English Clubs Are Hot Again in Europe, but Are They Better Than Last Season?

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistOctober 20, 2017

Tottenham Hotspur draw at Real Madrid to ensure English clubs remain unbeaten in this season's Champions League.
Tottenham Hotspur draw at Real Madrid to ensure English clubs remain unbeaten in this season's Champions League.Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Manchester City (Top of PL; Top of CL Group F)

How have the new signings fared?

Legendary Netherlands midfielder Ruud Gullit once said: "A goalkeeper is a goalkeeper because he can't play football." He had clearly never seen Ederson play at the time of his acerbic comment.

The Brazilian has a range of passing befitting of a mid-table Premier League schemer. It's a bit like having Charlie Adam take your goal-kicks. Thankfully, he's a touch more agile than the Scot.

After the failed Claudio Bravo experiment, it must be reassuring for Manchester City players to play behind a goalkeeper with hands. Even at a British record fee for a goalkeeper, City look to have bagged a bargain.

Whether Benjamin Mendy's strong social media game is worth £52 million is debatable, but prior to injury, he had shown enough pugnacious energy to suggest he could be moulded into the perfect Pep Guardiola full-back.

That no one is talking about Kyle Walker's fee any more gives a fair indication of how he has settled in on the opposite flank. Overhauling the club's entire fleet of full-backs over the summer was a bold and eye-wateringly expensive move. So far, rather than extravagant, it looks brilliantly prescient.

City now stretch the pitch to its full capacity, with Walker's three lungs ensuring Cafu-esque levels of exertion down the right. In turn, this leaves acres of space infield for City's raft of ballers to play the type of five-a-side football rarely seen in the Premier League. It really is spellbinding stuff, and that's coming from a man who feels like he's snorted a full pack of tranquillisers at the mere mention of tiki-taka.

Danilo has done just what he was bought for in covering a number of positions with minimum fuss, while Bernardo Silva has shown in his fleeting appearances a first touch and footballing brain sent from heaven.

When injuries and suspensions invariably bite in the second half of the season to open a window of opportunity, there's every chance Silva will establish himself as one the Premier League's most watchable players. This kid has got the lot, and he's smart with it.


How do the results compare?

First eight PL games this season: WDWWWWWW (22 points)

First eight PL games last season: WWWWWWLD (19 points)

Final eight PL games last season: WWDDWWWW (20 points)


Are they better, worse or the same as last season?

Infinitely better.

This is a Guardiola team in full working order. No side across Europe's top five leagues has enjoyed more of the ball than City's 64.9 per cent average. When they have it, they rarely lose it, with a pass accuracy of 89 per cent in the Premier League unrivalled. 

At the back, City have conceded six goals in 12 matches in all competitions. The difference in John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi this season is immeasurable. Indecision and dithering that blighted the pair of them, in no small part due to seemingly having little faith in who was behind them, is conspicuous only in absence.

Stones, with a 97.1 per cent pass accuracy in 586 minutes of Premier League football, looks as good a ball-playing centre-half as there is in Europe at present. He was probably at the school disco the last time he misplaced a pass.

In the middle, it would barely be an exaggeration to say Kevin De Bruyne is currently conducting a personal experiment to redefine just how good a single pass can be. In his first 100 appearances for City, the current shoo-in for PFA Player of the Year has clocked up 43 assists and 25 goals. Those numbers are heading in only one direction. 

If they are tight at the back, going forward the football being played is pretty much unprecedented. In 12 games they have plundered 39 goals. In the league alone, at their current scoring rate, they are currently on course to bag 137.

It is a measure of how Guardiola has his side working in complete unison that all of his front six attacking players have such ridiculously good numbers. In the Premier League: Sergio Aguero has six goals, three assists; Jesus six goals, one assist; Sterling six goals, two assists; Sane four goals, three assists; David Silva one goal, six assists; De Bruyne one goal, five assists. Spend too much attention on stopping any one of them and the rest would run riot.

