Tag Archives: Champions League

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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.

Qq

Atleti v. Barcelona provides nice contrast between Arsenal v. Barcelona

Yesterday’s Champions League featured a nuevo-classico between Atletico Madrid and Barcelona. As expected Barcelona dominated possession with an astonishing 77-23%. In passing terms, Barcelona completed 594-122 passes. But we should ask what Barcelona created with all that possession? 13 shots, while Atleti created 9. And if we look at shot quality Atleti got 6 on target, to Barcelona’s 4 and Barcelona only got two shots on target inside the 18 yard box compared to Atletico’s 4. It wasn’t just possession and shot quality or finishing and organization but from top to bottom this was two radically different teams pitted against one another for a chance to move on in the Champions League. And on the night, it was the most efficient team, and not the most expensive, nor the most vaunted, team that won.

Atleti scored both goals in a fashion that should be familiar to any Arsenal fan who grew up watching Arsenal in the Cesc era: the opposition capitalized on a mistake for the first, then doggedly defended, and hit them on the counter for the second.

For the first, Barcelona failed to clear properly, Gabi collected, and passed a poor ball to Saúl. Saúl took the pass and on the half-volley, with the outside of his left boot, played an outswinging cross to Griezmann. Griezmann was completely unmarked, the defense had fallen asleep, and headed in an unsaveable goal.

It was a goal that was a long time coming. Atletico’s game plan in that first half was to set to and harass the Barcelona players. B

arcelona, for their part, were flustered and managed just three shots total and one shot on target in the entire first half.  Atletico did this by limiting Barcelona’s penetration. And so despite the 72% possession advantage, both teams went in to half time with 60-67 passes in the opposition final third and thus explains the problems Barcelona had creating shots.

The second half started much better for Barcelona as Atletico conceded the midfield and set up the wall for Barcelona to try to pummel. But this was also part of Simeone’s game plan: knowing that he had Griezmann in the team, and the crucial away goal at the Nou Camp from the first leg, the Atletico manager sent his team out with one command “hold what we have”.

It wasn’t easy. At one point Gabi was forced to clear a shot off the line that literally could have gone anywhere and Barcelona were unusually profligate with crosses, seeing the ball dribble harmlessly in front of goal, rather than Messi or Suarez latching on for a tap in.

But the second goal was coming for Atletico and they had struck a few warnings earlier that called on Mascherano to nip in on the lively Griezmann. But eventually, Atleti hit Barcelona on a rapier like counter in which Iniesta was left guarding two Atletico attackers. When the ball was crossed to Griezmann, who would have been through on goal, Iniesta stopped the play with a handball. It was a denial of an obvious goal scoring opportunity and by the letter of the law Iniesta should have been sent off. Any foul that would result in a free kick or penalty kick that denies an obvious goal scoring opportunity is a red card. But the referee showed just yellow as he pointed to the spot.

Griezmann stepped up and by my account looked nervous. He seemed to mis-hit the penalty and it took an age to dribble past Ter Stegen who had guessed the correct way but still couldn’t get to the shot. Two-nil and there was no way back for Barcelona.

Well, there would have been a way back. One minute after Griezmann’s penalty, Gabi handled the ball inside the Atletico box and the referee instead awarded the spot kick outside the box. Barcelona players swarmed the referee and in their yellow strips looked like a flight of angry bees but the referee wouldn’t be swayed. Barcelona will no doubt point to that decision as the one which cost them the match but Atletico could point to the Iniesta handball and to the red card shown to Torres in the first leg as evidence that they too suffered from poor referee decisions.

As the match wore down, Diego Simeone cut a fiery figure on the sideline as he visibly encouraged the home fans to support their team. While Simeone was whipping the crowd and his players into a hot lather, Luis Enrique’s quiescent Sad Keanu on the other bench was a stark contrast. Two vastly different managers, two vastly different teams, two vastly different playing styles.

This is where I would normally end this article but I was curious how Arsenal and Atletico stacked up against Barcelona in this season’s Champions League.  The contrast is interesting and we can see what Arsenal did well and what Atletico did well against the reigning Champions League champions.

atleti-barca-Arsenal-barca

First, Atletico’s numbers are going to be skewed because they played most of the first leg down a player owing to Torres’ red card. Second, Atletico’s numbers are going to be skewed because they played defensively for roughly 135 minutes over the two legs. So, I expect to see more shots against Atletico, more passes for Barcelona, and more tackles and fouls by Atletico. All of those are true.

