Premier League sides have started strongly in the Champions League, so are they genuine contenders again? We take a look.
In the five years since Didier Drogba swept home the decisive penalty in Chelsea’s famous Champions League final victory over Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena in 2012, it is fair to say Premier League sides have taken a back seat at Europe’s top table.
While Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona have all celebrated success in Europe’s elite knockout competition during that time, their English counterparts have not even come close.
Semi-final appearances from Premier League sides have dropped from eight between 2008 and 2012, to two between 2013 and 2017.
It has been a fallow period, but as this year’s competition gets back underway this week, there is a renewed sense of optimism surrounding the Premier League’s representatives. Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool all sit top of their respective groups.
Tottenham share the Group H lead with Real Madrid.
Between them, they are yet to taste defeat in 15 games.
There have been 11 wins and four draws, with 44 goals scored and just 11 conceded. There is a long way to go, of course, but at the same stage of last season’s competition, Manchester City had been thrashed 4-0 by Barcelona and Tottenham were already struggling.
We’re now back at a point where Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester United and Manchester City are actually doing what they should be doing.
They are conceding fewer goals – a lot fewer goals.
It’s quite the turnaround.
The Premier League is on course to have five representatives in the Champions League knockout stages for the first time in its history, and according to Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville, the most significant factor in the improvement is clear.
“The reason our Champions League performances have been so poor in recent years is because our teams can’t defend,” he said on Monday Night Football.
“We’re now back at a point where Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester United and Manchester City are actually doing what they should be doing.
They are conceding fewer goals – a lot fewer goals.”
It’s borne out in the stats.
The Premier League’s top four sides have conceded considerably fewer goals after 10 games of the domestic season than in any of the previous five (27).
And as Neville points out, it’s down to the men in the dugout.
“What we’re now starting to see is the
influence of these managers,” he added.
Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Mauricio Pochettino are enjoying the benefits of stability this season.
And together with Antonio Conte, the man behind Chelsea’s title success in 2016/17, they are raising the game in the Premier League in terms of tactical nous and defensive organisation.
Recent evidence suggests it has translated to the Champions League, where English clubs boast a superior defensive record to any of the previous five seasons, with an average of just 0.7 goals conceded per game in the group stage so far.
There have been compelling case studies along the way.
The first came at Wanda Metropolitano stadium at the end of September, when Chelsea came from behind to clinch a memorable 2-1 victory over Atletico Madrid.
Diego Simeone’s formidable side are one of the toughest to beat in Europe, but Conte’s men delivered the kind of away performance that seemed beyond English sides a few years ago.
Three weeks later, it was Tottenham’s turn. Pochettino took a patched-up side to the Bernabeu and went toe to toe with the European champions.
Their fearless performance helped them to a famous 1-1 draw, but they could easily have taken all three points if it wasn’t for Keylor Navas’ heroics in goal.
We will find out more about their prospects in the upcoming round of fixtures, with Chelsea and Manchester City travelling to Roma and Napoli respectively and Tottenham hosting Real Madrid at Wembley.
They are daunting tests.
Come through them unscathed and there will be more cause for tentative optimism.