By Sona Walla – April 30th 2014
In our current ultra-rapid world where it seems all must be explained instantly and within the nanosecond, there is a troubling tendency to revert to sensationalism when searching for truth. But sensationalism and simplistic answers hardly help one understand the complexities and contradictions that tend to decide the outcome of a football match. Over time, I have come to find that many of the answers often reside in the game’s age-old truths.
Last year, when Bayern Munich beat a troubled Barcelona diminished by key man Lionel Messi’s injury in the Champions League semi-final, the initial dagger blows came via set plays concluded by headers. How the physically bigger Germans who eventually lifted the trophy were hailed then for their aerial prowess and quickly labeled the slayers of Tiki Taka possession football as many fans searched to embrace the next craze. Little was said about the fact that Bayern was the only Champions League team to nearly match Barcelona in possession percentage. The Germans not only forced the Catalans to share the ball but most importantly to also defend as their attacking wingers Robben and Ribery constantly probed and provoked on the dribble, always looking to penetrate while in possession. This is how they earned the critical set plays in the opponent’s half in the first place.
Carlo Ancelotti has quietly reshaped a Real Madrid squad that was left in concerning disarray in the wake of Jose Mourinho’s kamikaze-coaching whirlwind last year. When left-footed sprinter/winger Gareth Bale was bought, instead of pushing Di Maria out of the team, Ancelotti bravely opted to eliminate the use of a second defensive midfielder – a fixture in Mourinho’s defensive-minded lineup – and re-positioned the speedy Argentine dribbler as a second attacking midfielder to partner with team-brain Luca Modric. A stroke of genius by Carlo Ancelotti and his Real Madrid deployed in a 4-3-3 formation engaged this years’s Champion League competition with better balance, increased creativity, stronger possession and much more explosiveness with Di Maria bombing forward out of midfield to initiate swift counter-attacks for the deadly Ronaldo-Benzema-Bale trio to devour. Bayern’s undoing in the first leg of the semi-final came from a trademark blistering Real raid.
In this second leg however, Real quickly killed the match and the German beast with two set plays ironically concluded by headers. So what happened to the Germans’ aerial prowess? Did they really suddenly forget how to head the ball within a year? That would be the immediate, sensational, simplistic answer and I have already heard bandied around that Bayern just cannot defend. But a studied look at their performance this year will confirm that the boys form Munich are not as bad as many will now suddenly make them out to be and maybe were not as great as they were made out to be last year. The fact is that they too have suffered at the hand of one of football’s oldest truths:
Set plays are one of the game’s great equalizers. The superior and inferior team both have a chance to score and seize control of a match with them.
The British teams are well versed in this truth. They, more than most, believe that a ball in flight always has a certain level of unpredictability and in a penalty area full of jumping and grappling players, it becomes a real goal scoring opportunity. They are experts at capitalizing on them and do so with commendable regularity, problem is this truth does not come to fruition often enough to base one’s whole game plan on it. However, it did in this second leg for Real Madrid to Bayern Munich’s demise. But of course there was much more to the outcome of that dynamic game than just set plays.
First, Carlo Ancelloti must be given ample credit for recognizing the natural characteristics and talents of his player pool and for building an attack-minded Real Madrid that exploits its inherent strength of vertical speed. A team must attack to earn corner-kicks and free-kicks and Real did just that and at lightning pace. With the insurance of a 1-0 first leg lead, Ancelloti’s men forced Bayern to defend much more and imposed an open game early on. The set plays were merely rewards of the attacks they constantly mounted. Gone was the control over match tempo that Bayern enjoyed in the first leg. Real Madrid was also very disciplined tactically, transitioning rapidly to metamorphose into a 4-4-2 defensive formation reminiscent of Italian master Arrigo Sacchi. Finally, Ancelloti’s players worked remarkably well together to deny Bayern’s main penetration threat, inverted wingers Ribery and Robben, any sight of the inside path to goal.
Conversely, Bayern coach Pep Guardiola seems to have gotten his tactics wrong. After a first leg where his team had close to 80% possession but lacked the creativity to capitalize on it, he strangely still failed to realize that with his Spanish/Brazilian play-maker Thiago Alcantara out injured, the non-inclusion of the creative Mario Gotze in the lineup would be a fatal mistake. Adding the industrious Thomas Muller to the pragmatic mix of Kroos, Schweinsteiger and Mandzukic was hardly the solution and it left his midfield lacking in imagination and unpredictability. Football can be a cruel game, and the result was a 4-0 thrashing not dissimilar to the one Bayern handed to Barcelona at this very stage last year.
So, I am not partisan to the sensational declarations of the sudden death of “possession-first” football but the recent struggles of Barcelona and the demolition of Guardiola’s Bayern by a slick counter-attacking Real Madrid do suggest the that trend of reactive football is once again on the rise. But it must be said that the art of the counter-attack is hardly a new phenomenon in football. I do however know that success inevitably breeds enemies and in high level football, enemies who busy themselves to study how to blunt your strengths and capitalize on your weaknesses. It is a key source of the beautiful cyclical nature of our game. And that is another of football’s old truths, for we already know that at the end of this Champion League campaign, the fact no team has ever lifted the trophy in two consecutive years will remain unchanged.