Arsenal are perennial combatants under Wenger, always making it to the UCL and then generally getting through their group, but they appear poised to be knocked out in the first knockout round for the sixth year running. That might be understandable when facing powerhouse Barcelona and Bayern twice each, but their terrible performances in the first legs against AC Milan (though they did almost turn that one around at home) and now Monaco, remind us that fourth place is not the “trophy” Wenger continues to label it. They have actually been in fine form since the New Year’s Day loss to Southampton, but played their worst game of the season when the most was on the line. Even then, they had countless chances to score four or five goals themselves, but for the profligacy of Giroud and those around him. Now a near miracle is the only way they can move on. Man City are still relatively new to European competition, but they too will be disappointed to be knocked out by Barca again after putting up a rather feckless performance at home, on the back of a truly terribly start to the group stage they only salvaged in match day six. Liverpool were just back to the competition themselves, far removed from the Istanbul glory of 2005, and can be forgiven for failing to get out of their group with the loss of Suarez, absence of Sturridge and faltering Balotelli. Chelsea, on the other hand, will see this as a missed opportunity, up a man after 30 minutes and only needing a scoreless draw to progress.
The Chelsea loss Wednesday seems to be symptomatic of the decline of the EPL in Europe in recent years, only plugged by their own unlikely victory in the final against Bayern three years ago (where their negative tactics allowed them to beat Barcelona down a man and then rescue the final over the Bavarians). The Blues played languidly throughout their match, more passionate in their physical play and pleas to the official than in pursuing the attacking verve that defined the first half of their campaign. Surrounding the referee to facilitate the red card that sent hapless Ibrahimovic to the showers early was both disgraceful and a dramatic overreaction to a player clearly attempting to pull up his challenge when he saw Oscar charging recklessly toward the loose ball himself. But mistakes are made in almost every football game played and while this one arguably contained five missed calls, Chelsea were certainly in a position to take advantage of the first. Instead they let a PSG team still searching for their first European title to dominate large stretches of the game and comeback not once but twice. That it was 50 million pound outcast David Luiz that struck the first of the two blows must add to their melancholia, even as Hazard’s penalty early in the first period of extra time seemed to offer almost instantaneous reprieve. It was not to be as PSG’s other CB provided the header of the decade, floating over the outstretched arms of the 6’6” Courtois. Mourinho teams used to be good at scoring and then preserving their lead, but this was the 11th time this year that Chelsea have given that lead back. Are his more defensive tactics then to blame or was it the brilliant attacking philosophy of the opposing coach that should be hailed?
In general, it appears English teams are suffering from losing the tactical battles to the other giants, and sometimes minnows, of European football. It was quite clear that Laurent Blanc outcoached Mourinho, particularly after the send off, when he decided to rely on his hyperactive midfielders and leave a hole down the right side. It worked wonders and allowed for the game to end with an almost 50-50 split of possession, with Pastore’s clever passes accenting the speed of Lavezzi and runs of Cavani (though he should have given them the 1-0 lead when he rounded Courtois). When he needed a goal, he took off the blazing speed and industry of Matuidi (who was charged with moving from the middle to the left whenever necessary) to bring on the young Rabiot and to liven things up on the offensive end. Each move, including the inclusion of the more defensively suspect Marquinos at right back, seemed to pay off and it is hard to argue he didn’t win both the strategic and tactical battles of the game. The same can be said of Barcelona, overrunning the City defense on several occasions, and Monaco, a team that was stout defensively throughout the group stage but had trouble scoring. They played on the counter, recognizing the decline in form of Mertesacker and the tendency of Gibbs to wander too far forward too often. And Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers was arguably outcoached in each of his games, though that could be debated.
Ultimately, coaching alone doesn’t win or lose games. Is it that the English teams don’t have the talent to compete in Europe? That seems to be a questionable argument, particularly given Liverpool’s losses and Arsenal about to be sent out by a rather average Monaco that sent away their best offensive player last summer. Is it then an inferior skills set? That argument has been made in the past, but seems less relevant today with the stars of the Top Four on par with all but Bayern, Barca and Real Madrid? Is it the absence of a winter break and the greater parity among the teams? There must be some truth here, though some recent upsets in Spain, Germany and even France make that argument more circumspect. Could it then just be hunger and belief? Again, this is hard to measure, but the performances by Chelsea and Arsenal certainly are open to questioning, with both seemingly off their best and dead legged near the end. Could it be a combination of all of these, or just a shift in the scales of luck away from them? There are no easy answers, but schedulers in the FA might want to consider how their heavy holiday fixture list affects their teams as they attempt to return to the summit of European football.