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Worst Champions League Semi-Final Ever

When you think of the Champions League what do you imagine? If you’re like me, you think of passionate matches well fought with players who do things with the ball that no one has ever seen before. Or maybe you’re a football hipster and you like to see a tactical battle between two great football minds on opposite ends of the spectrum, waging the never-ending war between the light and dark aspects of the game. Or maybe you just tune in for even a single moment of brilliance, like Thierry Henry’s goal at the Bernabeu, a mazy run where he ditches half of the opposition, leaving them in the dirt as he drives straight at the heart of the defense and scores one of the biggest goals of his career. The Champions League is supposed to be magical like that.

The Man City, Real Madrid tie had none of that. The most interesting moment over the 180 minutes was a toss up between wondering whether Zidane would split his pants and what exactly was going on with Sergio Ramos’ awful haircut.

The stage was set, lavishly set. These are two of the wealthiest clubs in world football. Real Madrid paid £85m for Gareth Bale alone and on top of him, they have the world’s orangest footballer, Cristiano Ronaldo — holder of multiple records and personal accolades, man who has “scored more Champions League goals than Arsenal”, and whose perfect little chicklet teeth peek out from his awful rat-face whenever he smiles. I’m not a fan.

And on the other side, Man City: they have the world’s best striker in Kun Aguero; one of the world’s best creative midfielders in Kevin de Bruyne; and not to be sold short in the “grossly overpaid for British footballers” sweepstakes Man City stumped up £49m for 12th man Raheem Sterling.

Let’s just get the details of the game out of the way now. It was dull. Worse than dull, it was tedious. Man City did a lot of tackles. They didn’t make a lot, they did a lot. Almost 90 tackles attempted in the two legs and 48 times they were dribbled. Man City is the most dribbled team in the Premier League and they have continued that ignominious trend here in the Champions League.

City’s problem is that they have one of the worst defensive midfielders in the game: Fernandinho. Over the two legs he was dribbled 9 times. But even worse than their central midfield pairing, which has more holes than Swiss Cheese, they try to press from the top and their forwards are simply awful tacklers. De Bruyne attempted 8 tackles in the two legs and was dribbled 8 times. These weren’t just tackles in high positions either, this was all over the pitch. When de Bruyne goes for a tackle you can rest assured that he’s going to fail. Navas was slightly better, he made 3 of the 10 tackles he attempted in both games.

Man City are one of the worst tackling teams I’ve ever seen. I don’t mean in the vicious way, I mean in the disorganized way that teams get when their manager doesn’t seem to have a plan for defense and the result is a team constantly pulled out of shape and attempting to recover with poor tackles. Pundits like to talk about the importance of Vincent Kompany at Man City and there is a good reason for that: he’s their best tackler at 90%. He saves the team as they run around tackling like Bambi on ice skates.

But defensive woes would be forgiven if Man City had an attacking plan. Did they have a plan? 180 minutes, nine total shots, two shots on target, and the leading passer is fullback Gael Clichy? Someone said to me that maybe their plan was to get a late away goal and steal the game on the away goals rule. Maybe that was the plan? Because they did create two shots in the last 10 minutes of the second leg, both were shots from outside the 18 yard box and one of them was lucky to be considered a shot and not an errant free kick.

On the other side of the pitch you might imagine a Real Madrid team licking its chops to play against a Man City side this awful. But Zidane is not a real manager, folks. At least not on the evidence of the performances so far. His plan in this tie was to turn Real Madrid into a threat from corners. Corners.

Over the two legs, Real Madrid were the more attacking of the two teams and created 11 chances right in front of goal. Seven of those eleven were from corners. They only had 11 corners over the 180 minutes and created 7 shots off those 11 corners, which is a great percentage and shows that it’s something they have been working on in practice but it’s not high percentage football. Real Madrid’s game plan seemed to be to march the ball down the pitch, kick it off a Man City player, win a corner, and then get set for their best chance of the game. It’s not a surprise that they scored 0 goals over the two legs and only progressed thanks to an own goal — which was deflected in off a failed tackle/block.

