As the final whistle sounds at the Emirates 10 blue shirts streak across the immaculate pitch to a hoard of fans jumping in sync. Olympiakos have just felled English giants Arsenal on their home turf, a David vs. Goliath triumph. On the same night Chelsea were slayed in the Dragon Stadium by FC Porto and a man who is so good they named him twice. Andre Andre scored both goals for Porto as José Mourinho’s nightmare continued. Huge Premier League clubs are being torn down by their smaller European cousins on a fortnightly basis in the Champions League, as their hugely assembled squads are put to shame.
Imagine the Premier League swaggering into a room; adorned in the best clothes, shoes and the most expensive watch only to be shown up by their Marks and Spencer suit wearing cousin. Arsenal, Chelsea and the rest of the Premier League spent over £1bn this summer on players from across Europe in a bid to bring success to the shores of England. For all their TV money, overseas pre-season tournaments and bit kit launches it seems that English football has forgotten how to build a winning team.
So many of the English teams that were successful in the past were built on solid foundations, the treble winning Manchester United team had the same core for many years – Keane, Stam, Schmeichel. Chelsea’s Champions League winning squad also had fine skeleton of Cech, Terry, Lampard, Drogba. In only three years, English teams have switched away from structure to short-term success. Arsenal are as good a example as any when talking about structure, it is almost as if they are too structured up front, but have none in defence. Despite their insistence on dominating possession, they look tentative when trying to launch an attack – as if they have to follow a set passing pattern. But all the more concerning is their anxiousness. As soon as Olympiakos went one goal ahead it was almost as if Arsenal had a panic attack, trying to force play from unrealistic areas of the pitch with a series of unnecessary mistakes.
One trend that is constant throughout the English teams is their lack of assertiveness in Europe, their drive to score as many as possible. The Premier League is end-to-end, something where the lack of structure in every team does lead to good ‘entertainment’, and most teams are more than capable of posing a threat offensively. However, as soon as a Premier League side enters a European competition their distinct lack of style rears it’s ugly head. Standardised formations lead to English teams playing the same way regardless of squad members, meaning that opposition teams can steam attacks and break down with little effort. The approach is blinkered, out-dated and down right ignorant.
One thing that was incredibly prominent on that night at the Emirates is Arsenal’s inability to get in behind a defence. The ball is shifted from side to side, through the same two players – Cazorla and Ramsey – in the most predictable fashion. There are no risks taken. On the other hand, Olympiakos streamed forward whenever possible using width and pace to get in behind Arsenal’s full-backs.
Up in Manchester, things are starting to change. Especially in the sky blue of Manchester City, who have taken their inept performances in the Champions League and domestic competition to adapt this year. A switch from the traditional 4-4-2 has been replaced by a flexible 4-2-3-1 system, that now means that their creativity can come from the middle. Unsurprisingly, the influence of David Silva has been massive in the infancy of this season and City have been in fine form. Their dynamism outwide is something that football audiences have not seen from England in a long time. Similarly, Manchester United have revamped their squad, but have remained in a 4-3-3 formation with Juan Mata playing the role of advanced playmaker. Their ability to hold possession and stretch teams in with the pace of Memphis, Martial and Young is something that Chelsea and Arsenal in particular are lacking.
Until the Premier League sides learn to adapt to European football and change their ignorant stance that they can be successful purely by spending the most money, then they will continue to fail in Europe. More emphasis needs to be put on team structure, and building of a team that has cohesion from front to back which suits squad members, rather than crow-barring players into unnatural positions.
About the Author – Ben Jarman
Freelance football writer with a penchant for Spanish and European football. Work published by Fulham FC, Italian FA and the Evening Standard.