English Clubs Dominate Europe… Is Defence the Key to Their Success?

English Club Domination in Europe… Is Defence the Key?

Ever since Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea all made it to the Quarter-Final stage of the UEFA Champions League, this topic has been debated ad nauseam. However recently, with the real lesson in efficiency inflicted by Manchester United upon AS Roma Tuesday night, Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport joins the table and provides its view on the supremacy of English Premier League teams in Europe this season.

Word goes to Stefano Cantalupi of La Gazzetta, for an excellent analysis of the situation:

Gazzetta dello Sport website logo

They win because they have almost unlimited financial resources with which they buy so many world-class players. They win because they can pick the best the European market can offer, not only in terms of players but also in terms of managers. They win because the English Premier League is  a league model which functions on several different levels: financially, managerially, and culturally.

English Premier LeagueVirtually everything has already been said about possible causes of this unstoppable rise: for past couple of years English clubs have became the masters of European football. This season however, the stars of Manchester Utd, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea have reached maximum brightness and really illuminated the Premiership and UEFA Champions League: goalscoring power, entertainment value, and ruthless efficiency are just a few of the trademarks exhibited by the EPL giants this season. However, Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsène Wenger, Rafael Benitez and Avram Grant don’t always stake everything on putting on a show. A rock solid defence has been a major contributor to the success of the English big four.

An “Italian” style defence, to use the words of Roma manager Luciano Spalletti. After the 0-2 defeat to Manchester United in the first leg of the Champions League Quarter-Finals, the Italian coach recognised the worth of his opponents and even declared that United “are more Italian than us”. These words refer to the attitude of Ferguson’s team on the field: closed, careful, concentrated and ready for the quick counterattack, features often exhibited by Roma, and Italian football as a whole these past few years.

Edwin van der Sar kept the Red Devils’ net safe on TuesdayAnyone watching the match at the Olimpico, will have noted that Manchester United were under the cosh before taking the path to qualification for the semi-finals with goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and Rooney. The Red Devils faltered, but their defence held firm. And for the 6th time in 7 matches in this season’s Champions League, an English club did not concede a single goal to an Italian club. And to think the teams usually famous for their ‘catenaccio’ tactics originate precisely from that ‘Old Boot’ in the Mediterranean…

One could perhaps conclude that Serie A forward lines are less effective than in the past, but one peek at the Champions League group tells us that is not really the case. Before meeting the English armada, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Roma and Lazio regularly found the back of the net: 46 goals in total, plus Lazio’s 4 in the qualifying round against Dynamo Bucharest. The problem came when the Milanese and Roman teams met the Premiership clubs: only Roma winger Amantino Mancini found the net (in the final group F game between Roma and Manchester United), in a match played when the outcome of the group had already been decided.

From that point onwards, Serie A teams experienced a total drought in goalscoring efficiency: Inter was stopped by Liverpool, Milan ran dry against Arsenal, and Roma was frustrated by Van der Sar & colleagues. Praise must go to the English defences for letting in just 15 goals in 37 games in the 2007-08 Champions League, which comes to an average of one goal every two and a half games. Numbers speak for themselves…

Tuesday night, at the Stadio Olimpico of Rome, Manchester United defended with 10 men behind the ball for long stretches of the game, much like Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool often does. In preparing for the AC Milan challenge in the last round, manager Arsène Wenger recommended his young Arsenal players not to throw themselves into attack with their heads down, which would have left the Rossoneri plenty of space to attack. As for Avram Grant’s Chelsea, as time goes on, the team resembles more and more that of José Mourinho: the Blues score first, and then hold on until the final whistle.

To say that the Premiership has become defence-oriented would not entirely be fair however. Despite the flattering defensive statistics, English teams know how to play pleasing, entertaining and spectacular football. However, with players of the calibre of Terry, Ferdinand, Vidic, Carragher, Gallas, Touré or Carvalho, they also know how to close down a game, and the old adage of “the attack sells the tickets and the defence wins the games” does not just hold for American sports.

