No English club made it to a final of a European competition this season, and we can’t help but feel quite shocked at this. All English clubs contested last year’s finals as it was the first time in history that all finalists came from the same country. So, how do you go from dominating Europe one season to not even contesting it the next?
In what will be remembered as the longest European competition of all time with a new format thrown in mid-competition, English clubs will remember it as a failure and something to forget. Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal established the Premier League as the dominant force in European football last season when they defeated all other nations that stood in their way. None of these teams were able to emulate even close to the same level of what they performed last season as the furthest any of them got was the last 16.
It will be regarded as nothing short of embarrassing for English football with the performances seen in Europe this season by their elite clubs. Seven English clubs, four in the Champions League and three in the Europa League started their campaigns confident of making this another dominant year for English football, but this wasn’t to be. All seven of these clubs made it out of the group stages but were each eliminated quite quickly in the knockout stages.
If we disregard the past two seasons for English clubs in Europe, this was a recurring issue for English football in the elite competition for years. It was clear that the best teams in England were not quite at the level of the top teams in Europe. It took six years for an English club to reach the final of the Champions League and seven to win it after Chelsea’s victory in 2012. The Spanish giants dominated the competition with the trophy not leaving Spain for five years, only to be moved across the country between Barcelona and Madrid.
It was a worrying time for English football as what was regarded as the best league in the world could not back it up on the big stage. The only reason that English clubs have looked so dominant is due to the poor seasons of a number of top clubs like Juventus and Barcelona in recent years.
There is the same feeling floating around now, especially on social media, that the standards of English football this year have been meagre. The so-called ‘farmers league’, aka Ligue 1, had two semi-finalists in PSG and Lyon, the latter of which knocked out Manchester City. The two other semi-finalists also defeated English opposition with RB Leipzig knocking Tottenham out in the Round of 16 and Bayern Munich thumping Chelsea.
It isn’t the fact that the top English clubs got knocked out, but they lost convincingly and without much challenge for the opposition. Wolves, Arsenal and Manchester United contested the Europa League, and there were indeed high hopes for all three to go a long way in the tournament. Arsenal was the first to drop, then Wolves and then Man United, one after the other. Let’s take a look at how each of the clubs was eliminated in Europe this year.
Arsenal Losing in the Round of 32 to Olympiakos – 27th February
Arsenal’s loss to Olympiakos so early in the competition was a shock to just about everyone. They had won 1-0 away in Greece and going into the second leg at home looked sure to progress. But Arsenal being Arsenal, it could never just be that simple.
They would go on to lose in extra time on away goals with an aggregate score of 2-2. This result just sums up the season that Arsenal had. Mikel Arteta will need a lot more work and time to get this side to the level that the fans expect. Yet again their dodgy defence let them down as well as a weak midfield. This is such a visible issue and has been with Arsenal for years, so until this is tackled there will be no change.
Arsenal have only reached three European finals in the last 20 years and has yet to win a recognised European trophy of significance. It seems unlikely that they will break that duck anytime soon with the squad that they have. For a club of their stature, they really should have a big European title to their name.
Tottenham losing in the Round of 16 to RB Leipzig – 10th March
RB Leipzig was perhaps the biggest surprise in Europe this season by reaching the semi-finals through wins over Tottenham and Atletico Madrid, only to fall short to finalists PSG. Tottenham have never been considered a European team, but after their road to the final last year, there were hopes for a kick on this year.
That hope diminished early into the season when manager Mauricio Pochettino was sacked. The club has not been able to reach the same heights as last year and just made it into a Europa League place for next season. Having made it out of the group stage, they faced a fresh young Leipzig side who had impressed in the group stage.
Tottenham lost the first leg 1-0 and then the second leg 3-0 almost four months later. It was a dreadful performance for a top English club against a relatively up-and-coming German team only founded in 2009. Tottenham’s performance was deserving of the outcome, and the fact that they didn’t even register a goal sums up their overall season. The Europa League may be their best chance of European success as they aren’t quite at the elite level of Europe’s giants.
Liverpool losing in the Round of16 to Atletico Madrid – 11th March
One of the biggest shocks in this year’s Champions League was the early knockout of reigning champions Liverpool. After finishing top of their group, they faced a tough two-legged tie against Atletico Madrid. With Liverpool cruising in the league and having reached the final of this competition in back to back years, they were healthy favourites.
It proved to be a much more difficult task than anticipated due to the defensive style of Simeone’s Atletico that he has become renowned for. Liverpool found it hard to break down the 11 men behind the ball style of football.
