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Results Must Die

With Tottenham, Chelsea, and Manchester United all dropping out of the Champions League, it looks like the same old British failure in Europe, but the score lines don’t tell the whole story. Dig a little deeper and you’ll see that the Premier League has made some progress.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Juanma Lillo doesn’t care who wins.

“[J]ournalism analyses everything via success—and as a result, journalism always wins,” he told Sid Lowe in 2011. “The analysis, the reports, are carried out via success so they’re always right. No one is looking at the process except through the prism of a result. That’s hugely opportunist. And wrong.”

But isn’t that what journalists are supposed to do?

“That strikes me as normal in a society that is ill.”

And so: England in the Champions League. Heading into the second leg of the Round of 16, four Premier League sides were favored to advance to the quarterfinals. Then Tottenham blew a 1-0 lead and lost 2-1 at home to Juventus last week, while Manchester United dropped out after an identical result against Sevilla on Tuesday. Chelsea’s loss to Barcelona on Wednesday wasn’t necessarily a surprise—from any angle—but their 3-0 defeat at the Camp Nou meant that Liverpool, who eased past FC Porto, and Manchester City, who had no issues with FC Basel, were the only Premier League teams left standing.

It marks the seventh straight year that no more than two English teams advanced past the Round of the 16—a period of waning influence that was preceded by seven glorious years that produced six quarterfinalists, six semifinalists, five finalists, and two European champions.

The Premier League still can’t hang with its continental counterparts—at least, that’s what the sickness says.

Lillo was the youngest manager in La Liga history, he’s the supposed inventor of the 4-2-3-1 formation that has defined modern tactical thought, and perhaps most importantly, Pep Guardiola considers him to be his greatest influence alongside Johan Cruyff, who just so happens to be the symbolic forefather of the sport as we know it today. Lillo helped Guardiola develop the philosophies that have since conquered La Liga, the Bundesliga, and finally the Premier League, and he’s right about results.

All the score line tells you is what the score was. In Chelsea’s second-leg match against Barcelona, the two teams combined to attempt 1,016 passes, 76 tackles, 50 dribbles … and only 22 shots. Just 10 of the shots made it toward the goal, and only three of them went in. In Monday’s game between the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs, the teams took 207 combined field goal and free throw attempts, while pulling in only 86 rebounds, grabbing 11 steals, and blocking six shots. Scoring is the defining act in a basketball game, but it’s a fringe event in soccer.

Getting too worked up over a single result, then, is like fast-forwarding to the last five minutes of Vertigo and deciding the plot didn’t hold water. Except, that’s what the Champions League requires from anyone who’s playing, managing, or watching. Over a 38-game domestic season, the teams that take the most shots, concede the fewest attempts, and control space in the opposition’s final third tend to come out on top—even if Barcelona skids into a scoreless draw against Getafe here, and Bayern Munich stumbles into a loss against Hoffenheim there. Yet the 2018 Champions League winner will have played only 13 games in the tournament. The same teams seem to play deep into the competition every year, as all but four of the past 20 semifinal spots have been occupied by either Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, Bayern Munich, or Juventus. But whoever lifts the trophy in Kiev this May will likely have done so in no small part due to plenty of things—incorrect refereeing decisions, a deflection off a defender, an unfortunately timed injury, a goalkeeping mistake—they have no control over.

Tottenham won the Group of Death—beating Borussia Dortmund twice and Real Madrid once, in the process—and were rewarded with a Round of 16 matchup with last year’s runner-up and the six-time defending Italian Champions. For the majority of the 180 minutes, Mauricio Pochettino’s side pinned Juventus back into their own half and created most of the chances (35 shots to 17), but a flurry of quick goals in the first leg followed by another feverish five-minute stretch in the second half of the second leg was enough for Juventus to squeak by. Max Allegri deserves credit for a handful of tactical tweaks that briefly opened up the game for his side, but if one more Tottenham attempt ends up in the net, none of it matters. Forget the final score: Tottenham went toe-to-toe against one of the true powers of Europe.

The same can’t be said for Chelsea, who drew Barcelona at home but capitulated within minutes at the Camp Nou. Somewhat surprisingly, Chelsea held Lionel Messi and Co. at arm’s length in the first leg and outshot their opponents in the second leg. There’s a case for a moral victory—Messi is inevitable, and we fought pretty hard against the dying of the light!—but that the defending Premier League champs came into this matchup as massive underdogs certainly doesn’t suggest that England’s influence in Europe has grown by much.

Neither does Manchester United’s loss to Sevilla, who have already fired a manager this season and sit in fifth place in La Liga despite sporting a minus-6 goal differential. It was a deserved defeat: United barely tried to attack in the first leg, and they had no control over the second. Sevilla outshot them 46 to 23 over the two matches—the kind of dominance usually reserved for a match between a title contender and a mid-table side. “The general opinion of this team that was once respectable and no longer is has plummeted,” wrote Marca’s Roberto Palomar of United. “It’s an unattractive, fearful team, rich in resources but lamentable in its play.”

Sevilla don’t even register in Deloitte’s Football Money League list of the 30 wealthiest teams in the world, while United came in at no. 1 for the second year running. The Premier League has 14 teams in the top 30, seven in the top 15, and five in the top 10—but just two teams in the final eight of the Champions League. It looks like another systemic failure, misallocation of resources, and etc. But strip everything else away, and money won almost every Round of 16 matchup.

Wages will lead to winning—except for PSG and Manchester United. At least in recent years, that’s nothing new. What is new: the fourth-place team in the Premier League notching a 5-0 victory in the Round of 16, the third-place team playing a 50-50 game with the Italian champs, and the first-place team completing 978 passes in a single game. “Fulfilment comes from the process,” Lillo said. “You debate the game not the results. Results are not debatable, they are.” Until Liverpool and City play in the quarters, there’s no argument that the results have gotten better. But there’s finally been progress in the process this season—even if the past five years make it hard to see.