Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Barcelona & Arsenal: Champions League Lessons
Innovation is more important than investment
The most important lesson that the English teams will take from this season’s group stage is that it does not matter how expensive or famous your players are when your opponents are better organised in a more sophisticated system. Chelsea entered the competition as holders and with an improved squad, but collapsed hopelessly against Shakhtar Donetsk and Juventus. Manchester City came into this season talking up their chances of making a splash in Europe, but found themselves taken to pieces by Borussia Dortmund and Ajax. The two English sides boasted far costlier squads than their opponents but the lack of a clear plan saw them out-thought and outplayed time and again. Manchester City can bemoan their draw as much as they like: Celtic, Dortmund and Málaga faced titanic struggles of their own, but found tactical solutions and progressed to the last sixteen.
It is not only the value of a clear tactical plan that has been underscored, but also the benefits of prioritised youth development and a coherent recruitment policy. Barcelona and Bayern Munich have repeatedly demonstrated the importance of the former, and Porto and Shakhtar have cemented their position due to a policy of combining imported South American talent with home-grown players. No-one epitomises the move away from English overspending more than Borussia Dortmund, whose popular acclaim comes not only from their success but also from the manner in which it has been achieved. Their model is an example to each English representative, whose strategy, transfer history and record of bringing through young players is frankly pitiful when compared to that of Die Schwarzgelben.
Resurgent Bundesliga set to dominate
With all three German sides through at a canter, it looks as though there may be a new and obvious Best League in the World. If so, it is no surprise. The Bundesliga’s fan-friendly ownership model has been widely admired for years, but the esteem now extends to matters on the pitch. The coaching revolution implemented to improve the fortunes of the national team has unsurprisingly increased the quality of Germany’s clubs manifold. While Bayern Munich and Schalke continue to sign a lot of foreign players, both proudly maintain a home-grown core and consistently produce an enviable number of educated, modern footballers capable of adapting to different systems without seeing a drop-off in the quality of their performance. Add to the quality of the players superior tactical ideas – intense pressing, co-ordinated counter-attacks, gung-ho full-backs – and it is easy to see why the German sides have set the early pace.
The question is whether they can keep performances up now that their secret is out. Borussia Dortmund would have finished with a record of played six, won six but for late equalisers unluckily conceded in the Etihad and the Bernabéu. Now they find themselves labelled as favourites to win the competition by many and go into the later stages on a pedestal. Similarly, Schalke – semi-finalists in 2010-11 – remained unfancied and unstudied by most until they beat Arsenal at the Emirates, a decisive result which ended up securing top spot in Group B for Huub Stevens’ men. Now they too must face the reality of being a prized scalp. Bayern Munich are still the most likely team to succeed in the later stages. They were always favourites to win Group F and did not disappoint, scoring fifteen goals and enjoying more possession and completing more passes than every other team except Barcelona, and it is this superior all-round quality which could see them go all the way. After last season’s catastrophic defeat on home soil, it would not be a surprise to see the Bavarians lifting the European Cup in Wembley.
Move towards a higher tempo sees Ligue Un suffer
The biggest surprise in France this season has been that moneybags Paris Saint-Germain have lost three of their opening fifteen domestic fixtures, seeing them drop to fourth place in a league they have no right to lose. Predictably, given Carlo Ancelotti’s record, they have had no such trouble in Europe, winning five of their six games in Group A and progressing with the best defensive record of any side in the competition. In doing so, their much-criticised star-studded squad has salvaged a measure of credibility for a division that is starting to fall very far behind.
In recent years, Lyon and Marseille have been the familiar face of Ligue Un in the Champions League and while never threatening to win the competition, they have given respectable performances and shown off players destined to move on to greater things. This season’s non-Parisian French representatives, Lille and Montpellier, added little to the group stage, winning only one of their combined twelve matches and bowing out with not so much as a whimper. There were mitigating circumstances – both lost star players over the summer and Montpellier are not really a big enough club to compete at this level – but the meekness of their performances hints at greater problems for French football.
