermined a largely solid start from the broadcaster but the same could not be said of the strangers in the late-summer nights pervading the Premier league representatives.
The on-screen chemistry between Gary Lineker, Ian Wright, Rio Ferdinand and Steven Gerrard built over years of being in each other’s presence both in the media and on the football field was clearly visible, but the channel must have wished for a better set of results to herald the start of their £897million three-year deal.
Three of England’s four sides lost on the opening matchday, with only Chelsea emerging unbruised from their procession at home to Israeli side Maccabi Tel-Aviv.
Jose Mourinho’s slightly disingenuous comparison to Wayne Rooney only served to emphasise the point that seems to rear itself earlier each year: that British clubs, the old guard, are on the decline.
‘There are people who are not happy with so many successes,’ said Mourinho. ‘Wayne Rooney was a disaster, then he beats the record with England and he’s suddenly the best player in the history of English football. Rooney is a fantastic player when he is not scoring goals or when he is.
‘I’m a fantastic manager when I’m not winning matches and I’m a fantastic manager when I am. You like up and down, but it’s not like that.’
The truth is that Mourinho has been unable to build sustainable success at any of the clubs he has managed, and if one accusation can be levelled against English clubs in the past four years in which only three sides have reached the quarter-finals it is that there is a lack of cultural identity seeping into our game.
This is in many ways directly linked to the record-breaking summer in which over £850million was plunged by Premier League clubs on new signings.
The upshot of such a turnover of players is a clear lack of identity and direction among certain clubs, who appear to be trying to shoehorn millions of pounds worth of talent into a starting XI who barely know each other’s nationalities.
It is far cry from the days of regular semi-finalists between 2005 and 2010, but the decline has been gradual in the past five seasons, with only three sides reaching the last four between 2011 and 2014.
Between 2005 and 2011, none of the four English representatives lost in the opening matchweek, and with only a solitary loss in 2012 and 2013 followed by two defeats last campaign, the three suffered on the opening night this time around represents another blow to England’s tumbling UEFA coefficient.
The last time all four English teams won their Champions League group games in the same week was on matchday three in October 2011. Nearly four years ago, the four sides representing England’s hopes read like this:
For Arsenal against Marseille – Szczesny, Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Santos, Song, Rosicky, Arteta, Arshavin, Van Persie, Walcott.
For Chelsea at home to Genk – Cech, Ivanovic, Bosingwa, Ashley Cole, Luiz, Romeu, Meireles, Lampard, Torres, Malouda, Anelka.
Manchester City’s outfit versus Villareal – Hart, Kompany, Zabaleta, Lescott, Kolarov, Nasri, Silva, De Jong, Yaya Toure, Dzeko, Johnson.
And Manchester United’s winning team away to Romanian side Otelul – Lindegaard, Vidic, Smalling, Fabio, Evra, Anderson, Nani, Carrick, Valencia, Rooney, Hernandez.
Admittedly, all four wins represented different levels of difficulty, but can we honestly say these four teams are better on paper than the quartet of starting line-ups this week?
What has changed more drastically than the names on those team-sheets is the sense of short-termism that has plagued most clubs, with the possible exception of Arsenal, who appear to think they can win anything of note with the same core of players.
Arsene Wenger has been in the industry for long enough to know that were his side to stand any chance of emerging from the Maksimir Stadium with maximum points, he would need to be at full strength.
In spite of Dinamo’s travails in Europe – having failed to win a Champions League group game this century – Wenger will have known his side would be up against it versus a team unbeaten since November, a run of 41 matches.
His intentions were to leave it to chance, and to see if his side could essentially get away with one; but his decision to make six changes – including goalkeeper Petr Cech – only served to wave the white flag at Bayern Munich.
The German juggernaut now has a free ride until February, when the knock-outs kick in. So often have we seen complacency in the Gunners when they have appeared well set to finish top of their group, only to face a seeded club in the last 16; but surrendering to Pep Guardiola’s side so early on is unforgivable.
