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.