It appears that “purists” of the game believe that the manner and style in which the trophy was won has placed a shadow over the winners.
Surely the winner of the trophy deserves their name on the trophy? Yet it appears that “purists” of the game believe that the manner and style in which the trophy was won has placed a shadow over the winners. This is quite ludicrous, if they won then they deserved to? Yet for the fans who love to watch the “beautiful game” then perhaps it was not pretty, yet for those have a knowledge and understanding of the game, perhaps they will be more complimentary to Chelsea.
In the wake of Chelsea’s highly impressive and yet somewhat surprising victory in the Champions League, it has led to many fans and pundits accusing Chelsea of not deserving the trophy.
Chelsea’s tactical decision to defend in numbers and to stifle the space and time for players like Messi was a correct decision in hindsight. If Barcelona had beaten them then people would have questioned their tactics, yet this is the same for every game; tactics are regarded as good when successful and bad when not.
For Chelsea there was a certain pragmatism of how they could play against Barcelona, Bayern and even Benfica if they had any need to qualify. They did not have the personnel to implement on open brand of football, something which Villas-Boas learnt the hard way, simply this style was not applicable to the current squad. Chelsea admitted their vulnerabilities and used their strengths to counter that. Di Matteo went back to the method which had suited Chelsea so well for many seasons, with a mentality which was instilled from the "Special One" many years ago. Defend deep and compact and counter attack with fast wingers and the power of a strong number nine. The side which won the Champions League was Jose’s, it always has been.
Only one way to play?
Johann Cryuff has spoken out about Chelsea's success; he believes it was better to not have the trophy than win it the way Chelsea did. "Only Chelsea fans will be happy with this, for the rest, nobody can be happy with the outcome" Cruyff said to De Telegraaf."What especially bothers me is that a football team can forget everything and still win. I'd choose to take the steps we take at Ajax, towards the football that we all want to see," Cruyff stated.
Now this interesting and shows the arrogance of Cryuff and those who prophesise about “totalfootball” and playing the game the “right way”. The thing is, there is no “right way”, for some there is an ideal of how to play, yet football is open for interpretation. In the senior game, there is only one thing that really matters, the result. The means in how you get there is not recorded in the history books, you either win or lose. Is Cryuff serious when he believes that it is better not to win if you play defensive football? This is a ludicrous mentality. If your chosen tactic is not working then a good coach will change it to suit the game and attempt to improve their sides performance. It says it all about Cryuff however that his “dream team” lost 4-0 to Milan in 1994; his reluctance to change things cost Barca the game. This stubbornness effectively ended Cryuff’s reign and prevented that side from going on to achieve more.
The need for a gameplan
Yet Cryuff arguing against a style is one thing, at least you can respect his opinion, however I have heard Arsenal & United fans in particular being distinctly harsh on this triumph. It sounds very much of jealously. United & Arsenal have both been beaten in the finals by the beautiful, total football of Barcelona. Do their fans wish that their managers had conjured a plan to beat a superior side? How they did they play against them? Did they have a tactic? A “blueprint” like Chelsea?
It was interesting last season in the build up to the final between United and Barcelona when Ferguson stated that he had a “plan” to beat Barca, that he had learnt his lesson from the previous final and that this time would be different. Well he was right, Barca were even better than last time and United, Rooney excepted, were abject and clearly clueless in how to deal with this side. When Ferguson spoke of his masterplan last year I expected something similar to the formation used by Inter and Chelsea.
Tactically United were awful, playing without a defensive midfielder again, whereas many sides now deploy two. United sat back quite deep, yet they allowed too much space between the defensive and midfield unit. With the movements Messi makes, surely Ferguson’s “plan” should have been to close off space centrally? Why a 4-2-3-1 formation was not used was baffling; and the threats came from those pockets of space. This showed to me that Ferguson and his assistant Phelan, were not tactically good enough to beat a side of Barcelona’s class.
He often talks of the United way of playing, that they play attacking football. Yet I didn’t see anything in that final which was impressive, which justified his tactics and style; careless in possession, panicked under pressure and tactically inept. Is this what Cryuff means when he believes it is better to play this way and get nowhere? In the final you choose a style that gives you the best chance of winning, United did not show this last season. No wonder United fans are jealous of Chelsea, when will be the next time United get close to the Champions League final? I assure you that City will be there before them.
Attacking football is only half of it
The same can be said for Wenger, who has failed for many seasons to overcome Barcelona, especially at the Camp Nou. This idealistic belief that by playing open, attacking football means that you can be content with failure is a preposterous mentality. As a manager you set out your side, especially away from home or against superior opposition, to be compact, organised and ultimately defensively sound. Arsenal in particular will never win anything while they have a tactically inept manager in charge who disregards the defensive side of the game because he sees it as being negative. This lack of understanding is why Arsenal have not won anything for seven years.
