The Premier League’s European Resurgence

Tonight’s game between England’s two most exhilarating attacking teams offers the opportunity for one to move a step closer to the semi-final. Manchester City and Liverpool have lit up Europe’s premier football competition over the last six months, but now they must face each other in the biggest game of their respective seasons. Simmo looks at how English teams have enjoyed a European renaissance in this seasons Champions League. 

English success in the Champions League has not been too common in recent years. In fact, the last time a Premier League team reached the final was all the way back in 2012. That year it was Chelsea and although they did bring the trophy home, their win merely papered over the cracks of a disastrous domestic season in which they finished in sixth place.

English success in the last five seasons of the Champions League (2013–17) has been so infrequent that only Chelsea and Manchester City have reached the semi-final stages, in 2014 and 2016 respectively. Neither ever looked likely to move beyond that stage and their forays in Europe weren’t backed up by significant domestic success either. 

Compare that to the previous five seasons, (2008–12) when five English teams reached finals and two came home with the trophy; Manchester United in 2008 in an all-English classic, and of course Chelsea’s win in 2012. During that same period no fewer than eight English teams reached the semi-finals, including three in both 2008 and 2009.

After years of impasse, we are suddenly seeing English teams thrive on the European stage. But why after half a decade of mediocrity in Europe, are we now seeing a renaissance?

A big factor is the amount of money English are spending. It is well documented that the Premier League is the richest league in the world, but other major clubs also have deep pockets. This season though has seen spending records smashed with almost £1.5 billion spent by the 20 Premier League clubs. All five of the English participants in this seasons Champions League were among the 20 highest spenders in Europe. City spent more than any other club (£220 million) while Chelsea found themselves in fourth place with a spend of over £150 million.

However, spending money is not the only reason Premier League teams are doing well. At the helm of England’s biggest clubs is arguably some of the very best managers in Europe. Guardiola, Klopp, Pochettino, Conte and Mourinho all led their teams into Europe’s most prestigious competition this season.

While some may debate whether Mourinho can still be classified among the elite, there can be little doubt that Guardiola, Klopp and Pochettino have improved their teams’ European performances.

Last season Liverpool did not even qualify, Tottenham finished third in their group, while City got knocked out in the round of 16. Only Leicester progressed to the quarter-finals.

In this season’s competition, Liverpool are the highest scorers with 28 goals from their eight games and Manchester City have kept the ball more than any other team with an average of 63% possession per game. They are also the only team to have completed over 6,000 passes in the competition.

Tottenham also enjoyed brilliant success in the group stages; winning both home and away against Borussia Dortmund as well as drawing with Real Madrid, last season’s winners, at the Bernabéu before comfortably beating them at home. Prior to their unfortunate exit at the hands of Juventus (runners-up the previous season) in the round of 16, they had won more points than any other team in the group stages.

The Premier League is unquestionably the most competitive league in the world. No other league can boast the depth of competition that it offers. However, in recent years, while the Premier League competition has continued to make compelling viewing, no team has been able to convert domestic trophies into major European success.

Now things seem different. Manchester City are the Champions League favourites; England is guaranteed at least one semi-final place as City have been drawn against Liverpool. Given the choice, both teams would almost certainly have preferred to avoid each other at this stage of the competition.

The results this season seem to suggest that the competition in the Premier League is aiding European performances. Collectively, English teams have performed considerably better. The acid test will be if English teams can maintain consistent performances in Europe over the next three or four years.

Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that English clubs are on the rise again, and the rest of Europe will be concerned.  

Six players who really should’ve been on the Ballon d’Or shortlist

So the Ballon d’Or list was announced with a fair few notable names missing. Here we look at six players who can count themselves a little unlucky to have missed out.

Claudio Bravo

People may be surprised to see him on this list, especially because I’ve been scathing about his performances since he signed for Manchester City in the summer. But the Chilean international certainly does deserve some recognition for his achievements in recent years. Having captained his national team to consecutive Copa América titles, and winning back-to-back La Liga titles with Barcelona, there can be no doubting his pedigree. Whether he will enjoy the same success in the Premier League is a different issue altogether.

