Thursday, March 12, 2009

English teams' dominance in the UEFA Champions League

Matches for the round of 16 for this year's UEFA Champions League came off this week. The juiciest matchup was my favorite Manchester United versus Inter Milan. The champions of Europe and England against the champions of Italy. Sir Alex versus the Special One, Jose Mourinho. Cristiano Ronaldo versus Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Man U emerged victorious over the two legs, shutting out the Inter attack and joining fellow English teams, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool. For the second year in a row, the big 4 teams in England can be counted amongst the top 8 in Europe. Why are the English teams dominating? I'll try to answer this in today's blog entry.

One major knock against the Premier League is the weather in England. Compared to Spain, Italy or even France, the weather in the UK makes it not such a great place to play. Cristiano Ronaldo would surely love to play in the sun and many of the top Brazilian players have not gone to the top English teams for this same reason. It is safe to say a good number of the world's top players stay away from England even though the salaries there may be higher. Until last year, the world's best player has never been plying his trade in England. It's a crime Thierry Henry never won it in his Arsenal days or David Beckham somehow missed out when Man U picked up the unprecedented treble in 1999.

I could also argue that more of the world's best players play outside of England. The middle tier teams in Spain and Italy seem to be better than those in England. Just look at the UEFA cup results and follow some more La Liga, Serie A matches. You hardly hear of the top players in the La Liga or Serie A moving to England. The few exceptions are Robinho (Real Madrid to Chelsea Manchester City) and Andriy Schevchenko (AC Milan to Chelsea). Most of the foreign players in the EPL came from France (Ligue 1) or the Dutch Eredivisie. For those who moved from the Serie A or La Liga to the EPL, most of these 'stars' were young or unproven. Case in point: Thierry Henry. Henry wasn't getting the time at Juventus, or Patrick Viera for that matter, they moved to Arsenal and became superstars. There's also Juan Sebastian Veron who moved to MAN U in his prime, but he was never really the same.

Look at the other scenario. David Beckham and Ruud Van Nistelrooy moved to Real Madrid from MAN U and did well. Henry moved to Barcelona in his prime as well. England's big teams have never really been able to get the top players from La Liga or Serie A's top teams. When the La Liga leave, they go to Italy and when the Serie A top guns leave, they go to Spain. Example: Ronaldinho - Barcelona to AC Milan. Fat Ronaldo - Barcelona to Inter to Real Madrid to AC Milan. Figo left Barcelona for their bitterest rivals, Real Madrid and then went to Inter. When Juventus was marred in the Calciopoli scandal, their players didn't go to England, they went to fellow Serie A teams and Barcelona and Real Madrid.

The major reasons why the English teams are doing better in Europe have to do with the squads these teams possess and their coaches/tactics. Jose Mourinho went to the Serie A and proclaimed that it was more tactical league than the EPL. That may be true for the whole Serie A but I believe the best coaches in the world are working in England. Ancelotti or Rafa Benitez? Guardiola or Arsene Wenger? Juande Ramos or David Moyes? Chelsea recently had Mourinho himself, the famous Avram Grant and Luis Felipe Scolari and now have Guus Hiddink. The best tinkermen reside in England and when they meet the top teams in Europe, it shows. Sir Alex outcoached Mourinho in both legs.
Mourinho ditched his 4-3-3 formation and couldn't figure out what Sir Alex threw at him. Juande Ramos versus Rafa Benitez was a mis-match. Luciano Spalleti couldn't find a way to get his experienced team past a young Arsenal squad that somehow finds ways to lose to all the City teams in England (Manchester, Stoke, Hull, etc). Arsenal is the weakest English team in Europe and they still managed to upstage Roma.

The English teams have better squads, but not necessarily better players. Their teams are much more balanced and they are able to adjust to different situations and formations. People may argue that these teams have more money and so can build bigger, better squads. That's not entirely true. Look at MAN U. John O'Shea, Park Ji-Sung, Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick. These names won't scare anyone. Carrick can't even crack the England XI. Giggs and Scholes are in and out of the squad and are like 40 years old. One thing MAN U enjoys is consistency. They don't sell 4 players and buy 4 new players every year. They play a certain system and their players fit around it. Chelsea has had the same spine for about 3 years now, so even though they've recycled coaches, they have a great unit. Cech, Terry, Ashley Cole, Essien, Lampard, Drogba are all top players in their position so no matter who lines up alongside them, they can win every single match they play.

The pace of the English game may also help their teams in Europe but as I mentioned before it's not helped the middle-tier ones in the UEFA cup. The squad pieces make all the difference. The top Serie A and La Liga teams, maybe apart from AC Milan, have youth as well and players who should be able to run all day. Their coaches have failed to maximise their strengths and hide their limitations. Look at the Real Madrid-Liverpool clash. Marcelo should have started that game to put pressure on Liverpool's fullbacks. Robben was not fit but he still started. Granted, they were missing Nistelrooy and Huntelaar (which shows how even better these La Liga teams are stacked) but Ramos failed to put a formation winning side on the field.

The English teams' will continue to dominate Europe until other teams work on building squads instead of signing all the world's best players. The EPL may be more profitable but the salaries are relatively equal across the board in the top European teams. They also need better coaches, scouts, tactics and team training techniques.

Manchester United is gunning for an unprecedented quintuple. We have the FA Cup, Premier League and Champions League to go. Who will bet against us? Barcelona is looking very strong, as well as Chelsea, Liverpool and don't sleep on the Franck Ribery-led Bayern Munich either. With a water-tight unforgiving defence, a great squad with countless chess pieces, versatility in midfield, different attackers, the world's reigning best player in CR7 and the master tacttican in Alex Ferguson, the outlook is really good. Glory, glory, Manchester United.
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