Is Defence the Key to English Success in the UEFA Champions League This Season?

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 their 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.

Edwin van der Sar kept the Red Devils' net safe on TuesdayAn “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.

Anyone 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, Ricardo Carvalho, William Gallas, Jamie Carragher, Kolo Touré, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand

Marco Pantanella features on the Editing team of Soccerlens and is the Author & Chief Editor of the mCalcio blog.

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