As Champions League and Europa League return Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City are Europe’s best teams

Written by on April 8, 2024

European football is back and with it comes a chance for the best of the continental mainland to test themselves against by far and away the three best sides in the global game right now: Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool. Across the Champions League and the Europa League (catch coverage of both competitions across CBS, Paramount+, CBS Sports Network and CBS Sports Golazo Network).

And yes, I know I’m a walking cliche here, the English writer who is certain the football universe starts at St. James’ Park and ends at St. Mary’s, whose conviction is that no player can be world class if he hasn’t done it in the Prem. Play the ball not the man though, and what is the convincing case for any other club to be on the level of England’s top three?

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Spain’s top two are having an off year

The most convincing case might be for Real Madrid. Certainly, as early as next season, they might have a case to be Europe’s leading power, particularly if, as expected, they add Kylian Mbappe and Alphonso Davies to a squad set fair for the next decade or more. Even this year, at full strength, Carlo Ancelotti’s side might be more of a match for City than they were last season. But they are nowhere near full strength. Madrid will travel to the Etihad Stadium without one of the best goalkeepers and center backs in the world available to them. There simply are no high-grade alternatives in their squad.

In Europe and at home, Barcelona have been about at Madrid’s underlying level even if they don’t have the points to show for it, but they lack scoring punch in attack as Robert Lewandowski drops back from his best striker in the world levels. Atletico Madrid might have La Liga’s outstanding forward in Antoine Griezmann, but they may be reliant on his individual talent at one end and Jan Oblak’s at the other if they are to make a run to the Champions League final. Both those players could of course deliver, but Diego Simeone’s is hardly a squad with the volume of match winners of England’s big three.

Best of Europe’s rest fall short

Of the other league leaders across Europe’s top divisions, there was a case to be made for Inter before their exit. Simone Inzaghi’s side are in possession of the best defensive record, the best goal difference and a top three attack led by a genuine superstar in Lautaro Martinez. The Nerrazzuri had the better of their round of 16 tie against Atletico Madrid but not by such a margin that they could feel hard done by in crashing out of Europe. Their front-footed midfield might blow away the competition in Serie A but would Hakan Calhanoglu, Nicolo Barella and Henrikh Mkhitaryan be found out by the best of the best in the Champions League, the sort of opponent they have only faced in the 2022 round of 16 and 2023 final?

Of the other league leaders, Paris Saint-Germain face an improving Barcelona in their familiar spring bind. The Ligue 1 title was won months ago and all the focus is on transfer business. While they have Kylian Mbappe they have a chance of upsetting better opponents, but they won’t have him for much longer. Bayer Leverkusen, unbeaten in 40 games, have been sensational and great teams tend to apply the sort of pressure that leads to a decent number of late winners. Pulling so many rabbits out of hat against fairly ordinary opponents — Qarabag and Heidenheim the most recent examples — does not feel like a particularly repeatable approach however.

The quiet case for Bayern Munich

In pure data terms there is a case to be made for Bayern Munich as one of Europe’s top teams. They are the leading scorers with 80 goals in 28 Bundesliga games and an average of 2.7 expected goals (xG) per game. Arsenal, Bayer Leverkusen and Inter all have xG difference of 1.3. Thomas Tuchel’s men could blow the competition away domestically if they weren’t so intent on self sabotage, but those gaudy numbers have not really translated to a Champions League campaign where they have made a record of six wins, a draw and a defeat look fairly underwhelming. The numbers might be there in Germany, but the results aren’t and in Europe not even the numbers are there.

The case for Premier League dominance

The delta between Bayern’s domestic and European performances rather makes the case for English exceptionalism. There simply is not the strength in depth in the other four leagues that City, Arsenal and Liverpool have to deal with. Good teams, certainly, but even Serie A does not go as deep as the Premier League. Take last weekend’s games. On Saturday Pep Guardiola pitted wits with a Europa League-winning manager, later that day Mikel Arteta’s side faced off against a Brighton team led by a coach who might well be in the Bayern Munich, Barcelona or Liverpool dugout next season. Your mileage may vary on the managerial qualities of Erik ten Hag (a Champions League semi-finalist with Ajax) but few clubs in Europe have quite the talent available at Manchester United, no matter how questionably it is deployed.

The Premier League is the competition where West Ham can start Brazil’s number 10, a billion-plus on the best young players in the world barely gets Chelsea into the top half and relegation threatened Nottingham Forest, whose right back choices include the man who scored the winning penalty in the World Cup final, a one-time star of Liverpool’s academy and a two-time champion of Africa. The best players, coaches, executives and sport scientists gravitate to the Premier League, a competition where on the field only relatively fine margins have separated the fourth and fifth best teams from 13th and 14th. 

Arsenal, Manchester City, and Liverpool rise above

Three teams have unmoored themselves from the masses. Liverpool may not be in the Champions League following a season where they were racked by injuries in key positions, if they were they would surely rank among its favorites. This year’s iteration are altogether more able to weather selection storms, most notably the absence of Alisson Becker and Trent Alexander-Arnold for 10 games. Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Manchester United might have led to questions over the profligacy of Jurgen Klopp’s side, but, as the only club in Europe’s top five leagues to average over 20 shots per game, they certainly give themselves plenty of leeway when it comes to chance creation. At full strength there is no attack quite as devastating as Luis Diaz, Diogo Jota, Darwin Nunez and Mohamed Salah, all four rank in the top 50 across Europe’s top five leagues in terms of non-penalty xG and xG assisted per 90.

Manchester City remain Manchester City, perhaps a faintly diminished version of last year’s side, a slowly fading institutional memory of what this attack can be when it isn’t funnelling every chance to Erling Haaland. Then again, they have the best pure scorer in the game and the perfect cast of creators behind him, and maybe the best player in the world, period, in Rodri. Their defense is pretty tidy too. In the Champions League they have proven themselves to be streets ahead of the field. PSG have the competition’s second best xG difference, an encouraging 8.4 from eight games. City’s? 16.7.

Even when their path to the final takes them through Madrid and one of Bayern or Arsenal, City remain heavy favorites to lift the trophy at Wembley in June. Still, there is a case to be made that they might not even be the best side in England. 

Certainly Arsenal are tracking to do something no side has done since Guardiola’s first title win in England back in 2017-18, better City’s xG difference. They might well beat their actual goal difference too, the Premier League leaders combining the most potent attack with a defense that looks to have opponents beaten in the tunnel like the Invincibles did. Should they need to hold on to a first leg lead at the Allianz Arena, they have the mid block defense to do that. 

This season Arteta looks to have picked up the greatest habit of his former boss, fielding teams that can smush decent opposition playing well. There were no obvious flaws in the way that Brighton set about their task at the Amex on Saturday, indeed there were some quite dangerous moments midway through the first half. Arsenal, too, were hardly at the highest levels they’ve displayed in their run of nine wins and a draw in the Premier League. Still they ended up resounding 3-0 winners. It is often said that the best teams win when they’re playing badly. That may be true but the very, very best win because their bad days aren’t actually that bad.

Of course the superiority of the three English teams could count for nought in the weeks ahead. Klopp might use too many second strings for a competition that has to be a rung or two below the Premier League on his list of priorities. If European experience matters then Bayern have an awful lot more of it than Arsenal. Ancelotti has won Champions Leagues in recent memory because opponents have been crushed under the unbearable weight of not being Real Madrid. Even if that happens, however, the gold standard of European football will still be the Premier League triumvirate. It will take quite a few strides forward for any other clubs to match it next year. 

The post As Champions League and Europa League return Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City are Europe’s best teams first appeared on CBS Sports.

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