Guardiola described City's win on Tuesday against a Napoli side with a 100 per cent record in Serie A this season as being "perfect", per BBC Sport's Phil Dawkes. This coming from a man who once famously said, per The Guardian's David Hytner, "What I want, my desire, is to have 100 per cent possession," tells you everything you need to know about how Manchester City have started the season.


Chelsea (Fifth in PL; Top of CL Group C)

How have the new signings fared?

Rare is it a manager spends over £170 million in a single window and wears the look of a man who has fallen asleep on a train and woken up to the realisation he has been relieved of his wallet, watch and laptop.

Antonio Conte's dissatisfaction with his board's dealings over the summer is well documented. Nemanja Matic's exit to a direct rival in Manchester United has been exacerbated by his replacement Tiemoue Bakayoko not quite having hit the ground running following his arrival from Monaco.

In light of recent catty comments between the pair of them, don't be surprised if Jose Mourinho sports Conte's missing timepiece when Manchester United travel to Chelsea on November 5.

There has been no such issue of acclimatisation with Alvaro Morata. The Spain international has a similar gait to Fernando Torres, but seemingly none of the self-doubt that riddled El Nino's time at Stamford Bridge.

Morata's eight goals in his first nine appearances for Chelsea has made him an instant hit, though his struggle with a hamstring injury, when coupled with similar problems with N'Golo Kante and Victor Moses, has not helped Conte's mood any as he complains of the shallow depth of his squad.

Germany international Antonio Rudiger has made six Premier League starts, and while not quite the finished article, he has enough physicality and pace to his game to make him an increasingly viable alternative to the out-of-sorts Gary Cahill.

Right-sided defender David Zappacosta has yet to start a Premier League game following his £22.5 million switch from Torino, while Danny Drinkwater is still easing his way to fitness after his deadline-day move to the capital.


How do the results compare?

First eight PL games this season: LWWWDWLL (13 points)

First eight PL games last season: WWWDLLWW (16 points)

Final eight PL games last season: WLWWWWWW (21 points)


Are they better, worse or the same as last season?

In terms of self-fulfilling prophecies, Conte looks to have demonstrated uncanny foresight when over the summer he predicted this would be the hardest season of his career. Last term in overseeing a 43-point positive swing, to take Chelsea from 10th to champions, he instilled in his players an almost robotic ruthlessness. This time they look decidedly more human. Fallible.

It has been a rollercoaster of a season already; one that is out of kilter with the control Conte exudes outside of the theatre of the touchline. A win at Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Champions League was as perfect a European away performance as it gets. Rare is it Diego Simone is so thoroughly outsmarted. In contrast, defeats to Burnley and Crystal Palace have proved true for every peak there is probably a couple of troughs somewhere down the line. 

Whereas last season Conte's eyes would speak a truth he could not say while his mouth smiled, this term he has been far more loquacious. And more often than not, what has come out has sounded like moaning. Mourinho has rattled him courtesy of comments he would previously have laughed off. 

That's not to say Chelsea's supporters don't still dote on his every word. It's just by his own admission he is making mistakes, just like his players. Against Roma in midweek, he sounded like a man unsure of either his most solid formation or best XI. It was telling how both David Luiz and Eden Hazard made clear their thoughts on being substituted. In terms of questionable versus astute decisions, the columns are looking fairly even thus far. 

Last season his team picked itself, 1-11 rolling off the tongue like the Liverpool sides of the eighties, or before them Leeds United a decade hence. Now on receiving a Chelsea teamsheet there's a bit of detective work to be done in order to decipher who's playing where.

Three defeats in the league before the clocks have gone back is just two fewer than in the whole of last season. Conte may yet have a eureka moment again. Last year it came when 3-0 down against Arsenal at half-time, famously switching to three at the back. From that moment on they won their next 13 Premier League games. All the rest of the division saw between then and May was the back of a pair of Chelsea boots.

The margin for error over the next seven months is now slim to the point it seems unlikely, if not quite fanciful, to imagine the Italian engineering a fifth title in his last five seasons of club management, having claimed three straight Serie A wins with Juventus from 2012 to 2014.