They lost the first leg away 1-0 but were confident of progressing with the second leg in Anfield. They dominated the game by creating a hefty number of chances but were continuously denied by Jan Oblak.
The match went to extra-time, and the fatigue of the Liverpool players could be seen with Atletico capitalising on this with three counter-attacking goals, no thanks to Liverpool’s step-in ‘keeper Adrián. It may have been a different story with first-choice ‘keeper Alisson in nets, but it wasn’t to be for Liverpool as Jürgen Klopp’s side crashed out 3-2 on the night and 4-2 on aggregate.
Chelsea losing in the Round of 16 to Bayern Munich – 8th August
Chelsea went into the season with a brand new look to them with Frank Lampard as the manager, Eden Hazard gone and a fresh set of youngsters coming through.
This was always going to be a transitional year for Chelsea, so to face Bayern Munich this early was still going to be an uphill task. Bayern have been a force to be reckoned with since the start of 2020, and they showed this against a young Chelsea side. They dominated the first leg winning 3-0 when it really could have been more.
Not much hope was given to Chelsea for the second leg and rightfully so as they were destroyed 4-1 to finish with an aggregate score of 7-1 to embarrass the London side.
Lampard’s side just wasn’t good enough on both occasions as they don’t have the calibre of players to compete with Europe’s best. They may have won the Europa League last year, but this year’s Champions League was just a step too far too soon for them. Perhaps Bayern beating Barcelona 8-2 over one match in the next leg made them not feel so bad about their two-legged result.
Wolves losing in Quarter-Final to Sevilla – 11th August
Wolves have had yet another incredible year under Nuno Espírito Santo. They have been able to compete on both fronts, but it was clear that in the end, this caught up to them as they ran out of gas in the final few matches.
They faced ‘the Kings of the Europa League’ in Sevilla who are renowned for their performances in this competition after their three in a row a few years ago. This was a one-off knockout game under the new format and one that looked certain to go to extra time until Sevilla headed home late on to break Wolves hearts.
It was a battling performance for the English side in Europe in what was an extremely long campaign as they heavily relied on a regular starting 11. They were pushed to the limit in both Europe and the league after the restart, and they will not be making an appearance in the competition next season because of this.
Manchester City losing in Quarter-Final to Lyon – 15th August
With all other English sides knocked out of the tournament and some favourites like Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona gone, this felt like it was finally going to be Manchester City’s year for European glory. Lyon, who finished seventh in Ligue 1, caused a shock upset by beating Juventus, but the same was not expected of them against Manchester City.
This was a straight knockout match, so Manchester City was supposed to steamroll the French side and carry the flag for English football in Europe. They did anything but and were to succumb to the same fate as their fellow league clubs by losing 3-1. Another year, another lost chance at European glory for City, and perhaps their best-ever chance to break that duck.
Pep Guardiola got his tactics all wrong as he so often has in the big games by seemingly overthinking his team selection and formation. He switched to five at the back away from his general 4-3-3 style to counteract Lyon’s style. They were unable to deal with Lyon’s counter-attacking ability and stern defensive display even with an extra man in defence.
Their multi-million-pound players could do nothing about it as Lyon stunned them, leaving Pep Guardiola on his knees with his hands on his head. They are still yet to progress past the quarter-final stages under Pep Guardiola.
Manchester United losing in Semi-Final to Sevilla – 16th August
It was a weekend to forget for both Manchester clubs as just one day after the blue side of Manchester’s exit from Europe; the red side would fall to the same fate.
Manchester United eased their way to the semi-finals of the competition by facing relatively weak opposition along the way and had established themselves as the favourites in the tournament. They were confident going into the semi-final, but they were facing the Kings of the Europa League. Sevilla’s knowledge and experience of the competition proved to be the difference between the sides as they came back to beat United 2-1 and send the last of the remaining English clubs home from Europe.
Sevilla, like many other teams this season, exposed the weaknesses in the Manchester United team, especially in defence. Luckily, Manchester United will be in the Champions League next season. Still, unless they can sort out their performances against top clubs, they may find themselves right back in this competition should they underperform in the group stages.
It is very much a year to forget for English clubs in Europe this season. After overperforming the year previous, none of the teams could emulate the same performances and fell to early defeats in their respective competitions. The two most significant missed opportunities will fall to both Manchester clubs who looked sure to at least reach a final by both being favourites in the two competitions. This was Manchester United’s third semi-final defeat this season alone and yet another quarter-final exit for Manchester City.
Could this just be a one-off fluke season for English clubs in Europe or is it something that we should be worried about?