6 Ways English Clubs Can Bounce Back in Next Year's Champions League
It is less than 12 months since Roberto Di Matteo's Chelsea side won the Champions League title in Munich, yet the discussion has already turned to Premier League underperformance in Europe's elite club competition.
Two of the English competitors—reigning champions Chelsea and Premier League winners Manchester City—failed to make it past the group stage. Both remaining sides—Manchester United and Arsenal—would crash out at the next hurdle.
While talk of the Premier League's demise is no doubt premature, there can be little doubting that the leagues are weaker than they once were in comparison to their continental rivals. The reasons can be debated, but it is a clear fact based on performance at Champions League level.
How, then, can the Premier League's top sides challenge in the 2013-14 Champions League season?
More Targeted Summer Signings
Poor Scott Sinclair watched on as his former Swansea colleagues celebrated League Cup success last month, knowing that he would have been part of it had he not made a deadline-day move to Manchester City in August.
His signing, as with most of the club's summer transfers, has since been proved to be a completely unnecessary acquisition. Sinclair has been handed just 176 minutes of Premier League football this season, while Maicon and Jack Rodwell have hardly been regulars when fit.
Chelsea, meanwhile, spent the summer buying every attacking midfielder they could lay their hands on, meaning Marko Marin has spent most of the year sitting among the substitutes, while Lucas Piazon and Kevin De Bruyne are both on loan at top-flight sides in major European leagues.
At the same time, it has been clear that it was actually at No. 9 and in defensive positions that the club needed to strengthen.
Of the four English clubs to have played in the Champions League this season, only Manchester United were particularly impressive with their summer moves. This summer, with both Chelsea and Manchester City expected to qualify once more, they must be much more targeted with their transfer activity.
Continued Growth at Tottenham
Tottenham are currently looking strong for qualification to the 2013-14 Champions League and, given the continued downward trend at Arsenal, it could be a positive outcome for English performance.
The White Hart Lane side are clearly on the rise and, in the likes of Hugo Lloris, Jan Vertonghen and Gareth Bale, have already impressive players with their best years ahead of them.
The Andre Villas-Boas project must be expected to gather speed this summer, with the Portuguese manager now clearly in favour with his core squad and likely to have already identified key areas for improvement ahead of next year's challenges.
A top-class striker would be a massive help, with Leandro Damiao linked (Goal.com), while retaining Gareth Bale would be perhaps the biggest coup of the window.
With Villas-Boas holding a good record in European competition, Spurs must be expected to be able to mount a good challenge next season should they qualify.
Better Tactical Setup
Both Chelsea and Manchester City's disappointing group-stage exits from the Champions League were aided by tactical errors that were shown up by high-quality opposition.
Chelsea, who were exposed by Atletico Madrid in the European Super Cup final, continued to play an expansive attacking game that left their defensive line highly exposed against pace on the counter attack.
It was a factor identified by Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk and the former UEFA Cup winners showed little mercy in ruthlessly exploiting the deficiency over two legs.
For Roberto Mancini's Manchester City, it was more of the same. A difficult group draw has now been the excuse for two years, but they have no explanation for being outplayed so convincingly by both Ajax and Borussia Dortmund over two legs.
In his time at Inter, the feeling was that Mancini was not performing in the Champions League. It is a worrying trend that has continued in his time at City and will no doubt bring about questions over his future.
Manchester United Sign a Top-Quality Central Midfielder
Manchester United fans have been screaming for the signing of a central midfielder of repute for some time and, despite their outstanding league performance this campaign, it remains the case.
The Red Devils have an abundance of attacking talent, while with the signing of Wilfried Zaha they have also reinforced their options for the coming season.
While there may be the need for a defensive signing also, as indicated by the recent links to Argentine Ezequiel Garay (via Sky Sports), it is the side's midfield that requires the most serious attention.
Kevin Strootman (pictured) has been discussed as a potential partner for the excellent Michael Carrick (via Express), while Juventus' all-action midfielder Claudio Marchisio has also been mentioned (via Express). Either would be a great signing for the Red Devils.
With the addition of Shinji Kagawa to the squad this season, it is clear that there is a change of direction underway at Old Trafford. At the moment, though, the club doesn't have the midfield to close out games.
Manchester City Bring in Either Cavani or Falcao
I wrote last month on how Edinson Cavani would be ideally suited to lead the line for Manchester City and, with reports linking him with a move to England continuing (via Sky Sports), that opinion hasn't changed.
Either the Uruguayan or Colombia's Radamel Falcao would make a massive difference to the City side, providing a top-class reference point, and it is clear that they are in the market for a striker this summer.
The rounded striker they needed was supposed to be Mario Balotelli, but that experiment came to a disappointing end. Edin Dzeko has proved too limited, while Manchester United's Robin van Persie was supposed to be the solution last summer.
City are a side with an abundance of attacking talent, but they need a central reference point to allow a variety of approaches to their game.
The addition of Falcao or Cavani would bring the best out of both Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero, in turn making Manchester City a true threat for prizes at the top level of European football.
Pray for Better Luck
It's not really something that the clubs can change by themselves, but there is no doubt that the English sides will feel that they could have done better with kinder draws this season.
Initially, in the group stage, Manchester City were handed a group with the Spanish, German and Dutch champions. Their performances were poor, undoubtedly, but they also faced the toughest group possible.
Chelsea, meanwhile, will count themselves unlucky to have gone out of the competition based solely on an away goal in their head-to-head fixtures with Shakhtar Donetsk.
In the Last 16, the fortune of England's entrants improved little, with Manchester United and Arsenal drawing Real Madrid and Bayern Munich respectively—two favourites for the title.
United still consider themselves unfortunate for having lost out to Real Madrid following a highly debatable red card for midfielder Nani. Arsenal, meanwhile, were narrowly defeated by Bayern despite a first-leg collapse at home.
England's teams have much to consider about their performance, but there can be little doubt that luck was a factor.