England's Elite Must Learn to Keep Emotions in Check

Published: 27th February 2015 08:16 AM  |   Last Updated: 27th February 2015 08:16 AM   |  A+A-

Premier League's finest continue to struggle in Europe because they allow passion to take precedence over tactics, writes Jason Burt

There was a theme in the dismantling of Premier League hopes in the Champions League this week. After both Manchester City and Arsenal were embarrassed at home the soul-bearing was the same from both camps: they were not mentally strong enough.

It is an excuse for which there should be no excuse. But here is Joe Hart on Tuesday evening after his penalty save gave City the slimmest of hopes that they might overturn a 2-1 deficit against Barcelona. "It is quite evident that we pressed until the first goal and then we panicked a bit - I think that was blatantly obvious to see," the goalkeeper reasoned.

And here is Arsene Wenger after his Arsenal team were embarrassed 3-1 by Monaco at the Emirates 24 hours later. "Mentally we were not sharp enough. We rushed our game. We knew coming back in at half-time it was important  not to concede the second goal, but we were too impatient. It was more heart than brain."

How can a team of City's experience and talent panic? How can a team with Arsenal's experience in the Champions League, and ability, and resources, and knowing what the stakes are, not be mentally sharp enough?

The excuses are indictments of players at two of England's biggest and strongest clubs - and of their managers. Both Manuel Pellegrini and Wenger have the air of men who believe it is only their game plan that matters and that the opposition can do what they like. And that is arrogant.

There were certainly fundamental tactical problems with both City and Arsenal - problems that were so predictable that it is unfathomable that neither manager believed they could be fatal. City played 4-4-2 - but neither striker was tasked with funnelling back to make it 4-5-1 out of possession.

Arsenal lacked balance, with two many attack-minded players, and lacked width against one of the most compact sides in European football, who were heavily depleted.

There is an image of Monaco's second goal with Laurent Koscielny stranded, alone, in his own half as the French side broke forward. The concession was unforgivable in its footballing naivety.

It is an extraordinary state of affairs for English clubs in the Champions League - indeed in European competition in general. Chelsea will argue they are the honourable exceptions and, even if their 1-1 draw away to Paris St-Germain was not wholly convincing, they should progress to the quarter-finals again.

Only two weeks ago the Premier League popped the corks on a new pounds 5?billion television deal.

This week, two of the League's biggest clubs played like paupers in Europe. Neither tie is over, although Arsenal are clinging on by the slenderest of threads and no side have overturned the deficit they face in more than 40 years of the European Cup, while City have to win improbably well at the Nou Camp.

This is becoming a familiar refrain. Last season two English clubs reached the last eight - Chelsea and Manchester United. The season before that there were none and the season before that? Only Chelsea - who went on to win it in the most unlikely circumstances. That means out of the 24 teams who made the quarter-finals of the Champions League over three seasons, only three came from the richest league in the world. And it is likely to be just one from eight this season.

Something is wrong. The equation simply does not make sense given the Premier League's pretensions, the wealth available to it, the resources it can command and the wages and fees paid for its players. There is not enough bang for the buck. Not in Europe, certainly.

So what is it then? Is the Premier League too physically demanding, too attritional? It is hard to believe that it simply comes down to that, especially at this time of year, although undoubtedly opponents benefit from a winter break.

And neither does the mental fragility to which both Wenger and Hart alluded have anything to do with being English - even if the England national team display similar traits. Neither manager is English. Only four players from the 22 who started the two matches are English. There were five Frenchmen, two World Cup-winning Germans, three Spaniards and three Argentines.

So it must be a Premier League problem and there was a clue to what that problem is in the final part of Wenger's earlier statement. "It was more heart than brain," he said of his team's performance against Monaco. That was summed up by the way, three minutes after Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scored the goal that brought Arsenal back into the contest, he ran into trouble as he chased the equaliser and lost possession - a mistake that led to Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco's strike.

Oxlade-Chamberlain pushed on because he was running on emotion, because the crowd were demanding another goal, because he, like every Arsenal and City player, allowed his heart to rule his brain. It is both the strength and the weakness of the Premier League - a League that runs on emotion like no other.

Games run end to end, ball retention is not a priority, possession is turned over quickly, tactical variation is minimal, and the games seep with emotion.

Talk to a coach such as Carlo Ancelotti or Andre Villas-Boas and they will remark on how quickly games in the Premier League can switch with a single event - a goal, a contentious incident - because that emotion is so raw. It happens in all leagues but none more so than the Premier League.

When he was at Chelsea, Ancelotti remarked that he was surprised at the lack of tactical variation in England - and that few Premier League managers seemed willing to alter things, to vary their approach - shift formations, say - during matches. Villas-Boas would rue that he could set up his team tactically to control a game for 80 minutes only a surprise goal from the opposition to turn the match, and then all hell would break loose around a stadium.

Jose Mourinho is one manager who has got the balance right - harnessing that emotion but also keeping a check on his tactics and varying them accordingly. It is why partly why he consistently progresses in Europe.

No league concerns itself more with statistics, such as the number of kilometres a player has run, his heat map, what his Prozone stats are, than the Premier League. All those indicators are important but they are only so important.

No one wants to lessen the emotion. No one wants to reduce the atmosphere and dilute the uniquely, consistently dramatic nature of the Premier League. But we have to face up to the fact that it is a league that is far too uncomplicated and one, as Wenger said of his team, ruled too much by the heart rather than the head. Evidently, that can take you only so far.

A balance needs to be found. No one wants the Premier League to lose its drama and passion. But no one wants the Premier League clubs to lose in Europe. The clubs are struggling to find the balance and are suffering because of it.

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