There has been much talk in recent seasons about how the Premier League's top four can no longer be considered contenders for the Champions League title on a yearly basis. Chelsea are the exception as they won the Champions League in June 2012, but they finished 6th in the league that season, which is unlike the treble-winning Barcelona and Bayern sides.
So far in this season's Champions League, only one of the four English teams has picked up a win. The two Manchester sides took on the pot one team in their group, and the boys from London both had pot four opponents.
Chelsea took all three points at Stamford Bridge against Maccabi Tel Aviv, which is expected regardless of their Premier League form. The Blues kept their first clean sheet of the season in a dominating performance, with over 60 percent possession and four goals to boot.
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The possession was undoubtedly going to come for the Blues, with players like Cesc Fabregas able to run the game by themselves due to their passing ability. The Tel Aviv players couldn't get near Fabregas and he made 56 passes more than anybody else on the field. A revitalizing performance from the Spaniard and he took that form into the weekend against Arsenal, which gave the Blues another clean sheet victory against the men from North London.
Speaking of the ever-inconsistent Gunners, Arsenal were one of three teams from England that lost their opening match of the Champions League group stage. Juventus put Manchester City to the sword thanks to a brilliant strike from Alvaro Morata, and Manchester United were counter-attacked to bits by a PSV Eindhoven side that wound up defeating the Red Devils 2-1 at home.
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While there is a difference in class between Dinamo Zagreb, PSV and Juventus, it shows a similar tactical fault among the Premier League sides' managers. Each team held at least 59% of the possession throughout their respective game, and yet none of them mustered more than five shots on target. This has been a strategy that teams like Manchester United have used in the past - but why is it no longer working?
Predictable Premier League Teams
The possession game Manchester United played under Alex Ferguson is not so dissimilar from Thierry Henry's Arsenal Invincible side. While Arsenal never won the Champions League in that time, they made it to the final and semi-finals numerous times and dominated one Premier League season. The point of the possession was to hold the ball only until a forward pass was available and then to make that forward pass with pace, and with power.
The difference seen today is that these Premier League sides are simply holding the ball, waiting too for an opportunity and more importantly allowing their opponents to assume a compact defensive shape that is ready to break on the counter. Of the six goals scored against City, United and Arsenal combined, all of them stemmed from a counter-attacking opportunity that led to either a goal or a set piece, which in turn led to a goal.
Arsenal fans may claim that they are simply trying to break teams down through intricate passing, but it is clear that style does not work in these types of European matches. Dinamo Zagreb were able to sit back and wait for their chance to attack Arsenal's defense. They succeeded in doing so multiple times and went 2-0 up by the 60th, minute, and then sat back once again and did the same thing.
The sides from Manchester had opponents of different stature, but the problem remains the same in their style of play. Juventus are a European giant, and thus a worthy opponent for the high-flying City. Bianconeri were the away side and naturally sat back, waiting for an opportunity to break. Their counter attack ability was on display for their second goal when Alvaro Morata seized an opportunity and slotted home from outside the box.
Manchester United had an away match against PSV Eindhoven, and yet PSV only needed 37% of the ball at home to seal a 2-1 win. Just like Dinamo Zagreb, PSV let the away side ping passes around in midfield and waited until they could break to score their two goals. United's lone goal came from former PSV star Memphis Depay, but it was PSV's forwards who proved devastating for the Dutch side.
What Needs to Change?
The Premier League sides have become far too comfortable with holding possession on the basis that eventually there will be a breakthrough.
Juventus, PSV and Dinamo Zagreb are all capable of playing a possession game and winning through that style of play. They are all champions of their domestic leagues and they win the majority of their matches, home and away, by keeping the ball and breaking teams down. When they come into a big match in Europe, their respective managers understand that a tactical alteration has to be made in order to deal with the creativity of their opposition.
The teams that they face now know what to expect, and they have seen it enough on film to understand how it can be stopped. The 4-2-3-1 style favored by City, United and Arsenal at the moment has not worked consistently, and it is understandable why.
The Premier League sides do not move the ball quickly enough from side to side, and that leads to the formation being too narrow. The players who should be providing the width continue to push through the middle of the pitch, and that allows teams to defend compactly, which is a dream for a manager when setting up his defense.
Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United are not the English champions at the moment. And still, they fail to adapt their style in the European competitions. If they continue to be stubborn in their breakdown of their European opponents, they will continue to struggle.