For fans of the Premier League and English football, this season has been a triumph in terms of competitiveness in Europe. As a result of Manchester United winning the 2017 Europa League, five English teams entered the prestigious competition this year, and all five progressed from the group stage.
United topped their group, as did Liverpool and Manchester City, and Tottenham finished first in a group that contained both Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund. In fact the only English team that didn’t finish top of their group was Chelsea, who only managed a second place finish behind Roma.
The round of 16 is still in progress at the time of writing, but both City and Liverpool are looking primed to progress further, after 0-4 and 0-5 away wins against Basel and Porto respectively. Tottenham too are in a decent position after their 2-2 draw with Juventus, and will take two crucial away goals back to their game at Wembley in March.
United will head into their clash with Sevilla on Wednesday as the favourites, but Chelsea will face a tough task trying to sink a Barcelona side that has been on top form this season.
It thus looks set to be one of the most successful Champions League seasons for English clubs in a very long time, but what is the secret behind the success?
One of the strongest aspects of the Premier League is the managerial talent on show. While the biggest clubs in the English top flight are now beginning to hold onto and attract the best players, they have had no issues with attracting the best managers. With such a brilliant array of coaches in place this season, it is perhaps little surprise that success has arrived, especially now that they have moulded their squads to their requirements and style.
The two Manchester clubs in particular are perfectly primed for European success, with Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola having won two Champions League titles each at previous clubs. The manner in which the pair won these titles is important too, given the current situations at their respective clubs, and the parallels that can be drawn to their previous victories.
City have been utterly dominant in the Premier League, and are the bookies’ favourites to go on and win the European title too, which is incredibly similar to how Guardiola won his two Champions League trophies at Barcelona. The Blaugrana were victorious in both La Liga and the European competition in 2008/09 and 2010/11, and Pep’s current City team feels similarly unbeatable and fancied.
Mourinho meanwhile won both of his Champions Leagues with teams that could certainly have been considered underdogs, though also winning the league titles in the same seasons too. Porto and Inter Milan were the beneficiaries of Jose’s managerial talent, and Manchester United could do equally well playing in the shadow of other clubs, including their city rivals. It is perhaps surprising to consider United underdogs, given their history, but against City, and perhaps the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid, they can use that to their advantage this season.
For Liverpool and Chelsea it is all about experience. While Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte have never won the Champions League, they do have success in winning league titles. Klopp led Borussia Dortmund to two consecutive Bundesliga titles, as well as making the Champions League final in 2013, while Conte has won three Scudettos with Juventus and a Premier League title with Chelsea. That winning mentality and experience has allowed Liverpool and Chelsea to thrive in Europe, with the coaches transmitting their experience of victory over to their players, making them hungry to experience it.
Tottenham however are perhaps the most intriguing team to achieve success this season. Mauricio Pochettino has won four Premier League Manager of the Month awards, but no silverware, and no titles. Despite this he led Spurs to the top of arguably the toughest Champions League group of this year, and has them primed to progress past Juventus. With a lack of experience and success, it is Pochettino’s masterful style that has allowed his side to flourish.
Tactics and Style of Play
With great managers comes great tactical knowledge and style. There is a growing trend in English football to play aggressively, on the front foot, with a high defensive line and a high-pressure style. That is what has brought Tottenham so much success in Europe, allowing them to stifle the attacking players of the likes of Real Madrid, while winning the ball high up the pitch to feed Harry Kane.
The high-pressure style brought Barcelona so much success under Pep Guardiola, and he has brought that philosophy to Manchester City. They, along with Liverpool and Tottenham, utilise this to force defenders into mistakes, forcing their opponents onto the back foot. In Europe this works because teams attack, having been used to dominating their domestic leagues, which makes playing on the counter a hugely effective style. Atletico Madrid have found that over the past few seasons, despite crashing out at the group stage this year, but it is especially effective in the knockout stages.
Soaking up the attacking pressure of the bigger European sides obviously requires an imperious defence, something that has also been brought about under the top Premier League managers. Chelsea’s three-at-the-back system under Conte has made them a tough outfit to beat, with teams being forced to adjust to either match or counter the system. The opponents thus play differently to their usual style, allowing the Blues to exploit them.
Manchester United are equally effective at the back, and have conceded just 19 times in the Premier League this season through 27 games. Mourinho’s teams have always been tough to beat, in a similar vein to Atletico Madrid, but they also have the attacking prowess to beat any team in the competition.
With such talented managers at the helm of England’s top clubs, this season provides one of the best opportunities for an English winner. The real question is which team is most likely to win it.
City have the legendary Pep Guardiola, and the domestic success to propel them forward with confidence. United’s defensive solidity should see them go far, and Mourinho’s underdog mentality will also serve them well. Chelsea are crumbling in the league, but will now be fully motivated to succeed in Europe, and Conte’s tactics will suit Europe.
Liverpool and Tottenham are slight wildcards, but both have shown a lot of promise. Spurs have already proved that they can beat some of the best teams, and if they make it past Juventus then they are as good a bet as any. Jurgen Klopp’s men have been destructive so far, but it remains to be seen how they fare against the top tier teams.
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