As for Manchester City, their defeat to Juventus boiled down to fine details, with the Italians scoring two well-crafted goals to cancel out a contentious opener as Giorgio Chiellini headed past Gianluigi Buffon under the considerable piggyback of Vincent Kompany.
But the fact remains that City’s complex at home in Europe has been exacerbated: five defeats, five draws and five wins in 15 home Champions League games shows that sides visiting the Etihad are at no disadvantage; even a more vocal home support on Tuesday night only seemed to play into the hands of Massimiliano Allegri’s impressive side.
The missed opportunities from Raheem Sterling may have gone unpunished in the Premier League against sides with clipped ambitions, but against a side hurting from several losses in personnel having come so close to lifting the trophy in May, City ran into a train.
There is a sense with Manchester United that the Louis van Gaal years will be remembered for moments rather than medals. The euphoria of beating fierce rivals Liverpool on Saturday was shattered with Luke Shaw’s leg in defeat to PSV.
While Paul Scholes appeared encouraged by what he saw, there is no escaping the feeling that United are too big a club to be cast as a form of wildcard in any edition of this competition.
Oh for those famous Old Trafford nights. Can we truly hope for the decayed corporate culture of the Emirates, Etihad and Stamford Bridge to ever be anything but? Or are we suffering from an inflated sense of self-importance?
Slaven Bilic would appear to think so, having rubbished the consternation surrounding the plight of English clubs in Europe, claiming we should not be startled by this week’s results.
‘Why are people so surprised when Manchester United lose a game against PSV?’ he said. ‘United is a bigger club and has a better team but many clubs have lost at PSV. They were European champion [in 1988]. It isn’t a shock.
‘You can lose in Zagreb. The whole of Croatia is surprised, but it can happen. They play football there as well. They are not naïve, but you have to know the other teams are also good.
The West Ham manager’s Tottenham counterpart Mauricio Pochettino flagged another issue at stake, which is that the increasingly competitive domestic league is making the scramble to find quality throughout a 25-man squad challenged by a new quota of homegrown players all the more desperate.
‘Manchester City and Manchester United lost because the Premier League is a very tough competition,’ said Pochettino on Wednesday. ‘When you see Sevilla play against I-don’t-know-who in Spain, may be they can rest the week before they play in the Champions League.
‘But for Manchester City it was a very tough game against Crystal Palace. It is not a very easy competition the Premier League, so you suffer a lot in Europe.’
But you will find no better summary in assessing the reasons why English clubs appear to be rolling down a cliff on the continent than in the words of Martin Samuel on a recent appearance on Sky Sports’ Sunday Supplement.
The Daily Mail Chief Sports writer, whilst observing the more open playing field of the Premier League, spoke for the difficulties of the English elite in the broader sense, in attracting the same calibre of players as before to reign over their European contemporaries.
‘The very top [Premier League] clubs cannot get the elite players, out of the top two or three teams in Europe,’ Samuel began. ‘You can’t get Real Madrid or Barcelona players if the clubs want to keep them, and you can’t get Bayern Munich’s first team players.
‘But because of the new television deal, everybody below them are now getting closer. Chelsea, City and United can’t pull away in the same way they could’ve done before, but actually half of Barcelona have come to Stoke.
‘Suddenly, that middle rump of the Premier League are harder to beat. Chelsea can’t get the type of players that are going to take them to the next level, and the players that they are buying are not too dissimilar to the likes Everton are able to afford.’
It is worth remembering the blissful week of one of those ‘middle rump’ teams, West Ham – basking in the glory of a handsome 2-0 home win over Newcastle on Monday – may well have been checked by a defeat away in deepest darkest Russia on Thursday had the Hammers chosen to commit to a European adventure.
The return of home comforts this weekend for the vanquished among the Premier League elite will be welcomed with open arms, but the melancholic melody for a transformative result in Europe still lingers, a collective yearning that shows no signs of being answered.