That's not to say he'll surrender his remarkable record without the mother of all fights—even if it's just with his own board, if they don't play ball in January.


Manchester United (Second in PL; Top of CL Group A)

How have the new signings fared?

So far, so good.

Romelu Lukaku's heavy-looking display against Liverpool that saw him hit the target just once, when he wrapped his boot around the face of Devan Lovren had his effort saved by Simon Mignolet, was heavily lampooned—especially by those that can't get the flat-track bully thing out of their heads. But after starting his Manchester United career with 10 goals in his first 11 appearances, one suspects he isn't crying himself to sleep.

Equally as emphatic a hit has been Matic. With a rangy omnipresence, he's the shielding player United have needed for years, though elegant passing and surging runs forward have caught the eye as much as any dirty work.

Prior to his injury, the sparkling form of Paul Pogba alongside him was also no coincidence either. Matic makes his team-mates look better. He's got form for it. Cesc Fabregas and Kante both provide glowing references.

Victor Lindelof is proving to be this season's Henrikh Mkhitaryan in terms of being eased in so slowly Zlatan Ibrahimovic might make a Premier League start sooner than his compatriot. The centre-half from Benfica has looked a little shaky in the sporadic appearances he has been granted, but then so did Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic in their early days in English football.

All in all, though, Mourinho will be more than content with his market moves. It's amazing what the best part of £150 million buys you these days.


How do the results compare?

First eight PL games this season: WWWDWWWD (20 points)

First eight PL games last season: WWWLLWDD (14 points)

Final eight PL games last season: WWDDLLDW (12 points)


Are they better, worse or the same as last season?

From an aesthetic perspective, Mourinho will always have his critics. The Portuguese is one of the most decorated coaches in the history of the game based on a mantra that decrees the end justifies the means. Calling him boring probably has the same effective as calling Donald Trump stupid. Less than zero. 

"There are a plenty of poets in football, but poets don't win many titles," was his pithy assessment after his United side secured the Europa League, to add to the EFL Cup they had already won in his debut campaign at Old Trafford, per BT Sport (h/t The  Telegraph's James Ducker).

That the game's great visionary on the other side of the city has his side playing the type of football that would have William Shakespeare at a loss as to how best describe such beauty, only exaggerates what is currently on offer at Old Trafford. Still, there will be precious few neutrals lighting a candle in solitude with Manchester United supporters having to slum it watching something that isn't quite "the United way."

The turgid football they have had to endure this season has seen United score 21 goals in eight Premier League matches, some six more than Tottenham Hotspur, eight more than Chelsea and Liverpool, nine more than Arsenal. In all competitions, they have won 10 of 12 matches, scoring four or more in half of them. Oh to be a disciple of dour. 

The football is infinitely quicker and smarter. It seems quickly forgotten in this incessant hankering for a footballing utopia how disregarding games against the top five last season, United dropped points against Watford, Stoke City (twice), Burnley, West Ham United, Everton (twice), Hull City, Bournemouth, West Bromwich Albion, Swansea City and Southampton. Not to put too fine a point on it, they were crap.

To say United this season aren't a marked improvement on last season's model, as many have intimated without saying outright, is an absolute nonsense. It hardly seems that much of a hardship to watch Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial roasting full-backs on alternate weekends, even if an injury to the former on Wednesday arrives at the most inopportune time in a season threatening to propel him to superstardom.

For the minute, Mourinho will be quietly content with City stealing the plaudits, just so long as they stay in sight. His recent wry comments about defending and how it has become a guilty pleasure in football suggests he will continue to gauge success in terms of points and prizes, rather than praise and platitudes.


Liverpool (Eighth in PL; Second in CL Group E)

How have the new signings fared?

It's fair to say Liverpool's transfer policy receives mixed press. The club's supporters tend to dislike it a little, or a lot.

Jurgen Klopp has said he is happy with how the club's democratic transfer committee works, per ESPN FC (h/t PA Sport, via Sky Sports) though many of a less polite persuasion would likely concur with the view of former politician Sir Barnett Cocks: "A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled."