Joey Barton may not be the go-to guy for a sensible assessment of most things, but his recent description of Ligue Un as boring for the spectator was ill-phrased but not necessarily without merit: to watch a French match is to almost to look back in time. The game is played at a pace that appears relatively sluggish, with the intensity and aggression that the top teams show to win the ball back, for example, almost entirely absent. Coming from that culture and into the Champions League, it is little wonder that constant rapid transitions have exposed sides more used to a less hurried resetting of the field. With PSG’s spending certain to continue, their domestic opponents will have to modernise in order to survive. In that respect, tactical evolution is inevitable. Ironically, Ligue Un fans hoping to see their teams again challenging in Europe may have to hope that the PSG project succeeds as quickly as possible.
Platini’s policies are bearing fruit
As a prominent member of football’s finance-obsessed governing elite – the heir apparent to Sepp Blatter’s throne, no less – Michel Platini is generally seen as a figure worthy of ridicule. However, it must be said that his reform of the Champions League has been very good for the competition. The standard of play is levelling out across Europe, and the last sixteen sees nine different national leagues contributing representative clubs. English fans, in particular, love to criticise Platini for his apparent crusade against their game, but it is undeniably refreshing to see a more diverse set of clubs fighting for European football’s biggest club prize. While this season has seen no story as romantic as APOEL’s in 2011-12, few would have predicted that Celtic would beat Barcelona and qualify from Group G, or that Málaga would respond to their pre-season turmoil by easily topping Group C.
It is certainly true that several established giants have been severely weakened in recent years: in addition to the evident decline of remaining sides like Manchester United, Arsenal, Milan and Valencia, familiar names such as Internazionale, Roma, Liverpool, Villarreal, Olympique Lyonnais and CSKA Moscow were altogether absent from this year’s group stage. The upshot of this is that the minnows are getting stronger. Of the thirty-two teams in the group stage, only three went unbeaten. BATE Borisov and CFR Cluj gained credibility, embarrassing Bayern Munich and Manchester United before eventually finishing third in Groups F and H respectively. Of the apparent whipping boys, only Dinamo Zagreb and FC Nordsjælland finished winless. Most importantly, every side representing a minor league will greatly benefit from the television revenue generated by their Champions League travails, ensuring that Europe’s lesser lights will compete for years to come.
It is impossible to predict the eventual winner
Perhaps the most heartening lesson of all is that there is no clear favourite to win the Champions League at this stage. Barcelona will have the shortest odds with most bookies, but their defeat to Celtic will have given every competing side cause for optimism. With Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué and Éric Abidal absent, they look like conceding at least one goal in every game. Alex Song is still adapting and may well grow into his role as Sergio Busquets’ understudy, but it is hard to shake the suspicion that he may yet be Barça’s undoing. With Lionel Messi going down injured against Benfica, one glimpsed a paroxysm of pure fear at Camp Nou: a tacit acknowledgement that without him, the side would need an unbelievable amount of luck to go all the way.
Real Madrid look irresistible in abstract, but their league form has been patchy and the docility of their defeat to Dortmund brought memories back of last season’s semi-final versus Bayern, in which they were thoroughly outplayed. While one can never write off a side managed by José Mourinho and containing the myriad talents of Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Özil, Ángel Di María, to name but a few, their second place finish in Group D will see them handed a trickier last sixteen tie than is desirable. Of the remaining big sides, it appears nigh-on impossible for Manchester United, Arsenal Milan or Valencia to triumph: there are simply too many obvious problems with their squads and their systems.
Juventus could conceivably emerge victorious, with a resolute defence and Andrea Pirlo irrepressible in midfield. Or it could be Bayern, perfectly placed to right the most painful wrong in their history by taking the trophy back from Chelsea at the first time of asking. Sir Alex Ferguson, Roberto Mancini and José Mourinho have all said Dortmund can win it. If they get a good draw and the squad stays fit, they could well do so. Who knows? Nobody does – and that is great for European football.