Three of the UCL semi-finalists turned in defensive showings last week, while Chelsea repeated the trick in their win versus Liverpool. Does this signal a new birth of pragmatism?
By Kris Voakes | International Football Correspondent
When Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona clinched a second Champions League win in three seasons with an exhibition of passing football against Manchester United in 2011, fans and pundits far and wide took the opportunity to speculate whether the Blaugrana were the greatest club team of all time.
Wind forward three years and Chelsea are aiming to emulate the feat. Except, the Blues are hoping to do so with a brand of functional, pragmatic football that relies heavily on defence. It is not the type of play that will have people rushing to proclaim Jose Mourinho’s side to be the best team ever.
In truth, they are not the only club to be relying on such a style right now. Chelsea’s semi-final first leg fixture against Atletico Madrid was notable for both sides’ ambivalence to possession. Two teams intent on winning with counter-attacking football ended up cancelling each other out completely.
We should all have expected as much, though. Atletico have reached the top of La Liga at this late stage of the season thanks largely to an excellent counter-attacking game. Captain Gabi even joked to reporters before the first leg that “If Chelsea give us the ball, we’ll instantly give it back to them.”
When Real Madrid beat Bayern Munich 24 hours later, they did so despite having ‘enjoyed’ only 28 per cent of possession. Guardiola’s attempts to turn Bayern into his old Barca, with sparkling football their modus operandi, had met a defensive obstacle they just could not negotiate.
Bayern’s players later spoke as though they had won 5-0. Philipp Lahm proclaimed: “I don’t remember a Bayern side coming here and dominating like that.” Arjen Robben added: “I have to give a big compliment to the team. We played at the Bernabeu and we were so in control.”
Yet it was Madrid who had the three best chances of the game, and took one of them. It is Madrid who are within 90 goalless minutes of the Champions League final. And it is Madrid who proved to be excellent proponents of the new fine art.
Chelsea drew great consternation once more on Sunday. Their 2-0 victory at Liverpool moved them right back into the Premier League title race, but the way in which it was achieved was again used as a stick with which to beat them.
While Mourinho revelled in what he called a “beautiful victory”, opposite number Brendan Rodgers made the assessment that Chelsea had “parked two buses, rather than one.” He added: “From the first minute they had 10 men behind the ball. We were the team trying to win but we just couldn’t make the brealthrough.”
It seemed an unusual reaction to claim that Liverpool were the only team trying to win a game when Chelsea had picked up the three points. The Blues had had their smallest share of possession in any Premier League game all season, but with that 27% they carried out their game plan to perfection.
Liverpool had executed 353 successful passes in Chelsea’s half, whereas their visitors had only attempted 226 in total during the whole game. But what did that matter? Mourinho’s plan had not been to win more of the ball, rather to win the game.
He knew that the league leaders had scored a large number of goals through transition plays this term, and sought to narrow their opportunities to do so again. He realised that Liverpool’s aerial presence in open play is negligible and forced them into delivering from wider positions. What coach wouldn’t want to neuter an opponent’s threat?
And with three-quarters of the Champions League semi-finalists set to back themselves to deliver further such structured and opportunistic tactics this week, football across Europe is currently going through one of its most pragmatic phases in decades.
In 2011, attacking football was king. But it 2014, defences are on top.
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