Thomas Tuchel didn’t quite come to the realisation his former club did in this Champions League round, but it might have made Chelsea’s impressive win all the more emphatic.
Back in Camp Nou last week, some of the Paris Saint-Germain players felt that they were affording Barcelona far too much respect. They were allowing them a foot in a tie, at 1-1, that the Catalans wouldn’t have had if PSG stepped up.
Some of Chelsea’s players were left wondering the same after their 1-0 win over Atletico Madrid. Maybe it didn’t need to be so close.
It is now up to Real Madrid to salvage Spain’s reputation, while trying to burnish their own. Atalanta feel this is a rare opportunity, too, which could well lead to a rare clean sweep. But with a 1-0 win in the first leg to take back to the Bernabeu, Los Blancos could ensure La Liga avoids all four clubs going out before the quarter-finals for the first time since 2004-05.
That remains the only time it has happened since the Champions League expanded to take in the top four from top leagues – for now.
It would be quite a contrast from the last decade, that has seen Spanish clubs win six of 10 European Cups and the same number of Europa Leagues. The seven seasons from 2010-11 to 2016-17 even saw them take 50% of the 28 semi-final places, with two every year.
That would not be the only contrast. You only had to look at the benches available to Atletico compared to Chelsea, or the PSG stars streaking through Barcelona’s mix of late-career legends and untried kids.
These are indications of how the pandemic has financially paralysed Spanish football perhaps more than any other major league. The effect has been all the greater because Spanish clubs had only recently been so great.
It left a lot of bloated squads with bloated contracts, in a lean market. Spanish clubs couldn’t buy better signings but also couldn’t move players on, preventing overhauls, and creating these dysfunctional teams that had lingering problems. That still doesn’t explain the extent or speed of the drop-off, though, especially when the country’s command of the Europa League seemed to reflect the strength in depth.
It is difficult not to put it down to aura, and approach.
This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, after all. The great leagues have always risen and fallen, and when they go they tend to go quickly. Serie A very suddenly fell off a cliff after 2007, as they adapted poorly to changing economics and changing tactics. Some of it is similar here.
Spanish technical coaching does remain superb. There is still a succession of talent coming through. But these new players are currently entering a crossroads period for the league, where Spanish tactical coaching appears to have fallen behind.
The pressing principles that saw La Liga become the greatest in the world a decade ago have been evolved and upgraded in Germany, with Spain not making the necessary updates. The dominant approach feels about five years out of date, which is something national team manager Luis Enrique has expressed concerns about for a while. He has been intent on making Spanish football more “vertical”, more intense.
As it is, Barca’s philosophy now looks stagnant, as if the club would greatly benefit from a German overhaul. Zinedine Zidane meanwhile doesn’t really have a philosophy at all, and works around talent, while Diego Simeone is one of increasingly few managers at the top level practicing an outdated reactive approach.
Atletico’s aggression will give them a fighting chance in any game, but also inherently limit those chances. Games become percentage plays.
It isn’t impossible that they overturn this first leg, and prevent a 0% return for Spanish clubs. It might be a bit premature for Chelsea, too. It’s just that Atletico are going to have be at 100%.
A fair question now, however, is how good that best level is.
Atletico are currently the best Spain have to offer, since they’re at the top of the Spanish league, but they looked so limited. They had little to make teams fear them. This is now something hastening the sense of wider decline.
The aura is gone. Whereas opposition sides would previously have played it more cautiously against Spanish teams, they now see they can just go for them – that there are weaknesses to exploit.
It’s also possible this has an exponential effect. Because any one top Liga club is that bit poorer, it means the other Liga clubs aren’t challenged in the same way. The matches are of a lower level.
A top attack really going for them thereby becomes all the more of a shock. This was the lesson of the Barca match, and may well be something Tuchel has learned.
Madrid will have to be mindful of this against Atalanta.
It now almost feels in the balance. Atalanta, after all, play exactly the kind of modern football that is so dangerous; that gets at wealthier teams; that exposes stagnation and big-club lethargy.
It would no longer feel such a surprise if the Serie A side eliminated them.
That is a striking realisation in itself.