In 2007/08 and 2008/09, 4 English teams made the Champions League quarter-final, and 3 made the semi-final. Now, in 2015/16, the Premier League will be lucky if 4 teams make the Champions League and Europa League quarter-finals combined. With Manchester City and Arsenal yet to play, English sides have failed to win a single first-leg tie in European competition this week. There is, of course, a qualifier: none of the results are terminal, and some aren't bad, with Tottenham claiming an away goal in their draw with Fiorentina. However, the manner of play is disheartening for Fans of the Barclays: Chelsea were thoroughly outplayed by PSG, remaining in the tie down to some shoddy finishing, and Manchester United were defeated by a side who hadn't played in two months, and equated themselves to a Championship side. It's hard not to laugh.
Yet it is also indicative of a greater problem for Premier League sides, one that explains why Leicester City are doing so well this season: teams have lost the ability to control space. This stems not only from the midfield, but from the organization of an entire team structure. Leicester, as one of the few teams to set up with a strong, zonal-marking based defensive structure, and maintain shape throughout.
Yet the midfield is also crucial. Midfields are crucial to maintaining shape; it is the midfield that sets the distances between the lines, and sets control of space. Last season, Chelsea used Nemaja Matic and Cesc Fabregas as their midfield pair, effective enough for the helter-skelter, atactical Premier League, but duly tossed out of the Champions League by a 10-man PSG. Effectively, to win top-level competition, midfields need to be balanced and compact, and those of the Premier League are decidedly not.
Compactness is important for two reasons; firstly, it makes it harder for teams to play through or around your defensive shape as compactness is what allows a team to either press or sit back. This is why managers of pressing teams emphasize the distance between defence and attack; it has to be compact throughout, or space opens up. We see this with Arsenal's one-man pressing band, Alexis, whose pressing, while rewarded with applause, actually opens up space because the rest of the team doesn't follow. Effectively, Arsenal do not remain compact, whatever the composition of their midfield. This is not just due to players, but is also due to coaching.
Secondly, compactness is what allows a team to be good in possession. With Arsenal, there is often too much space between the passer and the runner, making it harder to play between the lines, heaping more pressure on the likes of Mesut Özil and Aaron Ramsey. Similarly, Manchester United's possession play puts too much pressure on the man in possession, restricting the creative ability--a far cry from the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich, for whom distance is supreme.
This is what separates the Premier League from European football. It will be intriguing to see how the League reacts to Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, since he will very much impose his principles of position play on the team. But what Leicester, and to an extent Tottenham have shown thus far this season is that a team can be successful without star quality by having a basic understanding of positional play (though Tottenham's pressing and positional game is far more sophisticated than Leicester).
Over the past 4 or 5 seasons, even average European teams have been able to beat English sides because the English sides were confounded and frustrated by facing teams with good structure; Basel dispatched Manchester United in 2011-12, as did Athletic Bilbao, Liverpool were also vanquished by Basel last season, and Arsenal have spent the last twelve months losing to Dinamo Zagreb, Olympiacos and Monaco. It is not down to talent; on paper, every single English team should have won those matches; it is down to tactics.
At the end of the last decade, European football was more suited to Premier League sides, who, with the influx of talent, had become fairly indistinguishable from other European sides. But the success of Barcelona, as well as Spain at an international level, led to a renewed emphasis on positional play, which the Premier League missed out on. Sir Alex Ferguson spent the last 5 years of his Manchester United reign determined not to buy a midfielder, and won the league 3 out of 5 seasons, but failing against the elite in Europe, and then failing against Basel, and the not-elite. He had enough to win the Premier League because the Premier League had fallen behind; now, with Jürgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino and possibly Diego Simeone set to manage in the Premier League next season, the Premier League should be set for an influx of tactical ideas from the continent, thereby leading to more competence in European competition.