Last year, the English game was in rude health. Liverpool had claimed the Champions League crown, while Chelsea had just annexed the Europa League title. That both sides defeated teams from their home league in order to secure their trophies, surely confirmed that the Premier League was at the vanguard of the European game.
This superiority was further endorsed this season when all four Premier League qualifiers to Europe’s premier competition successfully steered their way past the group stages to the final 16. However, results over the past two weeks have raised the debate that the Premier League and their representative sides are not as good as many believed.
Last Wednesday week, Spurs lost 1-0 at home to German side RB Leipzig, where Spurs lacked energy and imagination in a performance well below the London side’s thrilling run on the final last season.
The previous night, Spurs’ conquerors in that final, Liverpool, found it too difficult a prospect to break down their last 16 opponents in a masterclass of defending from Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid.
This week, the Premier League fared even worse, as last season’s Europa League winners, Chelsea, were embarrassed 3-0 at home by Bayern Munich and specifically a rampant Robert Lewandowski.
The following night, Man City restored Premier League pride with a very impressive team performance to come from behind to beat Real Madrid 2-1 in the Bernabeu.
Writing-off an entire league because of a mediocre week of results is simplistic, even if it is clear the Premier League, or rather the teams that qualified for the Champions League, have not been as effective in Europe as they were in 2018/19.
But there are logical reasons for the fall-off in some performances.
The main one being three of the four sides in last season’s finals are working with entirely new managers. That the English sides are still competing in their respective European competitions this late in the season should be seen as rather miraculous.
The Chelsea defeat was probably the starkest drop in form. A 3-0 loss at home leaves them the nigh-on impossible prospect of reigning-in a result from an away leg, especially against a side of the quality of Bayern Munich.
Despite Chelsea currently inhabiting the final qualification spot for next season’s Champions League, this current season has been a bit of a rollercoaster start to manager Frank Lampard’s tenure at Stamford Bridge.
Winning the Europa League was the high-tide mark for former manager Maurizio Sarri and it is clear that Chelsea are now set for a period of rebuilding under their new manager. To that effect, they have done remarkably well when you consider they have had to rely on promoting a number of their academy players to the first team as they also have suffered a Uefa ban from all transfer windows for the entirety of the season. All the while, minus their star performer for the past seven years, Eden Hazard, who moved to Real Madrid.
Similarly, last season’s Europa League finalists Arsenal are also going through a rebuilding process. The transition from a legendary manager was never going to be easy for Unai Emery and his tenure ran out with little joy. The results by his successors, Freddie Ljungberg and Mikel Arteta have shown the extent of the task still in store.
Spurs, while building a new stadium, not investing in new talent, and finishing fourth in the Premier League still managed to get to the Champions League final. Unfortunately, for them, the miracle could not be continued into this season and Mauricio Pochettino paid the price with his job at the new Lane. A new manager will always take time to bed-in, even if he comes with the credentials of Jose Mourinho. Add to this a litany of injuries to key players, especially Son Heung-min and Harry Kane, and is it any wonder they are not only struggling to stay in the Champions League but also win qualification to the competition next season?
Liverpool’s performances in this season’s Champions League has been described by critics as workmanlike but to be fair, it was like that last season too, at least until their stupendous dismantling of Barcelona in Anfield in the semi-final.
There is also no question that Liverpool’s focus this season has been on winning the domestic league, 30 years wait has that effect, and has been justified as they now stand as champions-elect of the Premier League.
Liverpool were outsmarted by Atletico last week, despite dominating possession, but the Merseysiders have a blind-spot when it comes to highly-organised defensive sides with 4-4-2 formation with two banks of defensive lines. They showed this weakness in two losses to Napoli in the group stages and now again in Madrid. Still, as Barcelona can testify the tie is far from won by Atletico until Anfield is put behind them.
Man City are in a different situation. A settled team and manager, their goal has always been the Champions League crown and with the domestic crown about to slip from their grasp, the priority moved on to Europe at an early stage. A Uefa two year ban seems to have only united the team behind a cause and stiffened the resolve to put one over Uefa before Uefa puts two over them.
Defensive frailties, with the absence of an anchor centre back due to Aymeric Laporte’s injury, has set them back this year in the Premier League. But Pep Guardiola's risky move to use Laporte sparingly in the Champions League shows his determination to bag that elusive title since he left Barcelona.
So, while 2019/20 has not yet seen the kind of success of last season for the Premier League teams, the circumstances and handicaps sides have found themselves dealing with this season, rather than degrading the league signifies its strength.
Despite seismic changes in personnel and alternative focuses for these sides they have acquitted themselves beyond what one would reasonably expect of sides who are mainly at the bottom of their rebuilding process. Add in the very impressive efforts of Wolves’ European journey in the Europa League and there is a reasonable argument to be made that the Premier League is, in fact, outperforming reasonable expectations.