English Premier League defenders (left to right): John Terry, William Gallas, Jamie Carragher, Kolo Touré, Rio Ferdinand



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Posted in English Premiership, European Competitions (UEFA), UEFA Champions League |

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  • 10 Responses to “English Clubs Dominate Europe… Is Defence the Key to Their Success?”

    1. matthew says:

      wow,Turks can play,and they scored all three goals at that.
      we`will remember Fenerbahce from now on,great game
      English fan

    2. Frankie says:

      An excellent, well written and generous analysis by Stefano Cantalupi.

      The statistics in the Serie A – EPL match-ups in the knock-out stages, really throw the EPL’s defensive security into sharp focus. Milan, Inter and Roma in 5 matches failed to score a single goal against Arsenal, Liverpool and Man Utd collectively, that is, no goals in 8 hours of football! A pretty extraordinary statistic. I cannot recall anything like that happening before between teams from these two leading football leagues.

      But, unlike Stefano, I think there is another reason for the EPL’s impressive defensive record: the strength of the midfields. Liverpool play with two holding players in midfield supplanted by wide men with defensive duties. Mascherano is world class in front of the back door. I’ve always thought that its the unsung Makelele who makes Terry look as good as he appears to be.

      Look at the United formation against Roma. 3 midfielders essentially shielding the back four; Rooney and Park also asked to do serious defensive work. This was as defensive and as careful a United set-up as I can remember.

      Throw your mind back to last summer. SAF and Carlos Queiroz would have analysed where the team were lacking when playing the best opposition. Where did United recruit? Not an out and out striker, not a defender, but primarily in midfield: Hargreaves, Anderson, Nani. And even the deep lying forward bought, was Tevez, a forward with a real appetite for defensive work.

      So if “the attack sells tickets, and the defence wins games”, its the midfield which makes sure the other side don’t play. In truth, Milan, Inter and Roma created very few clear cut opportunities in the 5 knock-out games.

      No disputing that the EPL defences have done well, but the true reason for the success of the EPL teams against their Serie A counterparts may lie more with the iron midfield cordons protecting the back four. Set pieces aside, you don’t score if you can’t create.

    3. Arvin says:

      The 2005 Champions League win for Liverpool is perhaps the most apt tournament to support the theory of defence in itself being the key to success in the Champions League. However achieving the ‘balance’ between attack and defence is more crucial. Without it you tend to play a dangerous game. In other words the likelihood of achieving success in european competition and domestic for that matter is increased if attack and defence are on the same wavelength.

    4. It’s funny that you and I were precisely talking about this topic just 2 days ago, Frankie.

      You were basing your argument on money, to which I replied that while it’s certainly a factor, unlimited financial resources don’t necessarily provide a guaranteed way to success (citing case-in-point Abramovich-funded Chelsea, to which European supremacy still cruelly eludes). Another example I cited was Liverpool, which have managed to reach the Champions League final twice and win it once, despite not necessarily having a roster full of superstars (at least not to the extent of compulsive star-buyers Real Madrid or Chelsea).

      Well, I have to admit Stefano Cantalupi put it in a whole new perspective for me… defence might indeed be the key. Your midfield argument is certainly a valid one Frankie, but looking at the second half of Roma-Man Utd, you can’t really say that the Giallorossi’s midfield wasn’t functioning. Roma created their share chances, they just couldn’t capitalize on them. No hair-pulling stuff I’ll admit, but still. And they were playing without their “motor” Francesco Totti, at that.

      Matthew, kudos goes to Fenerbahce’s achievements in the competition so far. Perhaps if an Italian club had drawn Chelsea in the playoffs, they might have scored a few goals… who knows? ;)

    5. Ahmed Bilal says:

      Wasn’t a solid defence always the basis for success in football? Manchester United’s play is often cited for its lightening quick offense but that is invariably based on a solid defensive setup.

