In the past, reigning supreme in England has guaranteed fear in European competitions. Before 2013, 7 out of the previous 8 European Cup/Champions League finals had featured an English team; since Chelsea shocked German giants Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena, however, zero of the last six finalists have been from England.
The Premier League may continue to be the world’s richest and most popular domestic league, but its teams’ influence in Europe has diminished significantly. Last year was a low point for English football, with none of its participants reaching the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time in the modern era. Runaway league champions Chelsea, the Premier League’s standard-bearer, were dismal over two legs against French champions Paris Saint-Germain in the round of 16, ultimately bowing out on away goals.
Blues supporters point to Chelsea’s domestic dominance as evidence that their team’s shock exit was a case of “one bad day at the office,” but that argument is flimsy. Manchester City, Arsenal, and Manchester United were all littered with holes last season; while Chelsea’s unstoppable march to the title was impressive, they did not win a particularly competitive Premier League last season.
Chelsea would like to be viewed on a level equal to the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, and Juventus, but such a comparison would be premature. Chelsea’s ousters, PSG, were routed by Barcelona in the quarter-finals, emphasising the gulf between the West Londoners and the teams they hope to emulate.
What were Chelsea missing? I have discussed this at length in previous pieces, but to keep it short, their squad depth was minimal, their tactics were negative, and their star players came up small against elite competition. Have they solved these issues? Not really.
This summer, Jose Mourinho lost his two most capable reserves in left back Filipe Luis and goalkeeper Petr Cech. He has provided Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas, his two worn out centerpiece midfielders, with no additional cover this summer; Ramires and Jon Obi Mikel simply do not cut it, which is why Mourinho played them so rarely last season. The Premier League gauntlet is far too demanding for Chelsea to have such little depth behind an exceptional starting XI.
The “negative tactics,” something Mourinho employs in big league games to avoid disastrous results, will continue to get in Chelsea’s way. They play free-flowing, attractive football against weaker sides, drawing much-deserved acclaim, but crawl quickly into their defensive cocoon against top competition. This strategy carried over into the second leg against PSG, where Chelsea sat back even after Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s red card, allowing the Parisians to equalise twice and seal progression into the quarter-finals.
Explaining their stars’ struggles in the Champions League is a tougher task. Diego Costa was a shell of his Premier League self in the Champions League, failing to find the net even once in five appearances. Matic and Fabregas were solid in the group stage but failed to make even the slightest impact against PSG, ceding the middle of the park to the more industrious Marco Verratti. The usually rock-solid Branislav Ivanovic and John Terry were guilty of awful set piece defending, allowing counterparts David Luiz and Thiago Silva to run free and head home equalisers at Stamford Bridge. Oscar and Willian were uncharacteristically wasteful when given opportunities to lead attacks. In fact, only Eden Hazard performed at a world-class level throughout his team’s Champions League campaign.
The most convincing explanation is that their stars have yet to achieve success at the highest level. Fabregas, Hazard, Matic, Costa, and Oscar have won 1 World Cup and zero Champions League trophies between them. Barcelona’s starting XI, on the other hand, has 3 World Cup and 20 Champions League trophies in its ranks. Bayern Munich’s has 5 World Cups and 7 Champions League titles. Chelsea simply does not have many players who have won at the highest levels.
Even Chelsea’s impressive first-choice XI, its biggest claim to glory, does not compare to the aforementioned three-headed monster (Bayern, Barcelona, Real Madrid). Willian is an excellent technician, but he is no Messi, Bale, or Robben. Matic is as solid as they come, but I’d leave him out of my side if Sergio Busquets, Toni Kroos, or Xabi Alonso were offered in his place. Even John Terry, one of the greatest defenders in Premier League history, would not start over Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, or Jerome Boateng, all World Cup and Champions’ League winners.
Ultimately, Chelsea is not yet on the level of Europe’s elite trio. More apt comparisons are Juventus, Atletico Madrid, and PSG, but even that grouping has the last two Champions League runner-ups and the team that dismissed Chelsea last season. Unless Mourinho can work his magic and coax a far more dominant continental showing from his side this season, Chelsea will remain on the outside looking in at Champions League glory.