José Fonte

This is a left field choice and one that will no doubt cause a bit of bewilderment. Nevertheless, the Southampton centre half has been in imperious form over the last twelve months. It is easy to forget that he was playing League One football just five years ago. Having captained Southampton to their best ever Premier League finish and winning Euro 2016 with Portugal, he more than merits some acknowledgement for his achievements. There are only three other defenders on the original list of 30, including his international centre back partner, Pepe. Fonte had to bide his time initially, having been overlooked in favour of veteran defender Ricardo Carvalho. However, after a 3-3 draw with Hungary, the result that sealed Portugal’s passage through to the knockout stages, he came into the team and formed a formidable partnership with Pepe. When playing alongside each other Portugal conceded only one goal in their remaining four matches.

Marcelo

Whilst there will always be question marks regarding his defensive ability, there can be no doubt that the Brazilian is the best attacking left back in the world. Quick, strong, and technically gifted, the former Fluminese man really does have it all. He is so important to the way that Real Madrid play, offering them that extra width when the wingers choose to come inside. It can be difficult to get the acclaim you deserve when Bale, Benzema, and particularly Ronaldo are your team mates, yet Marcelo quietly and efficiently goes about his business. Despite only being 28, it feels like the Rio de Janeiro native has been around for years. Now in his eleventh season at Real, he will no doubt be looking to help retain the Champions League this season.

N’Golo Kanté

It’s absolutely farcical that this guy isn’t on the list. Quite frankly he was the standout midfielder in Europe last season as Leicester claimed the unlikeliest of Premier League titles. His omission really does go some way to devaluing the whole award. Last season he demonstrated his exceptional energy levels and reading of the game whilst forming a formidable midfield partnership with Danny Drinkwater. His tactical discipline and unselfish work rate enabled flare players like Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy to excel further up the field. Kanté carried his form into Euro 2016, and has started this season with Chelsea in equally excellent form.

Blaise Matuidi

His absence from the list is also baffling. This is a guy who has won eight trophies with PSG in the previous two seasons. Like Kanté, he featured extensively for Les Bleus as they finished runners up to Portugal at Euro 2016. However, many still choose to devalue the achievements of Matuidi and his PSG side, decrying the alleged weakness of Ligue 1. This perception somewhat overlooks the fact that Matuidi himself has been in excellent form for an awfully long time now. Having joined PSG in 2011 shortly after the club had been purchased by Qatari investors, Matuidi remains the only player from that first wave of signings to still be at the club. He, like PSG, has grown, developed, and improved and consequently now really should be considered amongst the world elite.

Harry Kane

He may have endured a miserable Euro 2016, but there can be no devaluing his achievements in the Premier League last season. Kane was simply sensational, scoring 25 league goals as Tottenham recorded their highest league finish in over 25 years. His finishing and link up play is up there with the best in the world; in a Spurs shirt he really does seem to have the Midas touch. Whilst his performances for England have often been below par, there can be no doubting that he has all the credentials to be one of the all time great English centre forwards. Having scored more league goals than Karim Benzema, Paulo Dybala, and Sergio Agüero (all nominated for the award) last season, his omission from the list was certainly surprising. If he continues the form that he has shown during the previous two seasons then he will almost certainly begin to receive the acclaim he so rightly deserves.

Mourinho: Myth Busted

Simmo on José Mourinho and his alleged preference for experience over youth.

Mourinho is a winner. He’s won just about everything worth winning in club football. The majority of football supporters would long for a manager of his stature at their clubs. With eight league titles won in four different countries, two Champions Leagues and countless domestic trophies, there are not many managers who can measure up to Senhor Mourinho.

However, the reality is not quite so black and white. While Mourinho guarantees success there is a fair amount of evidence to suggest that this success is destined purely for the short-term. For all of the trophies that Mourinho’s won he’s never stayed longer than 4 years at a single club. The man works for now, not for later.

Closer analysis of Mourinho’s successful teams reveals one stark similarity; nearly all of them have been relatively experienced. For example, when arriving at Chelsea, Mourinho was quick to build the team around a certain Claude Makélélé. At Inter Milan he used Javier Zanetti in a similar role and relied heavily on the experience of Marco Materazzi, Christian Chivu, Walter Samuel and Lucio. At Real Madrid he re-signed Ricardo Carvalho and used him extensively during his first season in charge. All those players have one crucial aspect in common – experience.