      It’s not so much ‘defence’ but tactical maturity that, coupled with better resources (which Italian club would have been able to attract Torres, who arguably went to the 4th best club in the Premier League?) has lead to the recent rise in domination of the CL from the EPL top 4.

      You can see the tactical improvement most markedly in Arsenal and United (who, after some time of underperforming in Europe, have improved massively in recent seasons), while it’s fair to say that Rafa and Mourinho led the current wave and it certainly wasn’t just old-fashioned defending, it was adherence to tactics and splashing money to bring in the right players.

    6. Ibrahim Birgeoglu says:

      I watched that game between Fener and Chelsea…and loved it. I’m still in shock (as a Turkish fan who lives in the U.S. but has all his relatives in Turkey), but I think the “Brazilians by the Bosphorus” can pull off a draw in Stamford Bridge, especially if Fener keeps scoring and if Volkan keeps saving.

      In Turkey, you either love or hate Fenerbache. Why? Because of the influx of foreign players, traditionalists (and rival fans) say that Fener is Brazilian and not Turkish enough. (Just saw a poll on a Turkish news site, and 69 percent say that the Yellow Canaries will go through to the semifinals.)

      As it stands though, I think you need some foreign talent to raise the level of the league, and that the owners outside of the big three will start to notice that and bring in more foreign players.

    7. Raed says:

      As much as I hate to admit it Arsenal’s defense is crap. They do occasionally get the clean sheets but Wenger’s only failure is his team’s defense. But they more than make up for it by playing the way they play football.

    8. Raed says:

      Alas! Sometimes that just isn’t enough. :(

    9. munichheart says:

      The Premier League is becoming the culmination and combination of a lot of leagues in my opinion.

      Because of the money and the purchasing power, and of course, the atmosphere of England being the “home” of the game, it becomes a very attractive prospect to play in the league afar from the European continent. It’s becoming a league for only the best talent to go to. The players who go to the Premier League are players DEVELOPED by the foreign leagues and then BLOSSOM in the Premier League.

      Sporting Lisbon gave Ronaldo and Nani to Man Utd. Bayern Munich gave Ballack to Chelsea, Hargreaves to Man Utd and Santa Cruz to Blackburn. Brazilian and Argentine leagues will soon give out more of their players to the Premier League. If you observe, only the Italian and Spanish giants rule out transfers from their big clubs to the Prem… But will it stand for long? I don’t think so. If you observe, the Premier League has absorbed the style of Italian defenses, German aggressiveness, Spanish midfield patience and South American flair. Some minor anomalies to a seemingly EPL trend is why the English national team does not compare to the continental teams.. but that’s a different story.

      The brightest talents in foreign leagues…like Samir Nasri, Mario Gomez, Klaas Jan Huntelaar and many more are linked to UEFA giants in the continent, but who is to say that the lure of the Big 4 in England won’t pass by the minds of these players? Because a transfer like that of Ribery and Toni to Bayern is a RARE occurence.

      Don’t you think Ronaldinho’s becoming bored in Barca or Kaka’s just too gracious to Milan? Big-name players are tested in the Premier League: they become bigger stars or big flops… look at Shevchenko…

    10. Temi says:

      I’m going to jump into the fray and agree with Frankie here on the strength of the midfields. Marco.

      You said

      “your midfield argument is certainly a valid one Frankie, but looking at the second half of Roma-Man Utd, you can’t really say that the Giallorossi’s midfield wasn’t functioning. Roma created their share chances, they just couldn’t capitalize on them.”

      It’s true that Roma failed to make their chances count – but the United midfield also played a significant role. Perhaps this is a case of the eyes seeing what it wants – but as far as I could remember, yes, Roma created their fair share, but it was in the first half of the second half – their dominance ended once Ferguson sent on Hargreaves for Anderson to steady the ship. And Carrick and Scholes grew in stature as the game progressed from looking a little shaky to spraying confident passes around and relieving the pressure on the defense whenever they could.