IF ANYONE needed a reminder about the strength of the Premier League versus the rest of Europe, the displays of Liverpool and Manchester City in the UEFA Champions League provided clear statements of intent to the other contenders.
The Premier has provided two all-English finals in the last three years in the Champions League and one in the Europa League. At least three of the four clubs in the last 16 should get through to the quarter-finals, Manchester United possibly having the hardest task in Spain. With their financial advantages, big squads and top coaches, this could be a golden time for English clubs in Europe.
It is very clear Manchester City and Liverpool are the strongest teams in the Premier and as the league campaign progresses, the gap seems to be increasing once more. City are currently 20 points clear of fourth place Manchester United, with another dozen games to go. In 2020-21, the difference between first and fourth was 19 points, while in 2019-20, Liverpool had 99 points to Chelsea’s 66 – a massive 33-point margin. The way City are accumulating points at the moment, it is not out of the question they will hit the 100 mark and be closer to 40 points in front of fourth position.
Both teams are not only highly skilled, strategic and canny, they are also extremely resilient. If they fall behind, they invariably recover and win or draw. Liverpool were losing at home to Norwich in their latest league game and ran out 3-1 winners, City had a rare off day and were beaten 3-2 at the Etihad by Tottenham, despite coming from behind twice.
It’s no coincidence Liverpool and City have the greatest level of stability when it comes to managing their teams. Jürgen Klopp (win rate 60.7%) and Pep Guardiola (73.4%) have been in charge since 2015 and 2016 respectively and have managed their teams for well over 300 games.
Admittedly, they are privileged individuals as they are coaching clubs with resources, but it says a lot about continuity and the process of building a structure with a very distinct culture. There are other ways that are also effective, such as Chelsea’s creative tension that delivers trophy after trophy.
Klopp and Guardiola are part of a society of top managers that have been drawn to the Premier League, a group that also currently comprises Antonio Conte, Thomas Tuchel and Marcelo Bielsa and once included José Mourinho, Rafa Benitez and Carlo Ancelotti. Just as the presence of top players underlines the power of the league, the ability to lure the best coaches also emphasises the Premier’s professional appeal – the top managers want to be involved. However, Klopp and Guardiola will not be around for ever and Liverpool and Manchester City will do well to learn from the succession mistakes made by Arsenal and Manchester United.
Along with Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool and City have the most valuable squads in world football, hence they contributed almost a third of the Guardian’s top 100 footballers list for 2021. No club sent more players to Euro 2020 than Manchester City. Yet two of this trio of elite clubs have yet to win the Champions League, despite a decade of trying. With Barcelona out of the picture and Bayern, Juventus and Real Madrid not quite as effective as they have been, there’s a good chance this season’s competition may find its way to a 23rdwinner.
Certainly, the form of Liverpool in the Champions League, seven straight wins, suggests they are keen to add to their six victories in the competition. They have beaten three previous winners, Porto, AC Milan, Inter Milan and three-time finalist Atlético Madrid. They also have a stronger squad than when they last won the Champions League and they have broken their 30-year barren spell in the Premier League. They’ve also added some home-grown talent to their squad which bodes well for the future. The way Liverpool beat Inter 2-0 in the first leg of the round of 16 was something of a throwback to the days when the Reds steamrollered Europe, a solid display that thwarted the energy of Inter.
Manchester City trounced Sporting Clube de Portugal in Lisbon by five goals, four of which were scored in the first half. It could have been more, they had 15 shots to Sporting’s three and enjoyed 65% of possession. After last season’s final defeat at the hands of Chelsea, there is a growing feeling that City want to make amends for mis-managing the game in Porto. This is now a mature squad that should be at its peak – only three of the 16 that played in Lisbon were under 25. The club’s financial situation means they can replace ageing players when the time comes, but the 2022 squad’s time could be now.
The Premier’s other representatives are some way behind Liverpool and City, even though Chelsea continue to win trophies and Manchester United should be in much better shape than they appear to be. The Champions League holders do not have a style embedded into their club culture because the manager changes so often. One might argue this means the system doesn’t allow anything to get stale, but essentially, Chelsea have developed into a cup side, albeit on a grand scale. Stability is needed for marathons, rather than the sprints Chelsea have perfected. They could win the Champions League again, but back-to-back success is hard to achieve.
Manchester United are very unlikely champions, because they seem to be a club at odds with itself at the moment. They’ve spent vast sums, but have little to show for their market activity. Furthermore, the post-Ferguson hangover goes on and nobody is quite sure what Ralf Rangnick’s role really is. They will do well to make the last eight.
The first leg games involving Liverpool and City demonstrated just how formidable these teams have become, although there are surely stronger opponents ahead for both. It was the way they confidentally managed the games while having something in reserve. The Premier league has provided eight of the last 24 quarter-finalists, it’s a fair assumption those statistics will undoubtedly look more impressive by the end of the season.