Even its greatest detractors must accept the signing of Mohamed Salah was a smart bit of business, done early, and at a price that at the time looked exorbitant but now seems a fair snip. No doubt it was his association with Chelsea that saw eyebrows raised when Liverpool paid a club-record £34 million for him. Nonetheless, the 33 goals and 17 assists he notched in two campaigns at Roma, with 15 goals and 11 assists unmatched in Serie A last season, always had the distinct whiff of quality to it. 

The Egyptian has not disappointed. He has been voted the club's Player of the Month consecutively, with eight goals to date some return for a winger. Complaints about him not always being clinical remind of Glenn Hoddle's famous line about Andy Cole needing five chances to score a goal. Given Cole managed 187 in the Premier League alone, and a remarkable 73 assists, Liverpool fans will be praying Salah remains similarly wasteful.

Wastefulness when in good positions is an accusation that has plagued Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain throughout his career. That he has reached the ripe old age of 24 without defining exactly what type of player he is or wants to be seems to have vexed a disproportionally large number of people. On paper, Klopp seems a good fit to provide the stick after probably a year too many of getting fat on Wenger's carrot.

Since signing he has played just 85 minutes for Liverpool in the league. The question has already been raised of how if he can't get in Klopp's side when they are indifferent at best, what chance has he when they find their rhythm? Still, it's early days for club and player.

The acquisition of Naby Keita for the start of next season has probably increased a thousand-fold the amount of people that spend too much time squinting at a hooky feed of RB Leipzig's games, asking "Is that him?" approximately every 30 seconds.

Meanwhile, Virgil van Dijk has been anointed the fixer of Liverpool's defensive deficiencies for so long if he eventually does sign he's going to get a shock when he finds out he won't be partnering Alan Hansen at centre-half, as was discussed when Liverpool first got in touch with Southampton.

The surprisingly decent form of Alberto Moreno has meant Andy Robertson has yet to really show what he's about, but the Scot has impressed enough in fleeting cameos to suggest at under £10 million he represents precious little risk. Likewise, it seems too early to say what kind of impact the highly thought of Dominic Solanke will make.


How do the results compare?

First eight PL games this season: DWWLDWDD (13 points)

First eight PL games last season: WLDWWWWD (17 points)

Final eight PL games last season: DWWLWDWW (17 points)


Are they better, worse or the same as last season?

For a club with purported genuine title aspirations to be nine points shy of the league leaders after just eight matches, and below both Watford and Burnley in the table, is a disaster whichever way you cut it.

Klopp probably quite rightly claims Liverpool have been unlucky and not got the results they deserve. However, there are 91 other managers currently employed in English football's top four divisions and no doubt each and every one of them will have the exact same tale of woe.

The majority of them will be looking at what's going on at Anfield and wondering why on earth Klopp has failed to address the most obvious problem in football other than the Football Association's absolute inability to govern with anything like the required level of certitude or base morality. 

One solution might be to rig-up Liverpool's defenders with neon lights on the back of their shirts so Klopp can identity which players he needs to replace. The 12 goals they have conceded is six more than Burnley, 10 more than Manchester United. Only six Premier League clubs have let in more. 

Not signing a centre-half was negligent to the point of criminality. Holding out for Van Dijk could well end up with Klopp being called something not dissimilar if Liverpool miss out on the top four due to defensive deficiencies.

Liverpool are four points worse off than at the same stage last season, while similarly they have dipped by the same number of points in terms of how they finished the campaign.

It's not just at the back where they have issues. No club can match Liverpool's average of 19.5 shots per game, yet Tottenham Hotspur and both Manchester clubs have outscored the 13 they have managed to date. Watford have also scored 13 but average just 11.1 shots per game. 

In layman terms, Liverpool boss matches they don't win. In Premier League draws against Watford, Burnley, Newcastle United and Manchester United, they had a combined total of 60 shots to their opponents' 22. They are also down on last season in terms of shot accuracy, shot conversion and big-chance conversion. They are almost as profligate as they are porous. 