Notice that I haven’t even complained about having to watch Cristiano Ronaldo flail his arms in disgust for 90 minutes when he isn’t spoon fed the perfect ball every 10 seconds. Or watching as Gareth Bale dribbles into a blind corner time and again — against the worst tackling team ever assembled, Bale only completed 10/22 attempted dribbles and lost possession more than any other Real Madrid player (11 times over 180 minutes). Those things are to be expected. Those are givens.

What isn’t a given is that two of the most well endowed teams in all of sport would put together such a limp performance. Perhaps I’m being harsh. Perhaps the semi-final between Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid was such a tense tactical battle with so many personal moments of brilliance that my expectation levels were artificially elevated. But if Real Madrid think they are going to win the Champions League with another performance like the ones they just put in, I expect Atletico Madrid to win the title easily.



Pep gets the better of Simeone and still loses

“Over the 180 minutes we showed the work of three years.” – Diego Simeone after his side beat Bayern Munich

There is a misconception that Atletico Madrid’s style of football is easy. That all they do is “park the bus” and that they play anti-football. This line of reasoning goes so far as to say that if they should win the Champions League they will be the least worthy winners since Chelsea in 2012.

But what Simeone has done with Atletico isn’t just something a caretaker manager, like Roberto di Matteo, could do. You couldn’t take Simeone and throw him into a team like Arsenal and expect that they would suddenly play Simeone style football overnight. His style of defending requires work, teamwork, coordination, knowing when to press, how to press as a unit, when to sit back, how to create false spaces to lure the opposition into so that he can close the bag on them, win the ball back and then hit the opposition on the counter. And those counter attacks aren’t simply playing long balls into space either.

Like it or not, Simeone’s Atletico are not just playing 15th century football. It’s not just Allardycian destruction. It’s more than just Mourinho’s bus parking. This is a much more orchestrated style of football and as he says, it takes years to perfect.

Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich is a much different beast. For Pep, the architect, football is about building. People often mistake this for “passing sideways” but Pep’s Bayern patiently build up play in order to both create chances for his team and in order to limit vulnerability in case of the counter attack. His team’s pass with purpose, moving the ball into positions that allows them to move bodies into positions that will best protect the team against the inevitable counter.

In the attack phase what Pep saw in this match was an opportunity to get the ball into the channels and switch play to a runner in the opposite channel. This happened both from a direct diagonal pass and from flicked on diagonal passes.

Bayern created the first big chance of the game when Douglas Costa floated in a ball for Thomas Muller. Muller had made a lovely little run across the back line of Atleti and when the ball fell to his feet, he cushioned nicely for Lewandowski. But Atletico’s keeper, Jan Oblak, was keen to the play and smothered Lewa’s shot from point blank range.

Bayern’s plan was working and Atletico were rocking. Bayern took 12 shots in the first 30 minutes, with 5 of those shots directly in front of goal or in the six yard box. For Pep, the build up play was working, and for Simeone his orchestrated defense was failing.

Oblak was called upon a few minutes later when Franck Ribery’s long-range bomb dipped and wobbled in front of him. Oblak palmed the ball down and Lewandowski was there again to pick up the pieces and once again Oblak did enough to put Lewa off his shot.

But it took a bit of luck for Bayern to get their first goal. A clear foul outside the box by Gimenez gifted a free kick in a dangerous position. Atleti set the wall but Bayern infiltrated the wall and created enough space to cause confusion. When Xabi Alonso shot the ball it went through Gimenez’ legs and Oblak was left stumbling.

A minute later Gimenez triple-compounded his error by blocking Javi Martinez on a corner kick and conceding a penalty. Up stepped Muller to take the penalty and this should have been the moment that won Bayern the match, but Muller looked indecisive and stuttered in the run up before kicking the ball right at the keeper.

The cameras cut to Pep. His cold brown eyes told the story. He knew that was the moment that changed the game. Bayern needed that goal to force Atletico out of their shell.

The second half started the same as the first with Bayern trying to build slowly through their 15 pass plan. But as happens with plans and people, and just like with Atletico and Gimenez, a Bayern player makes a mistake and opens space for a simple Atletico counter attack:

Here, Boateng tries to make a long entry pass and then tries to win the ball back which gifts Atleti a goal. Pep’s plan is to move the ball slowly so as not to have a huge hole in the middle of the park which creates a vulnerability in the counter. Once Boateng is out of position, Griezmann reacts quickest, passing the ball and making a simple run. Torres rewards the Frenchman and he’s through on goal thanks to Alaba trying to play offside. It may look like Alaba is to blame and some may wonder where the DM is in this play but it’s a structural failure with the whole team which was started by Boateng’s impatient pass.

