There was a moment in Manchester City’s UEFA Champions League opener against Juventus Tuesday when everything seemed to change. Paul Pogba’s inch-perfect pass had just leveled the score after Vincent Kompany’s bulbous forehead had thumped the home side in front. But when a tweak of the calf muscle sent Manchester City’s captain off the field for an early shower, it happened – a subtle yet visible tensing-up from the home team; a grim, familiar fog of doubt creeping into the minds of the players in sky blue. And sure enough, the eerily inevitable winner finally came from an unstoppable left-footed strike Álvaro Morata.
It’s the latest chapter of Manchester City’s well-documented struggles in Europe, but they weren’t alone. Louis Van Gaal and Memphis Depay’s return to Dutch football couldn’t push Manchester United past a well-drilled PSV Eindhoven, and Arsenal never looked like they would win against Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb. Only Chelsea, who put four goals past lowly Maccabi Tel Aviv, was able to bring any points home for the Premier League after the first matchday of this year’s Champion’s League.
One could call this just a bad week, but consider the trend: English clubs have won only two Champions League trophies in the past decade. Two out of the past three seasons, the Premier League has failed to produce a single quarterfinalist. Arsenal, despite its impressive streak of 18 straight Champions League appearances, has only made the final once in that stretch. Manchester City, albeit with a smaller sample size, has never made it past the Round of 16.
There is plenty of time to turn things around for this year. All three English clubs who lost this week have a great chance of advancing to the knockout rounds, perhaps even as the top seed. But it’s growing increasingly important they do. If they don’t, the implications are severe.
Champions League spots are awarded based on a coefficient calculated by the last five years of a league’s European success, with only the top three nations receiving four berths in Europe’s competition. That means results from 2010-11 — when all four English clubs qualified for the knockout round, and Manchester United made it to the final — will be wiped after this year. Combine that with last year’s aforementioned failures, and England’s coefficient score has taken a big hit. With Italy now creeping closer, another disastrous season for the Premier League’s best could mean one less spot in Europe come 2016-17 (next season’s spots are already locked in). No more top four; now only a top-three finish will punch your ticket to European competition.
With the stakes at their highest in recent history, English clubs need to pick themselves up and rescue what is still a salvageable European season. But that can only come by answering one question: why are they falling short against the cream of the European crop?
There is an argument that the Premier League’s obsession with physical attributes over technical ability is letting them down. Notable in this regard was Juan Cuadrado, who shined against Manchester City despite his inability to break into Chelsea’s team last year. Other Premier League castoffs like Angel Di Maria (from Manchester United) and Andre Schürrle (also from Chelsea) have proven to be valuable assets in Europe, as well.
But there was a telling quote Tuesday that perfectly encapsulated the root of Premier League’s European malaise. It came from Patrice Evra, the Juventus left back who spent much of his career in England. In an interview with L’Equipe, he praised Manchester City as the class of England but added a critical caveat:
“The Premier League is the most interesting championship to watch, but it is tactically limited.”
That tactical naivete was on full display on Tuesday. Yaya Toure and Fernandinho dominated the number of touches in the midfield, but it was a slow, plodding possession. Not that they didn’t want to speed up the play — Raheem Sterling’s pace has turned their attack into a fearsome weapon in the league — they just clearly didn’t know how to do it. Even the magical David Silva poked, prodded and probed, but he couldn’t crack the code that was Juventus’s defense. And when the Italians clogged up City’s usual pattern of play, there was no alternative. Indeed it was Juventus who always had another option, another tactical wrinkle to break up Manchester City’s play and push themselves forward in attack.
This manifests itself on both sides of the ball. Arsenal’s lack of tactical flexibility left their defense completely exposed. Opta stats show the Gunners gave up as many big chances against Dinamo Zagreb as they have in their last five league matches combined. And while Manchester United and Manchester City edged out their opponents in advanced metrics, they weren’t dominant or clinical enough to complain about their defeats. Meanwhile, teams they aim to compete with, like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, put their opponents to the sword while conceding much fewer big chances on defense.
Winning in the present-day Premier League requires an entirely different style of play to European competition. English soccer is about overpowering and dominating your opponent, continental soccer is about outsmarting them. In Europe, physical attributes are a bonus, not the focus. If Premier League teams can catch up tactically, their physical skills can help propel them to the heights we’re used to seeing them. If not, they’ll continue to look clumsy, outdated, and — at least at the highest levels — irrelevant.
The blame for that is spread among many factors, and it can be fixed with different personnel, a different philosophy or both. But the inescapable fact remains: Premier League clubs need to come to grips with the tactical challenges of European competition, and they need to do it soon.
If they can’t, they’ll not only be letting themselves down now, they’ll be restricting their chance for European success even more later. And that future may be closer than they or their fans realize.
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