As Damir Skomina blew the full time whistle in Nice, it felt like English football had smacked rock bottom. The Three Lions, or the three kittens as it was, had just been embarrassingly overturned by Iceland. Yes, Iceland. The country whose population is roughly a third of that of. Birmingham. The country to have never qualified for a major tournament. The team made up of dentists and plumbers. They had outplayed England. And as we forlornly packed our scarves, flags and retro kits away for another two years , it felt like we were settling into a new normal. Mediocrity. But not just with the national side.
From the 2009/10 Champions League to the 2015/16 there had been only four English semi-finalists compared to Spain’s thirteen. A very poor record. Gone were the days of English semi-finals, Benitez and Mourinho outwitting opposition coaches and teams actually fearing Man Utd. Dare we say that the tide has turned ? For the first team since 2008/09, four English clubs have qualified for the quarter-finals and there is a feasible chance that one of them could bring the trophy home. It seems a little hasty to claim that English clubs are back at the helm in Europe, but the fact of the matter is that this isn’t a freak season, rather a continuation of the gradual resurgence of English football.
We hear the same old slogans and platitudes time and time again in the Premier League. ‘The best league in the world’, it is marketed. Indeed, it is often the most competitive- no other league has 6 sides gunning for the title in such relentless manners. But you would have to stretch back to the Benitez, Fergie, Mourinho era of 2005-2009 for when the Premier League actually had the best teams in Europe.
Rafa and Mourinho were both very similar managers, joining their respective clubs in June 2004. What they both became renowned for was their reactive football and obsession with the opposition. Jose Mourinho demanded hours of research from his coaching staff and would dedicate a whole day to tactics every week. Rafa Benitez, meanwhile, once described himself as ‘a loner with a laptop’. Neither were gifted with an exceptionally gifted bunch of players, but their judicious tactics and squad versatility is what brought so much success.
And this success (a Champions league and an FA cup for Benitez, and two Premier leagues and an FA cup for Mourinho) was underpinned by three main qualities: clean sheets, defending from the front and organisation. This was epitomised most resoundingly in Mourinho’s scorning comments over Arsenal’s 5-4 win against Tottenham in 2004. “5-4 is a hockey score, not a football score,” he mocked. “In a 3v3 training match, if the score reaches 5-4 I send the players back to the dressing rooms as they are not defending properly.” They only conceded 15 goals all season.
United were a different prospect. Sir Alex Ferguson’s 2006-2009 side were not just mesmerising to watch, but were serial winners, collecting three consecutive Premier League titles and winning 9 knock-out Champions league ties in three years. Unlike Mourinho and Benitez, Ferguson had the enviable yet difficult task of trying to fit as many of his stars into one team. His system relied upon the fluid movement and interchanges of the likes of Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez on the counter-attack. United would absorb pressure in the big games, with Vidic and Ferdinand forming an impermeable defensive partnership, and then look to terrorise teams with pace and intensity on the counter-attack. It was electric.
At this point, the Premier League had the best players, best managers and were the most competitive sides in Europe. However, unlike the Spanish dynasty over the past decade, this dominance was only to be short-lived. By 2011, both Mourinho and Benitez had been sacked, Pep’s Barcelona were becoming too hot to handle ( beating Man Utd in two finals in two years ), and then in 2013 Sir Alex Ferguson saw it rational to step down as Manchester United manager after 27 glorious years. With Arsenal and Wenger also strangled with the financial wrath of moving to The Emirates, the quality of the Premier League seemed to be crumbling away. Indeed, for the next 5 years, English clubs were outthought, outwitted, and outclassed in the Champions League. Enter Klopp, Guardiola and Pochettino…
Klopp, Pep and Poch have no doubt revolutionised English football, but it is easily forgotten that they all needed one or two seasons to perfect their system, and really stamp down their blueprint and philosophies. Klopp’s tactical imprint was immediately visible- high-pressing, high-intensity, rock and roll football. Guardiola, influenced by the tutelage of Cruyff, believes in patient possession play, moving the opponent around until gaps are created in the defence. Pochettino’s system is something of a mixture of the two, but is lauded most for his work with young players. However, all three encountered huge defensive problems in their inaugural seasons.
With Guardiola it was adjusting to playing out from the back, Klopp’s issue was a case of personnel while Tottenham just lacked organisation at times. Yet this year, we have seen a newfound resilience from these sides. Spurs capitulated against Juventus in the Champions League last year, City were far too open as Liverpool blew them away in 20 minutes and we all know how shaky that Liverpool defence used to be. Compare that to this season with Tottenham keeping two clean sheets against an in-form Borussia Dortmund, no Bayern Munich player scoring against Liverpool over two legs and Manchester City conceding only 21 goals all season in the Premier League then the transformation is stark. It is gaining that perfect blend of an attacking football philosophy and a strong, sturdy spine that has seen four English sides rise into the quarter-finals for the first time since 2009. English football is back. The best coaches, the best players, the most competitive. Who nows, maybe this really is the beginning of an era of pure English dominance. Even the national side aren’t doing too shabby.
Champions League predicitions
Ajax 2-1 Juventus, Juventus 3-0 Ajax (Juventus 4-2 Ajax)
Liverpool 2-0 Porto, Porto 1-0 Liverpool (Liverpool 2-1 Porto)
Tottenham 1-1 Manchester City, Manchester City 4-0 Tottenham (Man City 5-1 Spurs)
Man Utd 2-2 Barcelona, Barcelona 0-0 Man Utd (Barcelona go through on away goals)
Manchester City 1-1 Juventus, Juventus 2-1 Manchester City (Juventus 3-2 Man City)
Barcelona 1-0 Liverpool, Liverpool 0-2 Barcelona ( Barcelona 3-0 Liverpool )
Juventus 2-2 Barcelona (Juventus win on penalties)