Most who witnessed Liverpool’s 4-0 win over Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final could scarcely believe their eyes.
Trailing 0-3 from the first leg, without key players in Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino AND with a Premier League title decider to consider on Sunday, the Reds achieved the unthinkable.
Powered on by the raucous Anfield faithful – they hadn’t given up on reaching the final, that’s for sure, and when Divock Origi scored as early as the seventh minute dreams of the ‘Miracle of Istanbul’ were conjured up once more.
Substitute Gini Wijnaldum fired a quick double in the second half, and suddenly the scoreline was all square. Barcelona, with Lionel Messi a shadow of his normal self and Luis Suarez booed remorselessly with every touch of the ball, didn’t stand a chance.
It was almost inevitable when Origi popped up again to nudge home Trent Alexander-Arnold’s cross, and the ‘Miracle of Merseyside’ was complete.
And so Liverpool take their place in the 2018/19 Champions League final at Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium….and who knows, they might yet be joined by Tottenham, who tackle Ajax in the second semi-final.
One thing that Liverpool will need to do if they are to get their hands on the Champions League trophy is to improve on a bizarre record of English clubs in European football’s top competition.
Because for all of their spending – and English clubs spend more than any other league in Europe in the transfer window – only four sides from these shores have won the Champions League since it took over from the European Cup in 1992/93.
Surely money buys success in football? You would certainly have thought so, but the history books suggest that is not the case.
So why do English clubs continue to fail in the Champions League?
Spending for Spending’s Sake
You might think that’s a statement that needs a caveat: English teams are failing in the Champions League. But when you look at the transfer spending of the likes of Manchester City and United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal, realistically teams from England should have a better than 4 in 26 ratio of winning this tournament.
The financial figures are illuminating. Web firm Consultancy.uk has published the transfer spending of each of Europe’s top five divisions in the summer transfer window since 2009, and in each case the Premier League comes out on top as far as percentage spend is concerned.
Here’s a look at the last five years’ worth of spending:
So what are the key takeaway points: well, we should state that the stats above feature is all of the teams in each of those leagues combined, not just those competing in the Champions League.
So, cash-rich teams further down the food chain in England are contributing more to the figures above as opposed to poorer mid and lower-table sides in Spain and Germany, for instance.
And it would be foolish to conclude that these numbers are wholly instructive; Real Madrid have won four of the last five editions of the Champions League, for example, and they are no strangers to splashing the cash….you don’t get the nickname ‘Galacticos’ for nothing, after all.
But the concept should ring true: you buy better players, you improve the standard of football in your country, you should expect to see an improvement at the highest level.
For all the millions splurged on new players each season, English clubs aren’t competing with their European bedfellows. It’s a conundrum that has no real answer – hence the continued failings of our teams on the continent.
Big Game Players?
To call the efforts of English clubs in the Champions League a complete failure would be a falsehood, however.
There have been 26 finals of this competition since it changed its name from the European Cup, and nine of those have featured English clubs.
Champion’s League Finals Featuring English Clubs
|1998/99||Manchester United||Bayern Munich|
So, technically, we’ve had more teams fall at the final hurdle than actually lift the trophy.
Even allowing for the small sample size, that is a fact that has to be considered in isolation: English teams get a glimpse of the trophy and, in more than half the cases, crumble.
So why is that? It’s not as if the top clubs in England are overly staffed by English players, and so we can’t use a lack of experience in big international matches – World Cup 2018 aside – as an excuse.
Can other arguments be introduced: do we play too many games per season in the Premier League, leaving teams shattered? Is the English style of play simply not conducive to prolonged success against the continent’s best?
We can answer both of these theories with a look at Liverpool, who have now reached two consecutive Champions League finals.
Do Liverpool Have the Winning Formula?
This is a club where British players – Trent Alexander-Arnold, Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Andy Robertson are key, and this is also a side that for the past two seasons has maintained a Premier League title push in the midst of their European adventure.
Instead we can look to the systems implemented by Jurgen Klopp and his staff which are pan-European in nature; remember, he has enjoyed success both in Germany and in the Champions League before from his Borussia Dortmund days. Maybe more of the big clubs in England should profile their managers with this in mind: Unai Emery, Maurizio Sarri and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer don’t exactly have a stack of trophies between them.
In the last couple of transfer windows, Klopp has signed Alisson, Virgil van Dijk and Fabinho. Yes, astronomical sums were paid, relatively speaking, but all three of those players have improved the spine of the Liverpool team. In short, they were signed for a purpose; they weren’t ‘marquee’ signings purchased just to appease the fans.
So there you go, that’s the blueprint for Champions League success: appoint a manager with previous Champions League experience, sign players that fit the system (they don’t have to be household names) and those who have big game pedigree.
There’s some English clubs that could learn a lot from the Liverpool approach….