I find the unique strength of the English Premier League vs. their failure in the Uefa Champions League, to be quite an interesting paradox.
You see, the three clubs that I believe would perform best in the Champions League, didn’t even qualify for the tournament.
Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea. My analysis is based on tactics, and it has nothing to do with which team is better. That statement alone proves that the best teams don’t necessarily progress in the UCL, and what do we mean by the best teams?
In other countries the margin may not be as marked, but in England, there’s a significant difference between domestic success and shaping a team in contention to win the Champions League (or Europa League). For me it’s simple to recognize the winning attributes. So easy, that when Jurgen Klopp joined Liverpool last season, it took me just a few games to recognize that his style of play was already becoming effective enough for a proper assault on the Europa League.
This was in extreme contrast to Brendan Rodgers style where he couldn’t beat Turkish, Bulgarian and mid-table French clubs. Under Klopp, the Reds had a more difficult run to reach the Europa League final than Real Madrid did for the UCL final last year. I believe Klopp’s Liverpool could’ve reached the UCL final last year, and this is a team that finished eighth in the Premier League. As for 10th placed Chelsea, they are good enough to win the UCL this season… but they’re also not even in it. You got to compare last season's league positions with the extremity of my statements and that underlines the strength of the EPL despite how poorly English teams have fared recently.
It’s all about the tactics. With Liverpool you’d find the same successful formula that took Rafa Benitez to the last eight or last four of the UCL consistently, and two finals in three seasons. Benitez also won two Europa League finals just before and after his time at Liverpool. It’s all about the European tactics.
This is the same reason why Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Diego Simeone have excellent records in the competition. With Antonio Conte’s Chelsea I see all the hallmarks of a team that will perform outstandingly in the UCL next season. It’s not just the tactics of the Italian, but also their detailed organization at the back which makes them so tough to beat. The latter point is why Liverpool has the potential to let themselves down eventually, but Klopp’s style is made to beat nearly any top team, even Barcelona. In understanding the context of this editorial, the point that certain opposition suite you best, shouldn’t be surprising anymore.
Liverpool find it tougher when they’re favourites. There was a similar trend for Benitez, when his Liverpool beat Milan, Juventus, Inter, Bayern, Real Madrid, Chelsea and Barcelona, but his rare failure was as defending champions against Benfica.
Arsene Wenger's style makes the UCL more difficult than it is
Unfortunately for Arsenal fans, the Champions League has exposed Arsene Wenger’s lack of tactical adaptability in his reign. The only time Arsenal did impress in the UCL, was when Thierry Henry inspired them to the final in 2006. In a run like that, you got to be impressed by a team's overall quality or individual stars who managed to lift the Cup even when their coach’s tactics were not suitable. The prime example is Barcelona in the New Millennium who’s been the best team due to sheer quality. They don’t need to outthink the opposition. For two decades this was also the case for Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United.
In his first decade before that, it seemed that Ferguson didn’t have the tactical astuteness to make United one of the best in Europe, but he managed to win two UCL titles and reach two more finals, because the quality of his team’s and fighting spirit was unique. So, you got to appreciate those coaches who achieved European success the hard way.
The lack of an ability to win the hard way is why Manchester City’s struggled to impress. Their ambition to constantly reinvent themselves to dominate in both Europe and England, caused identity issues and has resulted in another transition phase. Even with all the money with Pep Guardiola they don’t boast the formula for UCL success. The difference between the ingredients can easily be underlined with how struggling Leicester City’s the only English club that reached the last eight.
Earlier in 2016 when it became clear that Leicester would qualify for the UCL, I wrote on Twitter that I’m so much looking forward to watching them progress in the Champions League. Fans laughed that Leicester won’t even get past the group stage. Critics are looking at individual players, but need to look at the tactical systems and team shape used. It’s clear that Leicester’s style was built for European progress too. Not necessarily to win the competition, but they have the right style to upset top teams in this format.
Tactics is not the only factor behind Leicester’s progress in the Champions League. Hunger is a largely underestimated attribute in every competition. When your priorities are elsewhere, you struggle because doubt, negative body language and a lack of team focus all impact your performance. It is amazing how much psychology plays into the results. If a club has already enjoyed recent success (such as defending champions), then it’s not about complacency or pressure but that same hunger just isn’t there anymore. Certain teams tend to get stale and this is where the coach’s job is to increase motivation and desire, by injecting clubs with one or two new players who will rediscover their will. I used to see it clearly in English clubs when their European ban ended, but years later, certain teams already bought the t-shirt and a new generation of winners are needed.
Now, if you’re relatively new in the competition, a lack of pedigree can also count against you. I see this happening with Tottenham because they have the ingredients to succeed in the UCL, as Mauricio Pochettino’s style is not very different to Klopp. At the same time Spurs have a better defense with more consistent results than Liverpool domestically. I feel Spurs’ inability to get through was due to the psychological baggage that they need to overcome in Europe. Once they can get over that, just like Man City in most European campaigns, then they can start punching the heavyweights in the UCL.
Cristiano Ronaldo: When individuals make the difference
You also need a balance because when clubs’ players are overexcited on the pitch, it can work against you too. I’ve seen this with PSG in recent seasons, performing in the same way the likes of Chelsea did in their initial years under Roman Abramovich. Overexcitement can lead to dominating games with passion, but then somehow letting oneself down by fluffing at easier opportunities to bury games at the end. This is where you need to keep your cool and finish off opposition. This is why teams like Atletico Madrid have the attributes to go all the way, but they somehow just fall short, while the usual suspects such as Real Madrid and Barcelona eventually take home the prize. That’s until a hero like Steven Gerrard, Didier Drogba or Cristiano Ronaldo stands up and changes history.
Let’s hope we will witness something new in the Champions League this season. I’d like to see Atletico, Dortmund or Monaco go all the way. Leicester? They fall into the 'overexcited' bracket (with no pedigree either), and would perform better against expressive teams like Barcelona than the organization of Atletico.
Taking into account the factors I mentioned for UCL consistency, Arsenal and Manchester City need to wise up to the requirements of the Champions League.
Manchester United’s already prepared in advance, by appointing the right manager for the job, Jose Mourinho, who knows what to do… First, he needs to qualify… and that alone is the same challenge the likes of Klopp will have in England. I can even see him targeting the same route as Klopp last season, the Europa League. United’s draw looks easier there, and I can’t see it eluding Mourinho.
It's a shame English fans got to wait until next year to lift Big Ears, because if Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United were in the UCL this season, they’d be in the last eight right now.