It wasn’t that long ago that the English Premier League was an embarrassment in European competition.
Chelsea’s UEFA Champions League title in 2012 seemed to represent the last time an English club could seriously be counted as among Europe’s best. From 2013 until 2017, just 4 of the 40 quarter final places given out in the tournament were taken by Premier League clubs. Just 2 of those 4 then made it up to the semi finals, with neither making it to the final. English football just couldn’t compete at the highest level. It was no fluke.
Anyone who watched a lot of Premier League games in those years compared to La Liga, the Bundesliga and Serie A could see the problems. There were good players at the top English sides, yes, but the teams were almost purely reliant on individual attacking quality.
Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City had the wonderful talents of Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Aguero in full flow, but left huge spaces in behind for teams to exploit on the counter. Liverpool’s sparkling 2013-14 side was really all about the star qualities of Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho and, yes, most of all, Luis Suarez. When Suarez left and Sturridge got injured, it all fell apart because there was no real tactical idea to fall back on.
Leicester City’s miracle 2016 Premier League title win was an astounding, historic achievement. There can be no doubts of that. But it also spoke to how poor the bigger, richer English teams were at the time.
Meanwhile, sides in other European countries were doing it differently.
The 2013 Champions League final featured a Borussia Dortmund team managed by Jurgen Klopp that were nothing if not cohesive, putting together fluid attacking transitions plus a structured aggression without the ball that was tactically far ahead of anything happening in England.
Their opponents, Bayern Munich, had many of the same traits and were about to be transformed by Pep Guardiola’s possession football, while the principles of the Catalan’s philosophy remained intact back in Barcelona.
Atletico Madrid were learning the value of compact, difficult to break down, football under Diego Simeone.
The top European sides generally didn’t have better players than England’s elite, but they were better structured, better organized, and above all, better coached.
How England solved their problem
As always, the English teams looked at the problem and decided the solution was to throw money at it. Except this time, the cash was spent on the managers rather than just the players.
Tottenham made the bold call to bring in Mauricio Pochettino after his great work at Southampton. Liverpool went big in attracting Klopp, while Manchester City went for the most respected coach in the game with Pep Guardiola. Chelsea and Manchester United went for stricter defensive stalwarts in Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho (which didn’t go quite so well, but the idea was solid).
No longer were the English clubs set to be the least cohesive sides in Europe. These were managers with clear ideas about what their teams were going to do, with visions, with philosophies.
The effect was huge.
After Leicester and Southampton broke the party in 2015/16, the big six clubs returned to the top six Premier League positions the following year. They’ve remained there ever since, with the gap to seventh hitting on average 9 points in the past three years.
Success in Europe came soon after.
Manchester United became the first English team to win a European trophy in four years when they lifted the Europa League trophy in 2017. In the big one, the Champions League, Liverpool were the first Premier League side to reach the final in 2017 since Chelsea won the thing in 2012. The English resurgence had begun. But no one could have expected what happened last season.
Two European finals. Four teams. All English. None of the four teams being the actual club that won the Premier League. Any doubts that England had the best football around were put to bed.
This has sparked a reaction on the continent. The four sides that dominated the later rounds of the Champions League for most of this decade, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus, have spent big this summer. Really big. And if the various reports are believed about Neymar, the two Spanish clubs are both attempting to go even bigger. So how are they looking?
Madrid were certainly the team of this group most in need of a revamp. Last summer saw the club sell Cristiano Ronaldo and buy no major attackers. Their eventual third place La Liga finish had a strong “well what were you expecting?” vibe to it.
So they went hard on fixing that.
Eden Hazard was the biggest name arrival, with the €100 million ($111m) signing from Chelsea replacing Ronaldo as the biggest brand name at the club. Stylistically, he’s rather different. When you strip out penalties, his best ever goal scoring return in a league campaign was 14, so he’s not going to be an abnormal contributor there. What he does offer is the best ability at carrying the ball into dangerous areas of anyone not named Lionel Messi. His 4.2 dribbles per 90 are outstanding, and he’s not just taking the ball to the byline. If you need a guy to pick the ball up and just single-handedly generate attacking moves, Hazard’s your guy. Only thing is you’ll want someone else to get on the end of a few chances.
Thankfully, Real have that covered now, too. Luka Jovic has arrived from Eintracht Frankfurt for €60m ($67m) in what may be an excellent deal. The one thing Jovic does to a high level is get shots away, 3.9 per 90 and overwhelmingly from decent positions. With the Luka Modric/Toni Kross axis alongside Hazard working the ball into great positions, Jovic should be able to get on the end of plenty of chances. His link up play is probably still a touch rusty, but at 21 he has plenty of time to fix that.