Indeed, it has long been assumed that Mourinho has a penchant for the games  older statesmen. But do the facts really back this up?

The answer is really quite surprising. Staggeringly, the title-winning Chelsea team during the 2004–5 season was the youngest in Premier League history. The average age of that team was just 24.3 years. Fergie’s Fledglings won the 1995–6 title at the ripe old average age of 25.

In fact, at Real Madrid the average age of Mourinho’s signings was just a fraction over 24. During the same period, Arsène Wenger’s signings at Arsenal (a club famed for its trust in young players) had an average age of over 26.

Further study shows that Mourinho has often been brave enough to give responsibility to young players. Upon arriving Chelsea, Mourinho was faced with a team lacking any experienced leaders. The previous captain, Marcel Desailly, had just left the club and there was no obvious replacement. Mourinho eventually plumped for John Terry. Terry had come up from Chelsea’s academy, through the youth teams and into the starting XI. Mourinho clearly saw potential leadership qualities in the Barking-born defender. While Terry had made over 150 Chelsea appearances by the time Mourinho arrived, he was still only 23 – a comparatively young age for an established central defender and even younger for a captain.

Mourinho’s decision was vindicated. Terry would go on to lift the Premier League trophy at the end of Mourinho’s first two seasons in charge, and was selected for the PFA Team of the Year for both seasons.

Mourinho also showed an interest in developing young defenders at Real Madrid. He added the 18-year-old Frenchman Raphael Varane, from Lens to his squad of ‘Galácticos’. Although Varane was by no means a regular, Mourinho trusted him enough to throw him into some big games.

During his second spell at Chelsea, Mourinho decided to splash £12 million on another young French defender, Kurt Zouma. He had so much confidence in Zouma that when Nemanja Matic was suspended for the 2015 League Cup final against Tottenham, he thrust Zouma into the unfamiliar role of holding midfielder.

It also seems that Mourinho has a penchant for young goalkeepers. During his first spell in charge of Chelsea he picked the relatively young and inexperienced Petr Cech over the reliable, well-established veteran, Carlo Cudicini. Cech went on to become a club legend and break the all-time clean sheet record in the Premier League. Whilst Cech now plies his trade for Chelsea’s London rivals Arsenal, his contribution to Chelsea during his 11 year stay in South West London was immeasurable.

During his second spell in charge at Chelsea, Mourinho decided to promote Thibault Courtois above Cech. The Belgian had been out on loan at Atletico Madrid and had already won a La Liga title and played in a Champions League Final by the age of 22.

So, does this dispel the theory? Is Mourinho in fact a big believer in young talent?

Well, the answer isn’t really that simple. Now managing Manchester United, a club that has always prided itself on promoting young players, Mourinho has decided that he needs to cut some deadwood from the vast squad he took over from Louis van Gaal.

Since joining he has allegedly told no fewer than 7 players who are 23 old or younger that their futures lie away from Old Trafford. Timothy Fosu Mensah, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Will Keane, James Wilson, Adnan Januzaj, Andreas Pereira and Tyler Blackett have all been told that they are surplus to requirements, for the meantime at least.

It’s true that there are question marks over the ability of several of the aforementioned youngsters, yet they’ve all played for the Red Devils and were deemed good enough by previous managers. This time, José’s transfer dealings indicate a preference for age over youth; he has signed 3 players with an average age of just under 28.

Is this a change in stance by Mourinho? Has he decided that he needs to sign players with more experience and sell those youngsters trying to break in?

Difficult to say. We are only two months into Mourinho’s Old Trafford reign and he hasn’t yet managed United in a competitive match. If José is around this time next year then we may get a better understanding of his transfer strategy and whether or not he has indeed abandoned his former willingness to embrace youth.

So where would Mourinho sit on the now infamous (and highly inaccurate) “You won’t win anything with kids” saying coined by Alan Hansen back in the mid-90s?

He’d almost certainly disagree. The fact is that Mourinho seems likely to pick players who are good enough to make an instant contribution to the team and not let others down. If a player does not reach that standard, he will be banished to the youth teams or, worst case scenario, shipped out somewhere else. For Mourinho’s players there is a steep learning curve. However, if you prove you are good enough, then, for Mourinho, you’re almost certainly old enough.