In the knockout phase of a tournament, any result is theoretically possible. But heading into the Champions League final that will crown Europe’s best soccer club on Saturday, an air of inevitability surrounds Liverpool. The English juggernaut has contended for trophies all season long, already bagging two domestic cup competitions and missing England’s Premier League title by mere inches to Manchester City. This will be the team’s third Champions League final in five years.
On the other side of the soccer pitch, Real Madrid has had the opposite experience. Though it comfortably won Spain’s La Liga title this season, its path to the finals has been a Houdini-like act in which the club repeatedly escaped defeat in previous rounds against European giants Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City. As Jonathan Wilson wrote in the Guardian, “They somehow cannot be finished off.”
The Premier League previously had a gap in talent development and managing, but club riches have undoubtedly helped bridge it.
Yet even more important than the narratives surrounding these individual clubs are the differences between the domestic leagues they’ve sprung from. Increasingly, English teams are ascendant across top European tournaments, regularly slaying competitors. A synergy of dollars, top talent and brilliant managers has lifted English clubs beyond the reach of other countries’ elite leagues.
At first glance, the Premier League appears to be a tale of two teams, Liverpool and Manchester City. As these clubs jostled to the wire for the league title this season, their exalted level of play seemed to have reduced the other 18 sides to the role of spectator. But the real measure of the Premier League’s quality is the competitive depth and parity that exist well beyond Liverpool and City. Per ClubElo.com, a website that ranks European teams based on their results, four English clubs are found in Europe’s top eight spots.
As Omar Chaudhuri, chief intelligence officer of the London-based sports consulting company Twenty First Group told The Athletic, “The gap in rating between the average Premier League team and the average team in the second-best league is the biggest gap we have on record.”
These English clubs have declared their eminence through domination of the Champions League, a competition of Europe’s top 32 teams. During the past five seasons, they have claimed six of the 10 spots available in the finals, winning twice in this span in all-English matchups.
This sustained and expansive success starts with the Premier League’s pockets. According to Deloitte’s 2021 Annual Review of Football Finance, the league generated 5.1 billion euros in revenue during the 2019-20 season, nearly 60 percent more than its next closest competitor, Germany’s Bundesliga. An accounting of the 2020-21 season by the same group revealed that 10 of the top 20 highest club revenues in the world were generated by English teams.
These riches are largely the result of hefty broadcasting deals that reflect the Premier League’s large domestic following and robust international fanbase that was developed through decades of overseas marketing. Newly inked contracts for 2022-2025 rights will exceed 10 billion pounds in annual revenue for the league, whose global market share continues to grow.
With so much revenue on offer, the price tags attached to these clubs are exorbitant. It is unsurprising then that some team owners, which include a Chinese holding company (Wolverhampton), the Abu Dhabi royal family (Manchester City) and the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia (Newcastle United), are willing to spend big on their teams after doling out incredible sums to acquire them in the first place.
The Premier League previously had a gap in talent development and managing, but club riches have undoubtedly helped bridge it through key acquisitions of players from other European teams, quality managerial hirings and large contract extensions for stars and successful coaches. As ESPN writer Bill Connelly said, “Money doesn’t guarantee success, but it offers lots more margin for error. You can survive a few bad signings or a shaky hire with minimal damage.”
Lists of the top footballers in the world are now brimming with both homegrown and foreign Premier League talent, including Mohamed Salah, Kevin De Bruyne, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Harry Kane. Overall, the rankings include sizably more English representation than players from other European leagues.
The talent isn’t limited to the pitch. No doubt attracted by handsome paychecks and high-level competition, transcendent managers Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola have lifted their teams — Liverpool and Manchester City, respectively — to the acme of world soccer. In Klopp and Guardiola, whose collective charisma, embrace of science and data specialists and tactical innovations have remade soccer, the Premier League possesses the game’s preeminent coaches.
If the Champions League becomes an annual English affair long-term, however, the predictability may not be good for ratings or revenue. And for dismayed European onlookers, this concentration of power in England threatens equality across the continent’s major leagues.
Yet the door remains ajar for the rest of Europe. “A few inspired hires and a new tactical trend could shift the balance in any number of directions,” noted Connelly. “But until that happens, money will win out, and the Premier League is going to have more of that for the foreseeable future.”