How would you feel if your team had a nine percent win rate? Almost certainly not that impressed.
The terrible record – who by the way is the same as Aston Villa have in the Premier league this season – doesn’t belong to one single club, though. It is the combined record of English teams against the biggest boys in European football in the knockout rounds of Champions League during the last four years.
In 22 games against Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain, English clubs have won merely two matches. As a consequence, England's representatives have been dumped out in 10 of the last eleven Champions League ties against the continental elite. Only Chelsea, when they progressed past PSG back in 2014, have managed to buck the recent trend.
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English club's inferiority in Europe is often explained by a lack of world class players in the Premier League. There are lots of really good players in the English top-flight, but the real cream of the crop, the 10-15 best players in the world, are currently plying their trade in a handful of continental super clubs.
The argument surely carries some weight. Imagine if Thiago Silva lined up in Manchester City's defence against Paris Saint-Germain in the upcoming Champions League quarter-final. If Angel Di Maria was galloping down the wing dressed in sky blue, and if Manuel Pellegrini could call upon Edinson Cavani from the bench in the last twenty minutes of the game. PSG surely wouldn’t go into the match as such firm favourites then?
For now, though, English clubs must cope with what they’ve got. They must find a way to beat teams with superior individual players. They must find a way to beat teams that, in most cases, will control the game. Mind you, in 18 of those last 22 matches between English teams and the continental big boys, English teams have had less ball-possession than their opponents.
Copying Leicester City's Tactics
So how do they beat a team who has better players than themselves, who will have the lion’s share of possession, and will make them chase the ball for large periods of the game? Well, they could perhaps take a look at how Leicester City do it. How they top the Premier League, with a seven-point gap to their nearest competitors, after a season where they have enjoyed the third lowest possession rate in the league.
Or they could take a look at West Ham United, who along with a string of other strong results this season, have beaten Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City away, in games where they have had an average possession rate of 34 percent.
Leicester in particular, but also West Ham, have punched way above their weight this season. By counterattacking with pace, targeting their opponent's weaknesses, being tactically flexible, and first and foremost, working harder than everybody else, they have outdone teams with better individual players. As a result, both clubs are on course to finish higher in the Premier League table than competitors with far greater resources at their disposal.
Wouldn’t English teams in the Champions League be wise to adopt some of the tactics that have served the two Premier League over-achievers so well? They certainly couldn’t do much worse. Don’t hold your breath end expect a Leicester-like dogged performance from Manchester City against PSG though.
To adopt the underdog's tactics, to admit that you need to be smarter than your opponent, work harder than your opponent, and perhaps not look as magnificent as your opponent, might just be a too bitter pill to swallow for Manchester City and the other traditional top teams in England. It is just not their way of doing things. They are used to being the big boys back in the Premier League, and they would rather look like Barcelona than like Leicester.
That won’t be a problem next season however, when the Foxes themselves will mix it in Europe's most prestigious club-tournament. Maybe that is what it takes to give English clubs a chance to really trouble the continental big-boys?
How could English teams improve in the Champions League? Have YOUR say in the comment section below!