The Resurgence of English Clubs in Europe
By Ryan Cluett
Nearly two years ago, Liverpool trudged off the St. Jakob-Park pitch in Basel, Switzerland, dejected after lettinga two-goal lead slip through their fingers, a collapse allowing Sevilla to capture their third consecutive Europa League title. At the time, Sevilla’s victory encapsulated a feeling across Spanish football and Europe: Spanish clubs were dominating European football. Real Madrid had defeated their countrymen Atletico in the 2014 and 2016 Champions League Finals and topped Juventus in last season’s final; in 2015, fellow Spanish juggernaut Barcelona defeated Juventus for the European crown.
In the Europa League, Sevilla captured three consecutive titles (2014-2016), while five other Spanish clubs made runs to the Round of 16 or further during that time period. While Spain dominated European competition, high-spending English clubs floundered. With the exception of Liverpool’s final-round defeat and Manchester City’s semifinal exit in 2016, English clubs were nowhere to be found in the late rounds of the Champions League.
By the conclusion of last season, there were signs of a turnaround. expensive recruiting and development across the continent were beginning to bear fruit for English clubs. Manchester United captured the 2016-2017 Europa League crown, and Tottenham were eliminated in the Round of 32. In the Champions League, Leicester City fell at the quarterfinal stage, and though Manchester City failed to follow up their run to the semi-finals the season prior, they joined Arsenal in the Round of 16.
This season, all five of the eligible English clubs—Manchester City, Tottenham, Liverpool, United and Chelsea—progressed to the Round of 16. And thus far they’ve performed well, for the most part. City and Liverpool hold commanding first-leg leads, while Spurs and Chelsea performed well in draws with Juventus and Barcelona, respectively. Manchester United battled to a scoreless draw with Sevilla in their first-leg matchup. While it’s still the Round of 16, it isn’t hard to imagine several English clubs make a deep run in the competition. Such a performance would be a throwback to the mid-2000s, when English clubs featured in every final from 2005-2009.
Manchester City and Liverpool have been scoring goals for fun in England, and the trend is continuing in Europe. In the first legs of their respective Round of 16 ties, City dismantled FC Basel 4-0, and Liverpool thrashed FC Porto 5-0. The free-flowing, attacking philosophies of City manager Pep Guardiola and Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp have confounded their European opponents this season: Liverpool tops the scoring charts at 28 goals with City in fifth with 18 goals scored. Spurs and Chelsea have scored 17 goals apiece, while United have scored 12 goals.
On an individual level, Spurs’ Premier League leading goal scorer Harry Kane has maintained his form in European competition with 7 tallies; fellow Premier League Golden Boot rival Mohammed Salah has scored 6 goals for Liverpool, with his teammates Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane adding 7 and 6 goals apiece. City have seen Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling score 4; Chelsea count the mercurial Eden Hazard and Willian as 3 goal scorers.
Despite struggles to match the scoring exploits of their English rivals, Man U has excelled defensively. In what has become a trademark of their defensive-minded manager Jose Mourinho, the Red Devils have only conceded 3 goals, good for the second-best mark in Europe. City have conceded 5 goals, while a traditionally leaky Liverpool defense has seen improvement in recent weeks, conceding 6 goals with Tottenham. Staunch-defending sides have historically seen success throughout the knockout stages. Finalists in recent years have conceded an average of around 8 goals throughout the competition, boding well for United if they can score the necessary goals to see them advance.
With more money fueling Premier League sides, it’s safe to expect the gap to close between English teams and continental powers like Barcelona, Real Madrid, PSG, Juventus and Bayern Munich. If all five Premier League sides manage to navigate passage into the late stages of the tournament, the likelihood of facing another English side increases, adding even more drama to the knockout stages. The managerial talents of each club furthers the chances of English success. Guardiola and Mourinho have led sides to European glory before, Klopp and Conte have experienced memorable runs in European competitions, while Mauricio Pochettino continues to develop his young Spurs team into one of Europe’s exciting clubs.
As the Champions League unfolds over the course of the next few weeks, expect English sides to remain in the hunt for glory. If a few English clubs can make it into the Semi-Finals or even the Final, the English renaissance in Europe may well and truly be on for the foreseeable future.