Premier League teams kept only three clean sheets in the group stage, highlighting a decline in defensive quality at home
Three clean sheets in 24 matches is hardly the stuff of champions, but it is the collective record of the four English clubs who competed in this season's generally enthralling Champions League group stage, only two of whom succeeded in qualifying for the knockout phase. Perhaps we need to search no further for the cause of what is beginning to look like the end of an imperial dream.
It is only a handful of years since a fear of English dominance stalked European football. A time when a slot in the last four of the Champions League appeared to be held open, almost out of courtesy, for the best of the rest of the continent's clubs. Now it is the Premier League's clubs who are having to struggle to maintain their place at the table as the continent applauds the advance of Borussia Dortmund, Shakhtar Donetsk and a reborn Juventus.
While Arsène Wenger, Roberto Mancini and Rafael Benítez toil under a cloud of negativity and each day takes Sir Alex Ferguson 24 hours closer to retirement, there is a freshness about the work of Dortmund's Jürgen Klopp, Shakhtar's shrewd veteran Mircea Lucescu and Juventus's tactically inventive Antonio Conte. They are setting the pace and the trends, as well as bringing new names to the headlines: Mario Götze and Marco Reus, Fernandinho and Willian, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio.
Even on the basis of simple numbers, the Premier League is losing ground. Among the 16 clubs who will reconvene for the first knockout round, Spain has four representatives, Germany has three and Italy have two, the same as England, with one each from France, Portugal, Ukraine, Turkey and Scotland making up the field.
The involvement of nine different countries will please those who feared opening up the competition to multiple representation from the leading leagues 20 years ago would put an end to the diversity that was one of the attractions of the competition in its first three and a half decades, when entry was restricted to genuine champions.
The failure of two of England's four representatives to make it through the group stage suggests the need for Uefa's financial fair play rules might not be quite as pressing as it seemed when the arrival of oligarchs and sheikhs appeared to usher in a Premier League hegemony, threatening to suffocate old aristocracy and young pretenders alike.
Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour saw – or watched from a distance – their teams limp out of contention for the European Cup this week. Chelsea descend humbly into the Europa League, while a chastened Manchester City, casualties of the most formidable of the eight groups, return to the task of defending their domestic title against their local rivals – who, with Arsenal, will reappear in the round of 16 in February.
The current Champions League odds from William Hill tell the tale of a fall from grace. At 10-1, Manchester United are fifth favourites, behind Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. Arsenal lie three places further back, behind Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain, at 25-1, and many will be surprised to see the north London club ahead of Shakhtar Donetsk, Milan and Schalke.
The helter-skelter, all-action nature of the Premier League ensures that it remains club football's biggest international draw, its appeal at the box office enabling it to attract the star performers whose presence helps secure ever more lucrative deals with broadcasters.
Forthcoming contracts will generate around £5bn in revenue, and the ingenuity of the PL's business brains can be seen in the arrangements by which new technology will be used to show matches on commercial flights and cruise ships. La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga may be cheaper to watch for fans queuing at the stadiums, but they have a long way to go before they can match that kind of expertise.
In terms of football, however, they seem to have caught and possibly overtaken their English rivals. La Liga's charms may be restricted to its small handful of leading clubs, but the Bundesliga is consistently competitive and good to watch, while Serie A, after a period of dismal decline, is once again highly watchable, despite the inability of the top clubs to afford the sort of stars who made it such a draw in the 1980s and 90s.
While the curve on the Premier League's financial graph soars ever upward, the statistical performance on the pitch is much less impressive. In this year's Champions League group stage, the quartet of English clubs have won fewer matches and conceded more goals than during any other season in the 10 years since the Premier League was given four entries.
The change is also vividly dramatised by a comparison between the semi-final lineups of the past three years and those of the three before that. From 2006-07 to 2008-09 the old English big four – Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool – provided nine of the 12 semi-finalists, three in each of the respective years. From 2009-10 to 2011-12, only two of the 12 clubs reaching the last four came from the Premier League.
One layer beneath those numbers, as the football analyst Keir Radnedge points out, lies a clue to one major reason for the decline. In their domestic leagues, the four semi-finalists between 2006-07 and 2008-09 conceded a total of 332 goals (113-107-112) during that period. In the more recent period, the Premier League's top four across the three seasons gave away an aggregate of 430 goals (142-146-142).
The consistency of those statistics is telling, and such a steep rise in the number of goals conceded by the top clubs in domestic competition suggests a fundamental change in the nature of football in the Premier League, one that may be exerting a significant influence on their fortunes on the bigger stage.
Those three clean sheets in 24 group matches tell the same story. In 2006-07, the comparable figure was 13. In 2007-08, it was 10, and in 2008-09, it was 11. In the last of those years, only Arsenal kept clean sheets in each of their three home matches.
Several factors lie behind the marked decline in defensive quality, which is also visible in domestic competition, where freakish scorelines are not so remarkable. The top teams' goalkeepers are no longer as formidable, whether through the ageing process (Petr Cech, Pepe Reina) or the time it takes to groom a David de Gea to succeed an Edwin van der Sar and a Wojciech Szczesny to replace a Jens Lehmann.
The constant rotation of defenders militates against the ability to establish collective habits through constant repetition. So does the fact that many of the new back-four recruits – think of David Luiz, Per Mertesacker or Matija Nastasic – do not share a first language with their fellow defenders.
It's part of a cycle, like anything else, and after all a Champions League in which three of every season's semi-finalists were English would be a crashing bore, unworthy of the competition's traditions. As long as the Premier League's vast audience is keen to feast on a diet of excitement at all costs, the story of this season in Europe is likely to be the new normality.