What’s interesting, though, is that while Arsenal were clearly the better attacking team between Atletico and Arsenal, it was Simeone’s side who were better at controlling the Big Chances. As we all remember from watching Arsenal v. Barcelona and the reverse fixture, Arsenal made some huge errors on both legs leading to a lot of great shots for the Catalan team. This is how Barcelona created 12 big chances against Arsenal over the series but only three against Atletico. Many pundits will say that Arsenal’s attacking philosophy is exactly what gets them into this situation with teams like Barcelona and it’s hard to disagree.

Meanwhile, it’s also a problem that Arsenal created almost as many chances as Barcelona but did not have nearly enough quality to score more than the one goal. It’s encouraging that Arsenal have spent the entire season creating great chances but also frustrating that Arsenal don’t have the quality to finish them. Perhaps if they did, the season would have turned out different.

Qq

Hey look it's old big ears!

Champions League under threat wants to change format to benefit the richest

News leaked yesterday that UEFA plans to revamp the Champions League format. Exact details aren’t available but a source is suggesting that UEFA want to minimize the chances of having minnow clubs, like BATE, play against big clubs like Real Madrid and that UEFA also want to turn the group stages into two “mini-super-leagues” consisting of 8 teams each with 14 home and away matches. Under the leaked plan, the winners of the two mini-super-leagues would battle it out in a final. A mini-super-league-bowl if you will.

The reasons for this change are obvious, the Champions League is under threat from the Premier League.

The Premier League is such a money making behemoth that it’s become a threat to clubs outside of England. As Jamie Jackson put it writing for the Guardian,

Next season, the side relegated bottom from the Premier League will receive £100m, as much as Chelsea received when claiming the title in May (2015). The champions in May 2017 will be rewarded with prize-money of around £150m.

When monies from ticket sales and commercial deals, each worth £15-20m, are factored in, then Aston Villa, who are likely to be relegated this season, would receive a reward of around £140m next season, nearly three times the budget of many continental clubs. La Liga’s Sevilla, for example, operate on around £50m a year. Winning the Champions League offers a reward of £40-50m, a third of the prize money received by next year’s Premier League champions.

Like I said, this rules change is simply about survival.

After the announcement of UEFA’s new plan to invert the group stages and put the knockout rounds earlier and then effectively turn the Champions League into two leagues competing for one title I was reminded of Arsene Wenger’s warning in 2009 that eventually Europe would form a “super league”.

“I see more a European league developing over time rather than one team going out of the country,” said Wenger, when he was asked whether he could envisage Celtic or Rangers joining the Premier League. “The national leagues will survive but maybe in 10 years, you will have a European league.

“I’m not sure 100% that I’m right but I feel inside our game there are some voices behind the scenes coming up to do something about that, especially if the rules become too restrictive for these clubs.”

The worry for Wenger would be if the European league were to be created by an elite cartel or, to use his term, a “franchise”, breaking away to divvy up the wealth rather than it being constructed on a system of merit, involving promotions from the various national leagues.

“Personally, I believe only in sporting merit,” he said. “So, if such a league is created, it has to be by transfers up and down, although that is practically very difficult to resolve and we do not want to kill the national leagues. Teams would have to play in both the European league in midweek and the national league at the weekend. It means all these teams have two teams.

“The way we are going financially is that even the money that will be coming in from the Champions League will not be enough for some clubs because they spend too much money. The income is basically owned by Uefa and they distribute the money to the clubs.”

While the major papers are reporting that as a possible outcome, as a pundit I can simply state, that’s clearly the logical outcome: first form two mini-super-leagues, get the teams accustomed to playing mid-week, and before long, you have a European super-league. And they almost have to do this if they, the biggest clubs in Europe, are going to survive the threat of the Premier League.

At the time Wenger made his remarks (2009) English teams, and especially Arsenal, needed the money from the Champions League. But that is no longer the case: Aston Villa, will win more in prize money for being relegated than Bayern Munich will win if they win the Champions League and their domestic league combined.

 

Of course, clubs like Bayern have other sources of income and will remain one of the richest clubs in the world but that position of power in under threat from a burgeoning Premier League and their all-encompassing TV deals.

If the English Premier League continues to reap the benefit from massive TV contracts they will continue to buy the best players and field the best competition. We may see the Premier League become the main football spectacle and the Champions League could be treated like a bit of a side show by English clubs.

Imagine in 2022, the manager of Arsenal could be accused of not taking the Champions League seriously after he fields a youth team in the first leg at home in a 2-1 win over Barcelona. The manager could answer his critics, “yes, we have a tie against Barcelona away at the Nou Camp on Wednesday but I have to keep the squad fresh for the match against Derby County this weekend, so we will probably play the same team we fielded in the Trump Cola League Cup and rest key players for the weekend.”

It may seem far fetched but with the prize money at stake in the English Premier League already dwarfing the prize money at stake with the Champions League, we could eventually see teams treat the Champions League like the FA Cup.

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