5 Reasons English Sides are Failing in the Champions League
1. Failure to learn lessons
This is probably the most frustrating aspect about Arsenal and Manchester City’s losses this week – they were reminiscent of previous defeats at this stage of the competition, and suggests players and management aren’t adequately learning from mistakes of the past.
Manchester City used a bold 4-4-2 formation against Barcelona, and while the formation itself wasn’t the problem, the implementation of it was. Other sides have had success with a deep 4-4-2 against Barca, but City half-pressed and left themselves exposed in the centre of midfield, which in turn forced the defenders into poor positions.
For Arsenal, meanwhile, there were a few extremely poor defensive errors which gifted Monaco easy goals, and the manner they were exposed on the counter-attack in the dying stages was particularly frustrating. Too often Arsenal simply commit too many men forward and leave themselves open to quick attacking, and the concession of a third goal – which needs them needing to score three themselves in the second – was a huge blow.
2. Openness in the Premier League
Over the last few years, top Premier League matches have felt extremely open – sides are going out to attack, with plenty of midfield flexibility and lots of end-to-end contests.
This has made for an exciting domestic league, but European knockout football tends to reward teams who are solid, organised and good on the counter-attack. Chelsea’s victorious side in 2012, for example, were entirely average in the league, yet had the discipline required to sneak past the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich en route to winning the competition. Manchester United peaked in Europe with the same approach, Arsenal got to the final in 2006 with their most defensive football under Arsene Wenger, while Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool sides were often boring but effective.
These qualities seem to have been lost from English football, and it translates to something of an arrogance on the European stage. Teams aren’t reacting enough to the strengths of the opposition and are leaving themselves too open. In the case of Arsenal, it came across as complacency.
3. More competition for top four
The Premier League’s era of relative European success, between 2005-09, came at a time where the Big Four entirely dominated the Premier League. Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea were almost guaranteed to finish in the top four places, and therefore re-quality for the Champions League. This meant even an underwhelming league campaign wouldn’t actually be an outright failure, and it’s no surprise that three of those clubs kept the same manager throughout this period – only Chelsea chopped and changed. Liverpool sacked Rafael Benitez as soon as they dropped out of the top four.
The result of this staggering – and somewhat tedious – dominance of English football was that these clubs could base their spring campaign around the Champions League. Unless they were a serious title contender, they could afford to rest players and risk dropping points on the Saturday, in order to maximise the ability of those players for European nights. Arsenal, for example, played a full side for the narrow 2-1 win over Crystal Palace on Saturday. A few years ago, with their top four place effectively already assured, they might have rested some.
Something similar applies to tactical plans: Benitez, for example, would start drilling his players for a big European game a couple of weeks beforehand. League matches could take a backseat. Now, each league game is crucial and resources are stretched across various games.
4. Dependence upon individuals
The Premier League has recently become obsessed the concept of the individual, often with teams hugely reliant upon a single player for moments of magic. Alexis Sanchez has got Arsenal out of jail frequently this season, Sergio Aguero’s finishing has turned mediocre team performances into comfortable wins, and Eden Hazard has single-handedly dazzled defences.
It’s difficult to say something similar of previous European Cup-winning sides. Manchester United in 1999 were the ultimate team with no single superstar, Liverpool’s 2005 side depended upon a couple of great moments from Steven Gerrard but were predominantly a cohesive unit, Manchester United had Cristiano Ronaldo in 2008 but also a brilliant counter-attacking gameplan, and while Didier Drogba is remembered as Chelsea’s talisman in 2012, that wasn’t a fair reflection of their overall gameplan that season.
They’ve all been proper teams who have used clever tactics and partnerships to maximise the ability of various players. That isn’t currently true for any major Premier League team.
5. Individual errors
Structural problems within teams, and a weakness within the league overall, shouldn’t be overlooked. But it’s nevertheless impossible to ignore the fact both Manchester City and Arsenal’s players committed extremely poor individual errors.
Vincent Kompany’s positioning has been highly suspect over the past couple of years, and can be partially blamed for both Barcelona goals, while Gael Clichy’s challenge on Daniel Alves to get sent off was silly, and there was no need for Pablo Zabaleta to dive into a challenge to concede a late penalty. In truth, City were flattered by 1-2.
For Arsenal, meanwhile, Per Mertesacker and David Ospina share the blame for three extremely sloppy goals conceded, while Olivier Giroud missed a hatful of chances that would have given the tie an entirely different feel. Ultimately, sometimes players must take responsibility.
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February 27th, 2015 by Michael Cox
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