Bayern didn’t quit and scored a second goal, which set up the grand-stand finish. The second was created from Bayern playing basic attacking football. A cross from wide into a midfield runner (Vidal) who probably could have shot but nodded down for Lewandowski to finish instead. For all the patient build up play and excellent tactical trickery Pep used to pull Atletico out of shape, it was an old-fashioned cross that scored the second.

But Atletico still had the tie in hand and Bayern needed a third, thanks to the away goal rule. And as Bayern played ever more on the front foot to get a third goal, the game started to open up and Atletico hit with just a quick one-two. This time it was through Torres and his dribble past Lahm. Martinez slid in to foul and thought he had taken the forward down outside the box but the referee signaled for a penalty.

With Griezmann off the pitch Torres stepped up and hit a weak penalty. Neuer saved easily.

It didn’t matter anyway. At full time, Atletico dug deep and gutted out the win. Oblak denied one final shot, a deflected long-range effort that he saw at the last possible second.

As organized as Atletico were, I felt that Pep Guardiola actually got the better of the two in this match. His team opened Atletico up time and again by pulling them out of shape and exploiting switches. In fact, that match is a blueprint of how Man City will play against teams who try to play counter attacking football next season. In the end it wasn’t the tactic that failed but rather the penalty miss combined with Boateng’s impatience which undid all of the work Pep and Bayern did to get to this stage.



Leicester 2-5 Arsenal: how Leicester outfoxed everyone and won the League

“I told them, if you keep a clean sheet, I’ll buy pizza for everybody. I think they’re waiting for me to offer a hot dog too.”

After their first loss of the season, matchday 7 – Arsenal 5-2 at home, Leicester City boss Claudio Ranieri mentioned in passing that Leicester needed to worry more about their transitions. Given their well known propensity for swift counter attacks through Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez one might be tempted to think that Ranieri meant Leicester’s offensive transitions but he was talking about defense.

Arsenal had just put on a masterclass in counter attacking football against the team which was schooling the rest of the league in that very tactic. The first Arsenal goal is a four pass wonder: Leicester is pressing high, Ozil passes out of defense to Alexis, Alexis hits Cazorla in the midfield, and Cazorla plays a lovely through ball to Walcott for the goal.

The other goals weren’t classic counter attacks but happened instead when the game was flowing. Leicester’s defense looked stretched for most of the game as the speed at which this match was played simply never let them get a solid formation. As a result, Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez was able to pick them apart with brilliant movement in behind and in spaces they had vacated.

The first goal of Sanchez’ hat trick was a simple tap in. With the defense worried about Bellerin’s lung-bursting run down the right and Theo Walcott’s position in the middle, they left Sanchez unmarked at the far post. When Bellerin’s cross came in, Morgan got a toe on it before Theo, but the ball bobbled to Alexis who simply placed the ball in the back of the net.

For his second, Alexis used his head. Seeing that the Leicester City defense was disorganized and ball watching, Alexis dropped it off to Özil at the top of the box and then immediately made a run into the smallest of spaces. Özil chipped over and Alexis headed in, despite being the second smallest player on the pitch.

For his third, and Arsenal’s fourth, Alexis collected the ball on a throw-in and with Leicester looking like they had given up, scored a long range shot.

Then two things happened. Vardy scored a late goal and the crowd at King Power erupted. The score was 4-2 to the Arsenal but the home supporters gave everything to Leicester to get back into the match. Leicester pushed to get a third but that only left space in behind for Nacho Monreal who came bombing down the left and spoon fed the ball to Giroud for the fifth.

Leicester’s players were down after the match, it was their first loss of the season and such a bad one that many wrote them off as serious contenders for even cracking into the top four, much less the unthinkable that they would win a League title.

But the signs were there that this could be a good team. Leicester’s attack was incredible. In the first 9 matches of the season, Leicester scored 19 goals and were the fastest counter-attacking team in the League leading Ranieri to make this comparison “I say my team is like the RAF, it’s fantastic – whoosh whoosh! – I love it.”

