Man City 5 Spurs 1, Man United 8 Arsenal 2, Man United 1 Man City 6, Chelsea 3 Man United 3, Arsenal 5 Spurs 3, Chelsea 3 Arsenal 5. These are all results from this season’s Premier League. The sides mentioned here are all in the top five of the table. Notice anything about the scores? The number of goals scored straight away jumps out at you. It seems that this season, defending has become less of a priority and teams attitudes are: “we’ll score one more than you”. Whilst this is great for the fans and the audience, there is a repercussion for playing football in this manner – failure in Europe.
This season has seen the English teams fail to dominate the finals stages of the Champions League (CL) as they have done in previous years. In the 2006-07 CL there were three English teams in the semi-finals, and the 2007-08 final was between two English sides. Manchester United went on to play in the final two more times – in the 2008-09 and 2010-11 seasons, losing to Barcelona both times. When Jose Mourinho was at Chelsea they made the Champions League semi-finals twice on the back of their defensive strength and when United made the final in 2008 it was with a solid back four that had been mostly unchanged throughout the entire season and had only conceded 22 goals in the premiership.
When Arsenal made the CL final in 2006 they had not conceded a goal during the entire knock-out stage. Liverpool’s defense was also hard to breach when they made the 2005 final against Milan. So it would seem that a good and organized defense is what is required if you want to progress in Europe? Pretty obvious I guess, but then what has changed in this season to make teams so poor at defending?
If we look at the back four of the Arsenal side that made the final in 2006 you will see that not one of those players is still at the club. Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell, Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue and goalkeeper Jens Lehmann have all moved on. Judging by the current Arsenal side’s position in the league you could argue that the present group of defenders does not match the class of ‘06. Meanwhile the back four of Manchester United hasn’t changed that much since the 2009 final in Moscow and have only been affected by old age catching up with certain players and injuries to first choice pairing Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. New additions in the form of youthful defenders Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and the Da Silva twins, are still learning their trade, and so the defense of Manchester United is not as strong as that of the team of ‘09.
English teams have performed very well in the Champions League for the last eight-nine years and in doing so they have adapted their game to suit European football. However, it would appear that the success that the previous seasons brought was accompanied by a sense of arrogance and a return to the naive football that English sides displayed through out the 90’s in the Champions League. For example, Manchester United had always preformed very well in the League in England during the 90’s but could never translate that success in Europe. They wanted to play the United way and play exciting attacking football. While that may have brought them success in the 1999, repeating that effort proved more difficult. Sir Alex recognized that their style of play would only get them so far in Europe and that a new approach was needed in the early 2000’s. Playing much more conservatively away from home and playing more patiently would be United’s game plan in Europe over the next few years. The semi-final match at the Nou Camp in 2008 showed just how far his team had progressed from ‘99 as they were able to hold out Barca for a 0-0 draw with a solid defensive display and possession-based tactics that may have been beyond them in the past.
But back to the present. Neither Manchester United or Manchester City made it out of the group stage of the Champions League and both were knocked-out on the same day in the Europa League. The remaining sides in the Europa League also failed to make it to even the quarter final stage. Spurs, Stoke, Birmingham and Fulham have all been eliminated. Arsenal played bravely against Milan in the first knock-out stage, winning the second leg 3-0, but left themselves too much to do after playing very poorly in Milan losing 4-0. Now only Chelsea remain, who are nowhere near as strong defensively as the Chelsea side of previous years. For them to go on and win the Champions League appears very unlikely.
So what is the cause of this? Well if I knew that I wouldn’t be sitting here on my bed writing this, I would be selling my secrets to the highest bidder. But the standard of defending does appear to have gone down this season in the Premier League. Usually, games between the top sides are quite close affairs with very few chances being made and defense dominating the game. But as mentioned before, goals are something that haven’t been hard to come by in big games this year.This attacking mentality has proved hard to switch off for English teams when they play in Europe where what is needed is a patient approach and defensive solidarity. Manchester City pushed too many men forward in their home game against Napoli and were punished on a counter attack by Edinson Cavani to give the men from Italy the lead and Manchester United underestimated their opponents, coming from behind to draw 3-3 with Basel and 2-2 with Benfica, both times at Old Trafford.
Also, the actual quality of the English club’s defenders could be called into question. Players like Chelsea’s David Luiz and Arsenal’s Per Mertesacker have hardly showered themselves in glory. Arsenal lack leadership in their back line, although that seems to have been addressed with the return to form of Thomas Vermaelen. Chelsea were playing a suicidal high defensive line that former manager Andre Villas-Boas was trying to install early in the season, although they have now moved on from this. Manchester United were not helped by the constant changing of the back four, with Rio Ferdinand more susceptible to injury and the loss of Vidic for the season.
With the English teams in the Europa league it was a lack of quality that let them down. With Championship side Birmingham going out in the first round, Fulham just missing out on the second round, and Stoke losing to a far more technically gifted Valencia in the second round. Spurs were undone by their weak team selections in games as they chose to keep a eye on the Premiership as the prospect of the title seemed possible at one stage.
Ultimately football is about cycles. Nothing lasts forever in football, no team can stay dominant forever (unless your Celtic or Rangers) In the 90’s it was always the Italian teams that were the ones to beat, with Juventus making the final 3 times in a row in the late 90’s, while Milan, Inter and Lazio both had sides littered with international stars. Spanish sides started to dominate in the early 00’s. Real Madrid with there Galacticos squad won the champions league in 2000 and 2002. Valencia made the Champions League final twice in 2000 and 2001 while Deportivo La Coruna proved to be a dark hors,e making the semi final in 2004. So it shouldn’t really surprise people that English teams have failed in Europe as it is the nature of football that nothing last forever. What is surprising is how fast the cycle ended. This is not to say that next season will be the same. On the contrary, I doubt the English sides will make the same mistakes again and will already be planning their next assault on Europe. So expect more money to flow at the end of the season in the pursuit of glory and for a return of English newspapers declaring their sides as masters of the universe.