When Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano stadium was named as the host venue for this year’s Champions League final, three storylines caught the imagination in Spain.
Would Diego Simeone’s team seize European glory on their home turf? Would Real Madrid saunter across town to retain their continental supremacy? Or would Lionel Messi lead Barcelona to another crown?
The answers… no, no and no.
All three of the Spanish heavyweights squandered first-leg leads to exit the tournament before Saturday’s grand finale, which will instead be contested between Liverpool and Tottenham to ensure a first non-Spanish winner since 2013.
There was a similar story in the Europa League, which had been the near-exclusive domain of La Liga teams too in recent years. This time, it was an all-English affair as Chelsea overcame Arsenal in Baku.
After a decade of almost non-stop success, La Liga’s failure to produce even one finalist this season could be seen as the end of an era.
Should Spanish football be worried that the tide has turned?
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- Klopp: I have never had a better team for a final
Spain’s decade of dominance
Since 2009, Real Madrid have won the Champions League four times, with Barcelona triumphing on three occasions, while Atletico Madrid also reached two finals: a total of nine finalists and seven winners.
Meanwhile, English teams made it to the final only four times, with Chelsea’s victory over Bayern Munich in 2012 the solitary title for a Premier League representative.
Spanish sides also exerted a stranglehold in the Europa League, a competition which provides a good indication of a domestic league’s strength in depth: Sevilla took the trophy three times in a row between 2014 and 2016, while Atletico were also three-time winners, including a victory in the 2012 final over another Spanish team, Athletic Bilbao.
Those results suggest La Liga’s superiority was by no means restricted to the ‘big two’. Not any longer, however.
Perhaps even more telling than Barcelona’s defeat against Liverpool in this season’s Champions League semi-finals was what happened at the same stage in the Europa League: Arsenal thrashed in-form Valencia side 7-3 on aggregate.
On paper, the fourth-placed team in La Liga facing the fifth-best team in England should have been a close contest; on grass, it became a mismatch.
At first sight, there appears to be one obvious explanation for the new-found dominance of English football: money.
As a commercial entity, the Premier League is vastly more successful than all its continental counterparts. That was evidenced by the staggering fact that Huddersfield, despite finishing bottom of the league, earned more television revenue this season than every La Liga club except Real Madrid and Barcelona did during the 2017-18 campaign.
Cold, hard cash obviously gives Premier League teams an advantage – why should Valencia be expected to compete on an even footing with an Arsenal team whose two strikers cost nearly as much as their whole starting XI?
However, that kind of financial disparity has been in place for some time, and it didn’t make that much difference over the past 10 years. Financial might contributes, but it can’t be everything – or Premier League clubs would have hoovered up far more trophies than they actually have.
So if it’s not a mere matter of money, what has changed? What is England now doing right, and what has Spain started to do badly?
The best coaches
Former Cameroon international Lauren, who started and finished his career in Spain either side of eight seasons in England with Arsenal and Portsmouth, believes there is a simple explanation for the Premier League’s upsurge this season.
“The smart thing that Premier League teams did was to sign the best coaches in the world,” says Lauren, who now lives in Seville and works as a pundit for La Liga TV.
“Managers such as Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino have changed the mentality of English football.
“They have created a different Premier League which still has the same intensity and speed but those coaches have also added lots of different ideas. Now we are seeing the results.”
Those “different ideas” can be broadly summarised as the implementation of a possession-based game. In 2015-16 – the last season before Guardiola’s arrival at Manchester City – the average number of passes made in a game by the Premier League’s top six was 481.3. This season, that figure jumped to 599.1.
“English football has absolutely changed since my career,” continues Lauren. “There are lots of new methods, tactics and ideas, even the behaviour of players off the pitch.
“It all comes from Pep’s methods of playing from the back, starting with the goalkeeper, switching play, keeping the ball moving, pressing with intensity.
“That style of play first came to England years ago with Arsene Wenger, but now the new breed of coaches have built on those ideas and changed English football for the better.”
Spain’s foremost television pundit is former Liverpool forward Michael Robinson, who finished his playing career with Osasuna in the late 1980s and has stayed in the country ever since.
Robinson agrees with Lauren’s assessment, noting that it took English football a while to accept the need to embrace overseas influences if they wanted to enjoy success in Europe.
In an extensive Champions League analysis aired this week on TV channel #vamos, Robinson said: “English football has been rich for many years without winning.
“They invested in a lot of very good foreign players, but not in the architects. They’ve now realised they needed a different approach… a different vision of football that wasn’t [traditionally] English.”
Robinson hails Guardiola as the chief inspiration for the new mindset, lauding the City boss for “revolutionising English football”.
Lauren, though, emphasises that this upsurge is not just about passing the ball, and has been particularly impressed by Klopp’s ability to blend the traditional English values of hard work and high tempo with more continental methods.
“I love Klopp,” Lauren enthuses. “What I like about Liverpool is that they can play their style for long periods of the game. The manager has the mentality of quick transitions and pressing high up the pitch, and the way they can do that for 90 minutes is unbelievable.”
Teamwork trumps solo talent
Within Spain, the failure of La Liga teams to land a European trophy this season is largely being addressed more on a club-by-club basis than country-wide, with endless hours of discussion devoted to the Champions League shortcomings of Real, Atletico and Barcelona.
There are, though, some common traits connecting the three clubs, such as an ageing core of players who have been allowed to enter into decline, and an inability to cope with the pace and intensity of vibrant top-class continental opposition such as Liverpool.
Former Real Madrid striker and manager Jorge Valdano – a World Cup winner with Argentina in 1986 – also believes this season’s Champions League has highlighted “the importance of the collective over the individual”, making the point when appearing alongside Robinson on the #vamos broadcast.
“Cristiano Ronaldo couldn’t have done any more than he did, but it wasn’t enough for Juve,” he said. “Lionel Messi couldn’t have done any more, but it wasn’t enough for Barca.
“Liverpool, though, had their big triumph against Barcelona without Roberto Firmino or Mohamed Salah, and Tottenham had theirs without Harry Kane.
“Individuals couldn’t save their teams in this Champions League. Collectives were more relevant than individuals.”
Valdano believes his compatriot Pochettino best embodies that approach, saying: “In the ideal Champions League team, would you have any Tottenham players? For me, no. And that speaks well of Pochettino. Tottenham have been the most flexible team this season.”
And in the same way that English football has successfully integrated Spanish methods through Guardiola and Pochettino, perhaps there is the biggest lesson to be taken now for La Liga teams from the English game: less fixation on superstars like Messi and Ronaldo, and more emphasis on teamwork.
Alfredo Relano, editor of sports daily newspaper AS, noted in a column on Thursday: “I do not lament it [four English finalists]. We owe to England the invention of football, and for our own game, which has been so successful in Europe these years, a reflection will not hurt.
“English football has been renewed with what it needed, but preserved some values, of which perhaps the first is that the club stands above the individuals. Here it is the reverse. This is what we can learn from them.”
It’s been a long time since Spanish football has been forced into a period of self-doubt. For now, though, the English game has been transformed from the pupil to the master.