It took a German and an Argentinian to bring it back to light, but the Champions League final between Liverpool and Tottenham is evidence of English football remembering what it is good at.
All that, and we end up with a game that happens at least twice a season anyway? All the twists and turns, all the immaculate plotting of the knockout stage, and the final is between two sides that have not won their domestic league for 29 and 58 years, respectively (unless something unexpected happens on Sunday–and let’s be honest, in a week in which Vincent Kompany’s first professional goal from outside the box to potentially secure the title barely registers as a story any more, unexpected is very much football’s mode these days). All those comebacks for a Nick Barmby derby?
Liverpool against Tottenham may not feel much like a Champions League final–and yet it speaks volumes about the modern game.
Ajax’s last-gasp defeat means that, for the 15th consecutive year there will be no team from outside the big four leagues in the final. It’s the seventh final to be contested between two teams from the same country and the second all-English final. To which the only question really can be, what kept this from happening more frequently?
The Premier League enjoys enormous financial advantages over the rest of Europe. Six of the 10 richest clubs in the world by revenue are based in England. That there had been five years between Chelsea’s success in 2012 and Liverpool losing to Real Madrid last season without a Premier League representative in the final feels like underachievement.
At the same time, it seems significant that this is a different pair of English clubs to the two that contested the 2008 final, Manchester United and Chelsea. There could be an all-English Europa League final as well, with Chelsea and Arsenal both having the edge after their semifinals. And yet it’s almost certain that none of those four will even win the Premier League, which will be sealed by Manchester City on Sunday if it wins at 17th-placed Brighton. English football is unusual in having a big six, but for all the advantages that brings, it also perhaps makes it harder for them to prosper in Europe than it is for clubs from those nations that have fewer dominant sides.
The progress of both Liverpool and Tottenham has been implausible in its way, for Spurs especially. Their away-goals’ progress through the past two rounds has come after two of the most dramatic games of football ever seen. Even in the group stage, Spurs took a single point from their first three games and needed PSV to draw with Inter on the final matchday to scramble through. Much will be made of mentality, of how much tougher Tottenham seems these days, but there has been a significant amount of luck here as well–luck it notably didn’t have against Juventus in the quarterfinals last season.
But to mark this down as fortune or character is to ignore a far more significant trend, one that has been growing increasingly apparent over the past two or three years, and that is the physical prowess of Premier League teams. Last season, Liverpool bullied Roma in the semifinal. Tottenham, similarly, looked quicker and stronger than Juve in its quarterfinal – only to be undone by a 10-minute period of sloppiness in each leg. If anything, that pattern has been even more pronounced this season. Tottenham physically dominated Dortmund in the last 16, while Liverpool seemed at times to intimidate Barcelona.
This is how it used to be. In the period when English football dominated European competition in the late 1970s and early 80s, it was because it could match opponents technically and tactically but also had a physical edge. That’s why the German title of Raphael Honigstein’s book on the English game is Harder, Faster, Better, Stronger. But a focus on the physical became associated in the popular consciousness with the discredited long-ball theories of Charles Hughes that undermined the English game in the 80s. When English clubs returned to European competition in the early 90s after the Heysel ban, the focus became on trying to close the technical and tactical gaps that had opened up. There was a while when, particularly at the national level, England tried to leap on each passing bandwagon.
Be more Dutch! Copy Clairefontaine! Rebuild La Masia! Reboot like the Germans!
When Jurgen Klopp arrived at Liverpool and was asked with an almost mystical reverence about his Gegenpressing, he replied that it was a development of the English game he’d grown up watching. He and Mauricio Pochettino have both emphasized conditioning to go with their tactical innovations. Both press, both in their own way are direct and neither is especially comfortable controlling a game through possession.
It’s an oddity that it took a German and an Argentinian to bring it back to light, but this Champions League final is evidence of English football remembering what it is good at.