Football fans are impatient history buffs with a penchant for competition. When Manchester City win the Premier League, the fans from the sanguine side of Manchester, while disappointed with their team, choose to find solace in the glory of history. Liverpool fans have rode the wave of the Turkish Miracle for a decade now. While it may be argued that those who live in the past often forget the present to sabotage a better future, history interests everyone for a reason. It offers a “cheat sheet” to emulate the successes and avoid the mistakes that other people have already made in similar situations. And it is to history we must turn, to understand the present plight of the Premier League posse in the UEFA Champions League.
The last decade has seen a variety of European champions, none more dominant than the tiki-taka merchants of Barcelona who won it four times in the last 10 seasons. Having arguably the greatest football player ever to lead your line slightly tilts the balance in your favor but other teams have won in the same period, most of them defeating Barcelona on their way to the title. So what does it take for a team to be successful in Europe? Why does a team like last season’s Chelsea, or Manchester City at the beginning of this season that dominates opposition in the Premier League, suddenly implode in Europe to an extend that it derails their domestic title challenge? A variety of factors, including the very legitimate one of fatigue due to the lack of a winter break, has been put forward as explanations for this. But as it is fairly obvious, each league has a certain playing style and the English game (if we can still call the Premier League that considering the large number of foreign nationals) has changed before our eyes in the last ten seasons.
2004-2010 was the golden period of English teams in Europe with an English team playing in every final from the Liverpool-Milan one in 2005 till the Chelsea-Bayern Munich one in 2012 (except for 2010 when current Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan beat current Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal’s Bayern Munich). The domination of the contemporary Big Four of Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United & Arsenal culminated in the 2008 all-English final at Moscow and it could be argued that it ended with Manchester United’s defeat to Barcelona in the 2011 final. This is mostly because Chelsea’s win in 2012 was a freak of nature that escapes rational explanation much like Adam Sandler still being one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood. So how did English teams get so terrible that continental pretenders like Dinamo Zagreb and FC Basel consistently get their number over the last three seasons?
Defense. Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea have been the most dominant English teams in Europe in the last decade with all teams reaching the final twice and winning once. Liverpool achieved both finals in a period when the name of Lionel Messi was still being whispered as the heir to Ronaldinho’s throne at Nou Camp. Compare the United and Chelsea teams that faced off in a furiously competed stormy final six seasons ago, with the current squad and the answer is illustrated. Nemanja Vidic & Rio Ferdinand guarded Edwin van der Saar while John Terry & Ricardo Carvalho stood in front of Petr Cech and no one could claim neither team deserved to be playing in that final. Chris Smalling & Daley Blind and Gary Cahill & Kurt Zouma can hardly be considered replacements, but to be fair no club in Europe has a defense that matches those legendary partnerships.
Both of these defensive partnerships played alike, even though individual players had vaguely different qualities. Vidic and Terry played as left-sided centerback captains who sat back, organized the rest of the defense and cleaned up loose balls while being responsible for playing the ball out from the back. Ferdinand and Carvalho did the dirty work of winning the ball by playing slightly further up and meeting opposition attacks head on to give the rest of the team enough time to fall back into defensive positions. It should also be noted that it would be a huge disservice to the respective holding midfield players (Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick for United and Claude Makelele and Michael Essien for Chelsea) to not acknowledge their contribution to those great teams. The roles remain the same today, but without players of the same quality to fill them. No wonder then that ten games in the last matchday of the Premier League had an average of over four goals scored. Manchester City seemed to have briefly discovered their own magic centerback pairing of Vincent Kompany in the Vidic-Terry leader role and Elaquim Mangala in the Ferdinand-Carvalho enforcer role when they went unbreached in their first five league games this season but Kompany’s injury has thrown a monkey-wrench into the City defense while the added load of midweek fixtures have not been kind.
Chelsea’s defense in last season’s title-win was praised for being mean but they conceded 32 goals, which was as much as Carlo Ancelotti’s 2010 free-scoring title-winning Chelsea team. Relative stinginess in defense by Chelsea, largely due to the mercurial manic support from Nemanja Matic, was taken as an absolute, forgetting that stronger teams won more big games not just by outscoring the opposition but by not letting them score in the first place. Unless current centrebacks in England exhibit an exponential increase in quality, or transfer windows are exploited to find the right pairings in the centre of defense, the only hope for English teams in Europe is Kompany and Mangala returning from injury to pick up from where they left off before it’s too late.