But their defense was poor and in those same 9 matches they had conceded 17 goals. Often conceding first and then needing to come back, something Claudio also warned against,

“My players have been incredible but I have warned them they can’t continue to give teams a start because one day you will get punished.

“There is a very good spirit. They are characters. But I’m very curious – I want to see what they are like when something goes wrong.

“Every man can go to the ground, but I want to see when they pick themselves up. That is my focus.”

After the defeat to Arsenal, Leicester would play two more matches before they kept a clean sheet and were rewarded with pizza. In a sense, it took two more matches before Leicester were able to pick themselves up.

But in the next nine matches, Leicester went on a win-streak. They won 8/9 and took 25 of the available 27 points. They also kept three clean sheets and conceded just 8 goals. In just a few weeks, Leicester went from a team that conceded almost 2 goals a game to a team that conceded less than one.

From there, the defense got better: the next nine games they conceded just 4 goals, including 2 to Arsenal in a loss in February. In that stretch, Leicester collected 6 more clean sheets including a shutout to the team who would eventually collapse in the run in – Tottenham.

And in the final nine games, six more clean sheets and just five goals conceded. In total, in the first 9 games of the season, Leicester conceded 17 goals and in the last 27 games, 17 goals. Despite having the fastest counter attack in the League, one of the best goal scorers in the League, and the best creative midfielder in the League, in the end it was defense which won Leicester the League.

In 2010, Jose Mourinho was asked about Claudio Ranieri and he gave a scathing answer (translated from Spanish by me)

“Ranieri has spent 5 years in England and struggled to say good day or good night. He has won a Supercup, a minor competition. He has never won an important trophy. Maybe he should change his mentality, but he’s too old to do it.”

But Ranieri did change. He changed his team after the first nine games of the season, went back to basics and played to his team’s strengths. He solidified the defense and gave room for Vardy and Mahrez to run at players. And it paid off.

Leicester did a lot of things right this season; they have the best physio team and they prepare their players well for the physical demands of the Premier League, testing the soil conditions, and strictly limiting the minutes players can practice and play and in the end rotating adroitly.

Ranieri also exploited the strengths of his squad. Vardy is thin and whippet quick, he’s most useful in a counter attacking team. N’golo Kante is a beast in the defensive midfield role but in a possession-based game looks a bit outclassed. And Danny Drinkwater has a wizard’s wand for a right foot and can pick out pin-point perfect long bombs exactly where Vardy points for them (like the first goal against Arsenal in the 5-2 loss). In defense, Huth and Morgan aren’t the modern “ball playing” center backs but they are big, strong, well organized, experienced, and calm in the low block, especially with the vastly experienced Christian Fuchs playing fullback. And then the final ingredient: give Riyad Mahrez room to roam and do whatever he wants.

And in the stretch, well, if Ranieri wanted to know how his team picked themselves up after they were kicked down, he found out. After losing 5-2 to Arsenal, his team didn’t collapse; they redoubled their efforts and became the best defensive team in the League. Even Tottenham allowed 21 goals in the last 27 games, four more than Leicester.

And Tottenham is a great contrast to Leicester. While Leicester were under tremendous pressure to win the League from about January on, Spurs were never considered real contenders until the last few weeks. Leicester dealt with the pressure, including taunts on social media from Tottenham’s Harry Kane.

And in the game which handed Leicester the title, Tottenham at Chelsea, Tottenham’s game devolved into a dirty scrum: Dembele gouged a player’s eyes, Lamela stamped on Cesc’s hand, Dier made two awful tackles from behind, and the whole Spurs team seemed to come unhinged and try to injure the Chelsea players as their title hopes faded. Tottenham completely collapsed under the pressure of a title race, Leicester never did.

Ironically, the title was won by the Foxes at Stamford Bridge 12 years after Chelsea fired Ranieri and installed Jose Mourinho. Six years after Mourinho gave his little speech about Ranieri being too old to change his ways. Just one and a half years after Ranieri was sacked by Greece. And just six months after Jose Mourinho was himself sacked in his second stint at Chelsea. A stint in which we learned definitively that the man who couldn’t change was actually Jose himself.

Congratulations to Leicester City, their fans, their players, and especially to Claudio Ranieri on winning the League in the most spectacular way.