It was appropriate for Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino to defend the lack of Premier League success in the Champions League by explaining how English sides prioritize the domestic game. As his side failed to make it out of the group led by Monaco and Bayer Leverkusen last season, Pochettino could only hold onto the 62,000 supporters who showed up to Wembley in the final match against CSKA Moscow as a sign of progress. A symbolic moment was in the previous match against Monaco as the French club scored after the kick-off immediately following Harry Kane’s penalty to tie the match 1-1. This time around, his side’s 3-1 win over Dortmund on the opening matchday was a promising do-over.
The same couldn’t be said for Liverpool, the only English side out of the five teams to lose this round. The match unfolded in a familiar manner for Liverpool supporters during Klopp’s era: after an early Dejan Lovren mistake that lead to Sevilla’s opener, Liverpool created chances with their energetic press that lead to two goals and a missed penalty from Firmino. Again unable to capitalize on their chances or manage the game to its end, Sevilla scored the game tying goal in the 73rd minute. Klopp observed that his side put on a winning performance for “85 minutes” while discussing the importance of staying focused for an entire match, especially in the moments after dominating the ball.
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, no stranger to Champions League criticism, touched upon the lack of control he faced in the Premier League. In answering Thierry Henry’s question about the biggest difference between Serie A and the Premier League, Conte replied that if you were up 1-0 late in a match in Italy, the game was over whereas the intensity in England never drops. Although unlike Klopp, the criticism of his Juventus sides in Europe fell upon how viable his three man defense was in Europe instead of defense or concentration. In Conte’s two appearances, Juventus lost to Bayern in the quarterfinals, then failed to get out of the group the next season. His underachievement was even more exemplified by Max Allegri making the finals after taking over from Conte.
Even as he admitted the scheduling difficulty of playing 60 matches a season, Conte does have his supporters this season. Rio Ferdinand pointed to Chelsea, with a balance of individual play and team tactics, as the English side to go the furthest in Champions League. Highlighted by Alvaro Morata, Tiémoué Bakayoko, and a last minute signing of Danny Drinkwater, Conte added rotational depth to his squad.
Ferdinand went on to dismiss both Manchester sides as being too weak defensively. And while United may be too fragile for Ferdinand’s tastes, at least Mourinho understands the importance of focus and mentality. He chided his side’s “Playstation” mannerisms once they went up two goals to Basel in their opening match with flicks and tricks. At the very least, we should not see Mourinho deliver a Klopp-ian post match interviews lamenting how his side were good enough for sections of a match, only to turn off for important moments. The only fun in Champions League will be on Twitter.
The question of why Premier League sides fail to make it to later rounds of the Champions League inspires various levels of analysis and theories, but it wasn’t always this way. In fact, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, and United supporters in the mid-2000s couldn’t have imagined anything less than Champions League success. Similar to the dominance of the top three La Liga sides in this current Champions League era, the 2007 and 2008 semifinals each included Manchester United, Chelsea, and Liverpool. Yet since Chelsea’s win over Bayern Munich in 2012 finals, Mourinho’s Chelsea and Manuel Pellegrini’s City are the only two English sides to have made the semifinal round (Pellegrini recently remarked how Guardiola’s initial struggles would make his era appear more impressive, especially with the semifinals run).
Guardiola’s Manchester City side did gain valuable experience in getting knocked out in a 6-6 thriller versus Monaco in last season’s quarterfinals, although the manager makes no grand promises of success even after altering large portions of his defense over the summer. Their opening matchday 4-0 scoreline against Feyenoord was impressive, but it’s especially important to read between the lines in assessing the side. After the 5-3 loss in the second leg against Monaco, Guardiola echoed Klopp’s demands for consistency in saying his players shouldn’t expect to move on in the competition when only playing well for 45 minutes.
According to Gareth Bale, the intensity of Premier League matches holds English sides back from fully achieving on Europe’s highest stage. He echoes Conte’s ideas of how teams conserve energy once a match has been decided, keeping players fresh for important clashes. On the topic of rest, many point to a lack of winter break for English sides in explaining the lackluster performances. While Paul Wilson points out the oversimplification of that explanation, Arsene Wenger is among the proponents of extra rest for players.
Other theories appear at odds. Bale noted the importance of patience and looking for openings in La Liga matches as opposed to the constantly high tempo Premier League style, but Gary Neville blamed the Premier League’s lack of ability to maintain high pressure throughout a match as compared to their European counterparts. And no discussion can be had without discussing tactics, especially as sides built with a budget like FC Basel and Athletic Bilbao topple Manchester United and Liverpool armed with a fundamental understanding of team positioning. This idea brings Nevilla back to his desire for Premier League sides to become more English, with Leicester City’s run into the quarterfinals based on a tight, counterattacking 442 formation last season as proof.
Finally, back to Liverpool - or more specifically, back to European matches between Liverpool and Sevilla in assessing how much one side has or has not learned about winning games on the continent. The two teams met in the Europa League finals two seasons ago. Liverpool went up 1-0 in the first half in that match, before conceding a goal a minute into the second half and losing 3-1. Klopp appeared especially disappointed in his side’s mental softness after giving up the tying goal, saying they lost their faith and compactness in one swoop. After this most recent draw against their Spanish foes, Klopp insisted that summer center back target Virgil van Dijk would not have solved their lack of concentration. The excuse given after the finals loss was fair, as we know a side’s mental approach cannot change overnight. More worryingly, it appears it cannot be learned over 15 months either.