Manchester United
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Premier League's Champions League problems due to unique circumstances

For such a historic step, it was hardly a game for the ages. Manchester City reached the Champions League quarterfinals for the first time in their history, but the cagy 0-0 draw against Dynamo Kiev didn't suggest they can go any further in the near future.

Lifting the trophy, of course, is what this is really about. It is also why City's qualification doesn't exactly diminish the wider fears about England's poor recent performance in the Champions League.

Manuel Pellegrini admitted after the game that "we didn't take any risks," but the reality is that a side as strong as City shouldn't need to be so cautious against a Ukrainian side so moderate. A competition as wealthy as the Premier League, meanwhile, should not need to be so dependent on an easy draw like that to have a single quarterfinalist.

In that regard, City may have broke new ground for the club, but a troubling trend is still persisting for England. Pellegrini's side are just the fourth English outfit to reach the Champions League last eight in the past five years. It has naturally led to a lot of discussion over whether the Premier League is using its profound wealth properly, or -- worse still -- whether all that money is dumbing down the competition, meaning the clubs don't have the same desire to innovate. That may be one reason why they are tactically out-thought in Europe.

Some within the Premier League think differently. One leading club director confided to ESPN FC that there is a feeling among the top sides that the "competitive intensity" saps a team's energy for European competition in midweek.

That view does seem a little convenient and facile, however, especially because England's failures date back to before exhaustive Liga title races in which Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid had to relentlessly match each other's results. Instead, it is the very competitive intensity of the Premier League this season that could actually offer a different explanation.

David Silva is on target in Manchester City's win at Dynamo Kiev in the round of 16.

It is not just like the top clubs are struggling in Europe, after all. They also are having unprecedented bad seasons in the league as well, and that is not just because of the impressive rise of Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur.

What's more, all of those bad seasons look like they are down to very different individual reasons, rather than a single unifying factor. It is possible this is all just coincidence rather than the consequence of a grand collective shift.

Arsenal, after all, are just the modern Arsenal. They truly are a unique case, and have been as stagnant in the Premier League now as they have been in the Champions League, with the leadership of the club too complacent about performance.

Manager Arsene Wenger might blame the fact they had yet again drawn a side as sensational as Barcelona, but even that pattern is partially down to their inability to even pull off occasional upsets, or finish above second in the group. They always just perform to par, as they do in the league. That is not reflective of the Premier League. It is reflective of the idiosyncrasies of Arsenal, and their struggle to change anything about themselves.

Chelsea are the opposite. They have been in a state of almost perpetual change since Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003. That was meant to end with Jose Mourinho's return in 2013 but those plans were ripped up in December.

The natural expectation was that Mourinho's young squad would evolve to be a top-level European side having won the league, only to suffer a historically bad collapse, raising questions about the Portuguese's entire management style. Their season was abnormal. Either way, it should not be forgotten that they are still England's best-performing Champions League team of the past half-decade, and the only side to reach the semifinals in that time (winning it in 2012).

Chelsea beat Bayern Munich in the 2012 Champions League final.

Manchester United are also in a unique -- and historic -- situation of their own. They are still recovering from the retirement of one of the greatest managers ever in Sir Alex Ferguson. That has thrown up a series of problems but it does seem clear now that they also made errors with both managerial decisions since then. David Moyes was a disaster, and there is debate over whether Louis van Gaal could be worse, especially because he failed to lead United through from a favourable group stage draw.

Had they appointed one of Europe's genuine elite coaches in 2013 when Sir Alex stepped down then they might have enjoyed drastically different performance in Europe too.

Of course, that is exactly what City have done in replacing Pellegrini with Pep Guardiola.

Whatever the debate about the Premier League's problems, it is abundantly clear that their top clubs would still be nowhere near the level of Barcelona or Bayern Munich.

City have attempted to address that, though, by specifically seeking to learn from those clubs. They have sought to copy their structure and approaches, and appoint the admired manager who has been in charge of both.

A defeat at Dortmund would further complicate the uneasy relationship between Pep Guardiola and the higher-ups at Bayern Munich.
Pep Guardiola's move to Manchester City is the completion of a project to mirror Barca.

Former Barca administrators Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano were already at the Etihad as director of football and CEO respectively even before it was announced Guardiola would swap Munich for Manchester in July. 

Unlike the other three English Champions League clubs, City have set out a clear path to take themselves up to the level of the top super clubs.

If they achieve that, the Premier League suddenly won't be all that different to the Bundesliga or La Liga. That, of course, remains to be seen.

One thing is clear right now, though. All of the Premier League's wealthiest clubs are underperforming for reasons far greater than the top European sides being better.


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