Champions League: Are we seeing a new era of European football?
The vulnerabilities of the established clubs and the resurgence of English teams could change the competition
It’s possible to view this season’s Champions League as a mundane continuation of the status quo.
The difference between the haves and have-nots is still stark. Shakhtar Donetsk have been the only club outside of the top five European leagues to hold a candle to the establishment – as Porto, Besiktas and Basel succumbed to heavy defeats.
However, something genuinely different has been happening with the competition this season and it’s all thanks to the progress of the English clubs: the latter stages of the competition might not see the same names from the past few seasons.
2004-2012: The rise and fall of the English clubs
The arrival of Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez in England in 2004 ushered in a new era for English football.
Their tactical approach, which influenced others in the country, started an era of domination – between 2004 and 2012, three English clubs won the Champions League, and all but one season (2010) featured an English team in the final.
In the five seasons between 2004 and 2009, English teams accounted for 12 of the 20 semi-finalists.
However, the present decade has seen the make-up of European and English football change.
In 2010, Spurs finished in European places for the first time – breaking up the monopoly that Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal had on the top four for the years preceding.
This started a less successful period for the English sides in Europe. Spurs and Manchester City have produced memorable performances but their inexperience of European competition was their undoing.
Arsenal under Wenger showed a remarkable consistency in wilting against any real quality. The traditional historical powerhouses, Liverpool and Manchester United stopped qualifying with regularity.
The decline of Liverpool, and now Arsenal, along with the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, Chelsea’s unwavering ability to capitulate every so often, alongside the rise of Manchester City and Spurs has seen a more open and unpredictable race for European places.
Only Manchester City and Chelsea have made the semi-finals in five seasons since 2012 – and both were well beaten.
2013-2017: The emergence of Europe’s new Big Five
In the absence of good English performances, a different set of Champions League regulars has emerged.
This is composed of a Spanish bloc – the big three of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, and consistent German and Italian Champions, Bayern Munich and Juventus.
The last five finals have been contested by these teams, except for Borussia Dortmund in 2013. These clubs account for 16 of the 20 semi-finalists in the last five years.
Even more remarkably, the five clubs have appeared to contest the competition only with each other.
In the four seasons between 2013 and 2017, nobody else has challenged them – Real Madrid, Atlético, Barcelona, Juventus and Bayern Munich were only knocked out by one another.
2017-2018: Start of a new era?
This season there have been hints this dominance by the same five clubs will come to an end.
Atlético’s group stage exit is their first since they returned to the competition under Simeone in 2013.
Real Madrid are favourites to progress but could be given a difficult game in Paris and, at times, looked rattled in the first leg against PSG. They look more vulnerable than they have in recent years and the other clubs share those vulnerabilities.
Barcelona and Juventus were given very difficult games in the Round of 16 and could well exit the competition before the quarterfinals. Bayern Munich are effectively through but are so rarely tested it’s unknown how they’ll compete against genuine quality (the same problem PSG have)
The other thing is how resurgent the English clubs have been. All five have looked capable of causing surprises in this year’s competition.
Chelsea and Spurs performances were better than any from an English team in the knockouts of the Champions League in the last five years and the thrashings dealt out by Manchester City and Liverpool were statements of intent.
Manchester United were less convincing against Sevilla, but they have a manager with European pedigree and a team with potential.
Beyond this season
Going forward, there is also a question of time. For most of these Big Five clubs, success has been built on an established core of exceptional players. However, many of those players have left, retired or are reaching the latter stages of their careers.
Barcelona have Gerard Pique, Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta now into their thirties. At Real Madrid, there’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric, Sergio Ramos and Karim Benzema.
Bayern Munich have Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery but have had to deal with the departures of Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Xabi Alonso.
Juventus backline has been built on their experience – but Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli are all closing in, to different degrees, to the end of their career, whilst they’ve had to deal with the departures of Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Pirlo.
Atletico Madrid are a slightly different case but, competing with such powerhouses, they’ve overachieved – it will be difficult to maintain this going forward, even with Simeone in charge.
All of the clubs are in the process of building for the future, but replacing such strong bases will be extremely difficult, and may see the clubs struggle to reinvent themselves.
The Premier League is coming
Meanwhile, at Liverpool and Spurs it feels like there are projects being built that may well get stronger.
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City look every bit a genuine superclub. In the future, money will be thrown at Manchester United and, eventually, it might just stick. Chelsea are impossible to predict.
A resurgence of English clubs has been coming. Reckless and uninhibited spending isn’t as common and clubs have invested wisely.
The superior resources of Premier League clubs now looks to be further fortified by excellent tacticians and coaches capable of building a project.
What do you think? Will English clubs dominate the future of the Champions League? Let us know by commenting below.