England brims with national pride. An unfamiliar feeling these days, considering the constipation of the country’s political class.
Football, though, brings signs of progress, from last year’s World Cup and the imminent Nations League semi-final to this week and the realisation that English clubs are actually the best in Europe.
For the first time ever, one nation has delivered all four finalists in the Champions League and Europa League. This year, there will be no gnashing of teeth, no lamenting that the continentals have left us behind, no calls for root and branch reform and the question of whether all those foreigners have diluted our game.
For now, the last of those ideas can be shunted to one side. Key to the success of Liverpool and Tottenham in the Champions League and Chelsea and Arsenal in the Europa League has been the Premier League’s ability to attract the best coaches in the game.
In Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool were able to sign up someone who revolutionised German football, while in Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham have someone who has harnessed Marcelo Bielsa’s idealism into taking an underfunded team to the brink of the greatest success in his club’s modern history.
And while Chelsea fans found time to boo Maurizio Sarri during their team’s squeeze past Eintracht Frankfurt on Thursday, their club, who last year attracted the most feted coach in Serie A, has qualified for next season’s Champions League and is in a European final for the first time in six years.
In Unai Emery, Arsenal have a coach with a near-monopoly on Europe’s second-tier competition, having been a three-time winner with Sevilla.
Arsene Wenger never won a single European trophy in his long career.
And that quartet’s success has taken place while Pep Guardiola is just 180 minutes from an unprecedented domestic treble with Manchester City. Though the failures in the Champions League are beginning to mount up for the Catalan in such a way as to endanger his legacy, he is still best-in-class, someone the rest must aspire to.
English football has found that its riches are not quite capable of hauling in the best players to the Premier League. Its biggest stars still look to the continent’s giants, as is likely to be the case this summer with Eden Hazard’s long-trailed move to Real Madrid expected to happen and with Paul Pogba looking to leave Manchester United.
For coaches, the attraction is far stronger. “It is every three days for our side and everybody else,” said Guardiola a year ago on the challenge of being English champions. “It is the most difficult thing.”
That was before his City team were involved in this season’s record-breaking title race with Liverpool in which each has pushed the other to the edge, and where the last faltering step took place on March 3, when Liverpool drew 0-0 at Everton.
Aside from high wages, English football allows a coach or manager a far freer hand than is allowed across the rest of Europe. Klopp is all-powerful at Liverpool in a fashion he could never be at Borussia Dortmund, where Michael Zorc as sports manager and CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke provided counterbalance and constraints.
Guardiola may have been Barcelona’s prodigal son, but there was a back office of competing interests and political operators to deal with there, and even more so at Bayern Munich, where a host of ex-players run the club and are given facility to interfere.
At City, the club has been created around him, with a pair of trusted confidantes in Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano running the business side and buying him the players he wants.
Emery may have hit the buffers of the sharp business practices of Stan Kroenke, with Arsenal unable and unwilling to strengthen their defence, but at least he is not operating in the PSG madhouse, where star players had enough power to force him to alter their style of play back to that they had been used to under Laurent Blanc.
Meanwhile, Pochettino has spoken of the difficulties of working with a sporting director, something he is not required to do at Spurs, where he has a direct line to chairman Daniel Levy.
Spurs have been hamstrung by club finances being ploughed into a new stadium, and have not bought a player since Lucas Moura, the hero of Amsterdam, in January 2018, but the manager has free rein to get rid of whomever he might like.
At Manchester United, Jose Mourinho complained he was not able to cut those he saw as deadwood. In making use of that control, Pochettino has made himself the hottest property in the game; Spurs winning the Champions League would be the greatest coaching feat since a young Mourinho coached Porto to winning the same competition in 2004.
Of the quintet of managers who can still end the season with a trophy, only Sarri has struggled amid his club’s executive structure, but then again Chelsea has always been a club apart in that sense. No manager, not even peak-era Mourinho, has been allowed a free hand there.
English football, despite its innate parochialism, is receptive to new ideas, and clubs are prepared to turn over their philosophical direction to coaches in a fashion that would not be possible at places like Bayern, Barcelona or Ajax.
The great changes in the Premier League can be viewed in the huge increase in the average amount of passes made in matches in the last ten years – around 100 – and that the amount of tackles has dropped by almost a third.
Down the table, managers like Javi Gracia at Watford, Nuno Espirito Santo at Wolves, Ralf Hasenhuttl at Southampton – even dear old Rafa Benitez at Newcastle and Brendan Rodgers at Leicester, are top-quality coaches give license to do things their way, who have adapted their thoughts to work in English football.
Blood and thunder, thud and blunder, are being phased out as the likes of Neil Warnock, Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce reach their dotage, and English football, after spending much of the 2010s in the doldrums in terms of the European competitions, has finally caught up.
Its combination of extreme athleticism, tactical nous and being able to attract the best players who do not play for Barcelona or Real Madrid has blown the rest of Europe away. And while it has been a season where those Spanish giants have creaked with age, Bayern have been in transition, the Italian clubs are still short of the standard required and PSG are as fallible as ever, then England has been able to step into the breach.
In Klopp, Guardiola and Pochettino in particular, England’s leading clubs have coaches all those giants would want.
English football has proved fertile ground for them to grow themselves as well as their reputations and is now reaping the benefits.
*All odds correct at time of posting.