In terms of a pick-me-up, a 7-0 away win in the UEFA Champions League is quite the fillip. Maribor are no Madrid, but then neither are they as hapless as they looked on the night. The Slovenian side's previous three group stage home games saw them draw with Chelsea, Sporting Lisbon and lose narrowly to Schalke.

That the result marked the biggest margin of victory away from home ever recorded in the Champions League matters little. That it marked Roberto Firmino returning to form with a brace, having gone six games without a goal for club and country, could help kickstart Liverpool's stuttering start. 

It certainly needs one after a run of just two victories in nine games in all competitions that threatens to derail a campaign before it has ever really begun. 


Tottenham (Third in PL; Second in CL Group H)

How have the new signings fared?

Such is football's all-pervasive obsession with transfers, Mauricio Pochettino seems almost antiquated in his seeming contentment to coach the players he already has into becoming better versions of themselves. He has faith in what he has built and makes signings to complement what exists, rather than attempt to transcend it with a quick fix.

While Guardiola and Mourinho work with two of the most expensively assembled squads in the history of the game, Tottenham's net spend over the summer was little over £10 million. The Argentinian wants to build not just a great side in his image, but a great club, and to do that accepts in the short-term a move to a new stadium dictates any financial restrictions.

The names of Davinson Sanchez (£36 million), Serge Aurier (£25 million), Fernando Llorente (£13.5 million) and Juan Foyth (£11.7 million) may not cause the heart to skip a beat. In terms of bang for buck, though, don't be surprised if Pochettino is quietly content with his lot come May.

Llorente is a typically cute buy. Against Real Madrid in midweek, he was surprisingly drafted in to partner Harry Kane up front. Pochettino recognised the real threat of his star man being isolated. The Spaniard showed all his experience on the night by being the perfect foil, with the interplay between them giving Madrid a headache Kane may have struggled to manifest on his lonesome.

Sanchez, like the rest of his young team-mates, was excellent in the Bernabeu, too.


How do the results compare?

First eight PL games this season: WLDWDWWW (17 points)

First eight PL games last season: DWDWWWWD (18 points)

Final eight PL games last season: WWWWLWWW (21 points)


Are they better, worse or the same as last season?

They're smarter, definitely.

When on ITV's midweek UEFA Champions League highlights show Roy Keane said Tottenham were a good side there was a silent, pregnant pause. Host Mark Pougatch and fellow pundit Lee Dixon have worked with the Irishman long enough to know he tends to give with one hand and sucker-punch with the other.

That Keane felt no need to elaborate said plenty. The only "Spursy" side in north London at present is Arsenal. Bridging the end of last season with the start of the current campaign, Tottenham have won 12 of their last 16 Premier League matches.

It is in Europe, though, that they have shown most improvement. Last season they looked pleased just to be there with the big boys. A kid brother that tags along on the proviso he only speaks when spoken to. They may have looked thrillingly accomplished in the Premier League, but in Europe, there was almost a gauche naivety to them as they failed to make it out of a group comprising Monaco, Bayer Leverkusen and CSKA Moscow.

This season it will take a monumental slip-up for them not to make the knockout stages. On Tuesday, their stalemate against Real Madrid was a signature performance. For Pochettino, it was arguably his finest night as a manager.

Shorn of key players through suspension and injury, it never occurred to him to make excuses. Instead, he just worked out how to stop the best side in world football from beating his makeshift XI that was forced to start with Harry Winks, Moussa Sissoko and Christian Eriksen in central midfield.

On another night, they would have beaten the winners of the 2014, 2016 and 2017 Champions Leagues in their own back yard. They had to make do with forging six points ahead of Borussia Dortmund. 

With arguably the most complete centre forward in the world right now in Kane (15 goals in as many games for club and country), a rock solid back five, and Dele Alli due a streak of form, increasingly few doubt if the title doesn't end up in Manchester, north London is its most likely destination.


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