After watching Spurs crash out of the Champions League at the hands of AS Monaco last night, I began to wonder if there is any particular reason for the lack of English success in Europe in the last few years.
It was only eight years ago that English clubs made up three-quarters of the Champions League semi-finals, with Manchester United knocking Arsenal out before going on to defeat Chelsea on penalties in the final in Moscow. The Reds then managed to reach the final in two of the next three seasons, whilst Chelsea bounced back four years later, beating Bayern Munich to lift the trophy in 2012. Before this mini-era came two final appearances in three years for Liverpool (one successful, one unsuccessful) with Arsenal’s 2-1 defeat by Barcelona in Paris sandwiched in between in 2006. That’s seven out of eight consecutive finals (2005 – 2012) featuring an English club, the only exception being the Inter Milan vs Bayern Munich final of 2010.
Fastforward to this season, the only three English teams to have won the Champions League (Man United, Chelsea and Liverpool) didn’t even qualify, and Spurs have already bowed out. Our only real hope of success lies with Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, the Blues will be hoping to build on last year’s club best campaign in which they reached the semi-finals. I can’t really see Leicester City’s story ending with them being crowned European Champions and Arsenal don’t have the bottle when it comes to the knockout stages.
So what has changed? Are English clubs as a collective not as good as they were 5-10 years ago, or have the other clubs of Europe simply improved the general standard of team in the competition?
Firstly, the resurgence of the Spanish teams has to be admired. Barcelona and the two Madrid clubs have kept other teams from succeeding in the last three seasons. 2014 and 2016 saw Real Madrid achieve La Decima and then whatever ‘the eleventh’ would be in Spanish (both against city rivals Atletico); Barcelona pipped Juventus to the trophy the season in between. Clearly, this comes down to the sheer quality of the Spaniards rather than the lack of it in our sides.
Before the run of Spanish names on the trophy, there was the all-German final at Wembley. Arjen Robben’s late goal broke Borussia Dortmund hearts and won it for Bayern Munich, making amends for his penalty miss in the previous final. The two German clubs dominated the competition that year, sweeping aside Barça and Real Madrid with ease in the respective semi-finals.
English teams haven’t been able to keep up with other nations’ big name clubs and are now at risk of suffering the same fate as the two Milans. Inter and AC Milan have fallen from their perch and haven’t appeared in the Champions League for a few seasons. The names Manchester United and Liverpool stand out as the ones in danger of not reintroducing themselves on the European stage and will be looking to return to the competition as soon as possible.
For me, the thing that separates Europe’s elite from our best teams is their ability to adapt to an ever-changing game. Barcelona in particular have shown this. Under Guardiola and the late Tito Villanova they enforced the possession game and built their success on not letting the opponent have the ball. Yet once teams started to work out how to counter it, or even copy it, the Catalan side now managed by Luis Enrique play with a more direct approach and often opt to counter attack in big games. Our sides tend to go into the knockout games with the same defensive set up, one up front and a packed midfield to try and stop other teams from playing. It’s this tentative approach that sees the likes of Arsenal dispatched by less naive opposition.
I hope but don’t expect that English clubs will return to prominence in the Champions League. Man City look like the only team capable of going far in Europe for the next couple of years.