The English Teams have hit a second wind in Europe’s elite club competition and look well set for a strong challenge. This success has benefited from the talents of Europe’s finest group of coaches, each of whom has had the room to imprint their own philosophy without protest. But will it be a flash in the pan?
Some drubbings, a breathless end to end affair and a tightly contested bout. These are the three categories games in the Champions League knockout stages take. In the decades preceding this year the first leg is generally a cagey, tactical chess match with little real goalmouth action. This season though has continued a recent trend of high pressing, attack minded teams who have no issue taking it to the home side. Porto, along with Besiktas, suffered a 5-0 hammering while Basel were on the end of a predicted 4-0 mauling. Juventus uncharacteristically gave away a two goal lead in a game where they had 40% possession at home whilst Sevilla and Barcelona had to settle for fiddling draws.
The contrast between each game is pertinent as they were all ties in which English clubs partook. Very impressive when given a glance and, looking even further, each team perfectly carried out their managers core tactical blueprints. Man City played head-spinning pressing and possession football to cut down Basel, Tottenham produced a brand of possession themselves with a mix of athleticism and directness that befits Pochettino’s style. Meanwhile, Liverpool countered Porto to oblivion much to Klopp’s pleasure and Conte instilled an intensive defensive display against Barcelona and sought to attack the spaces with three pacey forwards filled with boundless energy. While much of United’s game against Sevilla was about Pogba not starting, much of the focus at the final whistle was directed at a cautious defensive display that lacked any real ambition to commit men forward. These contrasting styles are what make the top end of English football so interesting to watch around the world.
But is this actually a good thing?
Ask any man of football, whether it’s a journalist, ex pro or simply a season ticket holder, what the philosophy of English football is and they may actually struggle to give an answer. If they did, it may be; a physical and direct game, a risky and expansive attacking team with good wing play or a team that simply relies on its superstars to win matches.
The FA has its own philosophy outlined for future generations of players on their official website. However a philosophy doesn’t just count for players but for managers, coaches and even owners. The top clubs in England have been run predominantly by foreign managers from all parts of the world for the last 20 years. The last time English teams dominated European football Ferguson, Wenger, Benitez and Mourinho were at the helm of the old ‘Top Four’. The former two emphasised an attacking game whilst the latter chose more pragmatic means, both methods leading to success. Two of the four won the Champions League while another became a runner up.
The resources are even more so now
Each coach at England’s top 5 teams presently has had between 18 months to four years at the helm to build their own side. Abramovich at Chelsea no longer groans at the sight of less than attractive football given Pep’s Barcelona team have become more and more of a distant memory and also his purse strings have tightened slightly. Guardiola himself was reportedly given the chance to give his input on signings and procedures before he came in at City and is now reaping the rewards. Mourinho was cast in as the all-knowing salvation to save them from the drab Van Gaal years (which is saying a lot) and Klopp was a too good to miss opportunity for Liverpool. Pochettino is the perhaps the exception here. The Argentine was a more organic appointment as he was a manager on the up who has taken the club with him on his personal upward curve. When you feel you’ve got a once in a decade quality manager you’re going to make it work. And to make it work make them happy: give them total control.
With clubs adopting a more short term approach by bringing in a manager to instil a philosophy to the club, rather than bring in a man that’s suits a pre-existing ideology; the long term thinking becomes secondary.
Poor results are over exaggerated in the media, fans have become more impatient and a manager’s job, particularly at the top, becomes a trap door hidden under a glossy carpet. Young academy players are given less and less chance at these teams as the elite managers aren’t allowed the luxury of risk. None at the moment are English born either so they have no inherent desire to give them chance in the hope of developing future talent of their own country. Young players are seeking more chances abroad with young Jadon Sancho making his first appearance for Borussia Dortmund two weeks after signing whilst previously going unused at City. Pep has talked up the use of Diaz and Foden as top young prospects but the Spaniards shelf life at top clubs, like Mourinho, is between 2-4 years. After they go, then what? The short term success could be undercut by a gruelling transition period after another face aims to build a side in his own eyes.
For instance Jose was tipped to replace Rijkaard at Barcelona in 2008 and even had an interview to which the club’s representatives were very impressed. But he wasn’t for them. He didn’t fall into their model. Yes the Catalans are very dedicated to the way they play putting him at a disadvantage but Jose was the man of the moment. The best around. Yet they decided to go with the man who had no top flight experience, but a deep rooted understanding of their philosophy.
Clubs like Sevilla and Villarreal do well to bring in managers with the right profile also. The same example can be made when Joachim Löw was promoted after Klinsmann left the German national team. The Bundesliga also has a long history of promoting from within, with both Bayern and Dortmund very keen to fight it out for 30 year old Julian Nagelsmann at Hoffenheim after they finished fourth last season. It’s his first professional job and yet they see that his methods benefit the way the clubs are modelled. And as we know Germany and Spain are still pretty good at football despite inferior resources.
In the meantime top clubs from England continue to benefit from these master coaches so long as they have the control. But in the end the results falter and the managers depart under the cloud off dizzying expectations because, with so many clubs after four trophies, they can’t all be equally successful.
And with that, English clubs will need to go back to the drawing board and start again as a new solutions man arrives to wipe the slate clean.