There are some fairly astonishing rumours that Zinedine Zidane doesn’t want him at the club and is already looking to send him on loan, but for now let’s trust that this is the ever unreliable Madrid newspapers doing their thing.
Elsewhere, Real have Eder Militao and Ferland Mendy coming to give some much needed youth to the back four as Sergio Ramos and Marcelo age out of the side. This probably won’t have a huge immediate impact, but long term they look like two really good replacements.
Barcelona haven’t quite gone as big as Real, though they were starting from a stronger position. That could change if they manage to get the Neymar deal over the line.
As it stands, the club have already signed one of the biggest name attackers in the world with Antoine Griezmann. Personally, I’m slightly skeptical that the Frenchman will offer quite as much to Barca as he did for Atletico Madrid. Of his 15 goals last season, three were from penalties and another three were direct free kicks. At the Camp Nou, Messi will be on set piece duties. Still, though, he should offer a threat out wide in terms of running in behind, whereas Philippe Coutinho last season continually wanted to receive the ball and Barca thus had a hard time stretching the play.
Arguably more exciting is Frenkie de Jong. Most evident in the Pep Guardiola era but dating back long before then, Barcelona are a club so often defined by technical central midfielders. De Jong is both every bit the classic Barca midfielder and also an ideal fit for the modern game. His 91% passing accuracy comes not because he makes safe choices, he’s constantly moving the ball forward, but because he’s so intelligent about being difficult to win the ball off of. The modern midfielder needs to be ever more adept at resisting the opposition press. He should be able to find space when it seems like you’re surrounded. No one out there does this as well as De Jong. The Catalan side could have an absolute gem in their midfield for the next decade.
Heading across the Mediterranean into Italy, no top club has shaken things up this summer more than Juventus, though we don’t have any idea what the final team will look like.
Central to all of this is new manager Maurizio Sarri. Juventus as a club, not just under Max Allegri but really for their entire history, have been defined against the idea that anything but the result matters. Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan side brought an exciting, high pressing game to Italy but Juve stood firm, believing in the traditions of defending deep, putting bodies on the line, and scraping a 1-0 win. This will all change with Sarri. He is a true believer in the possession game he coached so successfully at Napoli and to mixed success at Chelsea. Sarri’s approach will be different from anything we’ve seen from this Juve squad, so an overhaul has been needed.
Defensively, the side need to be playing a much higher line with centre backs more comfortable on the ball, so it’s not a surprise to see Matthijs de Ligt make the move to Turin. De Ligt looked like one of the outstanding defenders in Europe last season and should be a good fit for Sarriball, with age still well on his side at 19. Merih Demiral is a little less of a sure thing in the same role, but still looks a smart pickup. Danilo at right back feels harder to parse, with the 28 year old never totally convincing at Manchester City, but he should still be able to do a job.
Higher up the pitch, the aim seems to be to blend technical quality with the more robust profile Juve need to transition to a high pressing style, or at least one that isn’t constantly getting exposed. Adrien Rabiot on a free from PSG looks ideal for this as a player who does just about everything in midfield, winning the ball aggressively but also offering excellent playmaking qualities. Aaron Ramsey has a bit of this as well, and can offer more in terms of goals and assists. However, his frequent injury problems could be a real concern here. The club have a huge volume of players now, but a manager who tends to barely rotate and frustrates players on the fringes of his plans. It feels like it’s a year of retooling for the Serie A champions.
Last but not least, Bayern seem stuck between relying on solid veteran players and trying to bring in a younger side.
They have really freshened things up in only one place: at the back. Lucas Hernandez is a left footed centre back comfortable on the ball who can shuffle along to the left back spot if David Alaba is unavailable. It’s hard to imagine he won’t be an important player for many years in Bavaria. Benjamin Pavard is broadly the same player, but right footed. This also looks a good piece of business. What they have failed to do, though, is reboot the attack. Ivan “we couldn’t get Leroy Sane in so here’s a short term fix” Perišić has arrived but he’s hardly a huge upgrade on what they have. James Rodriguez, frequently an important creative spark, has left without a replacement.
It doesn’t seem as though Bayern have any idea what they want to be, and as such, it’s hard to imagine them really challenging for the Champions League title this season. The problems that existed for Bayern last season just haven’t been really addressed.
Have they done enough?
While these teams have all added useful players, they have not learned the most important lesson from the English clubs’ return to the top. Your side needs to be cohesive. You will achieve more with a clear idea of how you want to play and a coach who can implement a specific philosophy. Juventus, in fairness, have hired someone to do this, but it will be a long adjustment process. Barcelona arguably get to cheat this with Messi still around, but the others certainly don’t. Maybe the Argentine’s individual quality delivers Barca the Champions League title once more, but in all probability, England still feels like the most likely home for major European trophies.