Deja Vu: A Troubling Sign for English Teams in Europe

Once again, the British press is wondering what’s wrong with Premier League teams in Europe after three of four English clubs lost their UEFA Champions League openers this week: on Tuesday, the Manchester clubs each failed to protect 1-0 leads and eventually fell 2-1 in their openers. On Wednesday, 10-man Arsenal lost by the same scoreline.

In a surprise, Chelsea was the only English team that kept a clean sheet on Matchday 1, easing to a 4-0 win against Israeli club Maccabi Tel Aviv. The Israeli club might be considered one of the weakest teams in the competition, but Jose Mourinho’s men really needed the win, if not the clean sheet. As it were, the West London club took care of business and did what was expected of a big club in the UCL--you can’t say the same about England’s other representatives.

The common thread in each of the three losses was sloppy defending. In fact, Man United coach Louis van Gaal hit the nail on the head following his team’s 2-1 defeat to PSV in Eindhoven: “We had most of the chances and now we have lost. It was a very bad start and it was not necessary.” Indeed, you could have said that about City and Arsenal’s losses, too. Shortly after taking the lead through a fantastic individual goal from Memphis, PSV and Mexico midfielder Hector Moreno towered over the United defense to head home from a corner that was oddly deflected into the net by a botched headed clearance from Daley Blind. To make matters worse, the goal came at the stroke of halftime, arguably the worst time to concede -- especially after controlling so much of the play.

In the second half, a poor pass from Matteo Darmian in a dangerous position sparked the counter-attack that lead to the second goal. But Van Gaal was absolutely right: United maintained control of the game throughout -- albeit at a very van Gaal- like (read: slow) pace. In fact, aside from the occasional burst from Memphis, the Red Devils’ attack looked static, lacking in creativity as well as chances created. This is a worrying theme with United under van Gaal: ponderous possession, players afraid of making mistakes in the final third, then one bad pass sparks a counter that leads to a goal.

Similarly, Manchester City’s defeat to Juventus brought back a worrying theme from last season, too: its soft center. To be fair, Juve’s first goal, scored by Mario Mandzukic, came from a world-class cross delivery from Paul Pogba. However, if you look at the replays, Eliaquim Mangala was caught completely flat-footed as Pogba floated the ball in behind him. Center-backs need to be on their toes as much as possible.

You might be able to excuse the first goal due to the quality of Pogba’s pass, but there was absolutely no need for the second one. Again, to be fair, Alvaro Morata’s shot was unstoppable, but he never should have gotten a shot off in the first place. The play starts with a lofted ball over the defense, which City left-back Alexsandr Kolarov completely loses sight of; it ends up bouncing off his shoulder or something and into the stride of Morata. City center-backs Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi are supposed to take care of the situation from here, except Mangala looks as if he also loses sight of the ball on the deflection, while Otamendi decides to over-commit to the near post, leaving a far-post shot as Morata’s only option, which he hits perfectly.

But again, here’s a game that City controlled and probably should have won, but then a series of errors leads to zero points at home for Manuel Pellegrini’s men. Ask Jose Mourinho or former United boss Sir Alex Ferguson: getting out of the UCL group stage is all about home form. Nevertheless, the Chilean didn’t sound too concerned during his post-game press conference, saying things like City didn’t deserve to lose and “it was a strange game.”

Indeed, Manuel, this is soccer, strange things certainly happen, that’s why minimizing mistakes is so important.

Which brings us to Arsenal’s 2-1 loss at Dinamo Zagreb, the weakest team in Group F.

On the face of it, Arsenal can feel aggrieved for going down to 10 men in Zagreb, as Olivier Giroud probably did not deserve that second yellow card. In his post-game press conference, Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger dwells very heavily on what he describes as a poor performance from the referee. Fair enough, Arsene, but prior to Giroud’s sending off, your team was already 1-0 down, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain failing to track back on Zagreb’s first goal.

Sure, the sending-off soon thereafter made it less likely that the Gunners would come back, but conceding a really sloppy second goal made it even less likely. When your team has ten men, one thing you can’t be on set pieces is unorganized, either offensively or defensively, but the Gunners’ set piece defending in the second half was awful; in fact, they were very lucky to concede just once from Zagreb’s corners. Sadly, poor set piece defending is a theme with Wenger’s team, and so it continued to be on Wednesday. Zonal marking on set pieces doesn’t work, folks. If you need evidence, have another look at the Gunners loss on Wednesday.

To be sure, United, City and Arsenal each have tough groups in the UCL this season, which means an opening day loss is not the end of the world, as their opponents are likely to drop points here and there, too. The more worrying thing for these clubs is the fact that they conceded, for the most part, soft and unnecessary goals.

Worse, some of these goals demonstrated a resurfacing of problems from last season that were supposed to be fixed. In any event, you’ll note that the teams that go furthest in this competition are the ones that concede the least soft and unnecessary goals -- that’s why this kind of start is so troubling.
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