What Wenger forgets about totalfootball is that it is a defensive tactic first of all; the key is that as unit you press high to win the ball closer to the goal. It does not mean, in possession play nice triangles yet when the ball lost just wait to get it back. Arsenal are one of the most disorganised and poorly coached defensive sides in the Champions League. And Arsenal, in 2006 the were winning 1-0 against Barcelona and were even down to 10 men, yet they continued to play their style, somewhat believing that defending is an admission of guilt and that attacking football is what the game is about. This naivety has been the reason Arsenal have not won a trophy for seven years and their manager hides his tactical ineptness with a philosophy of attacking football. The key to any successful side is being strong defensively. Arsenal are one of the worst at this art. No wonder both sets of fans were jealous, because they witnessed a side who showed that strong defences can win trophies.
To lose with beauty or to win as the beast?
Tactics are a fascinating conversation as they separate the fans from the knowledgeable. And tactics, on the biggest stage, tend to make the difference between success and failure. The words of Cryuff are of a man whose beliefs have been rocked. He witnessed a side in Chelsea surrender possession to his beloved Barcelona and who said to Barcelona, “show us what you can do”. He shows his frustration that the beauty of Barca could not overcome the beast of Chelsea.
In 2010 Inter Milan arrived at Camp Nou holding a 3-1 lead from the first leg, they knew that Barcelona needed two goals to qualify. After Motta was sent off after Busquets play acted to a hit to the face, Jose decided that it was going to be a defensive effort from all 10 players on the pitch. In the whole game Inter did not have single shot on goal, yet they didn’t need to; The onus was on Barcelona to break this side down. A hand ball decision at the end of the game prevented Barca from reaching the final, yet what Jose had done was show the football world how to play against Barcelona.
What Chelsea and Inter have shown is that defending is so much more than saying defend deep, be compact. Mourinho's biggest asset is bringing together a group of players and making them one unit, united together. This was Saachi’s achievement at Milan and Guardiola’s at Barca; a sytem and style in which “players are connected to one another, which moves together as if was a single player”, these are the words of the master Sacchi. And he believes that “today few teams know how to do this. Few teams work as a unit. They are all made up of little groups. There is no great connection, nor a good distribution of players around the pitch.”
These words are what make tactics so important, it is not just the formation, the defensive mentality or attacking style. A manager who is able to bring together a group and make them in to one unit, one united team, will have the ability to be successful. This is why Arsenal have failed in the past several years, the lack of a cohesive unit where the whole team works together. They are individual units around the pitch which often do not work together. Sacchi says that “It is not a question of 4-4-2 or 4-2-1-3, it is a question of having a team which is ordered, in which the players are connected to one another, which moves together, as if it was a single player." It is this which made Chelsea victorious in Munich, a collective spirit of togetherness, belief and trust in each other.
When will Chelsea get back to the final?
Personally I cannot see it next season as the side is now in a real stage of transition; the side which was put together by Jose is eventually going to be split up, and it will up to a new manager to start a new era off at Stamford Bridge. Roman Abramovich desires his Chelsea side to play like Barcelona yet if they had done so against Napoli, Benfica, Barcelona or Bayern then I assure you they would not have got anywhere close to the final. Di Matteo was pragmatic and he did the way he saw best; in very much the path of the man whose shadow continues to linger over Stamford Bridge, Di Matteo adopted tactics which reflected the strengths and very much the weaknesses of the side. However, perhaps Chelsea do need to move on and adapt their tactics.
You see Cryuff is right in a way. In 2010 Inter defeated Barcelona and overcame Bayern to life the title, it was a display of defensive might and which was seen as perhaps the end of the Barcelona style. Jose had beaten the best side in the world, yet the following season Barcelona were back in the final and winning it again, while Inter have been on a decline ever since that win. Could Chelsea be on that same path now? I wrote before that the final last week was possibly Chelsea's last chance to win that trophy, because their wish to play a certain way may actually be detrimental to the team's success. Look at Arsenal to see what happens when you attempt to change a winning formula! Yet in the long term it is much more beneficial to have the ball and dictate the game, than trust the opposition not to score.
The success and then decline of Inter comes from Mourinho; for all his qualities in motivating and getting the best out of the players he has by playing to their strengths, he does not consider the long term impact of his position; he works only for the present. It serves a purpose, to win, yet it does not give any long term success. This is why Chelsea’s win, which I commend, is a one off. They lack the quality to sustain this kind of success on a regular basis. It is why Cryuff is right when he talks of the problems with the win at all costs mentality. Barcelona are a great example of a side which believes in a way to play, they don’t always win yet they have been continually successful. Their style has been able to permeate through generations and their qualities and superiority have won out eventually over others.
Long term plans required
Realistically Chelsea qualified through aspects of luck and fortune. In almost all their games post Villas-Boas they were saved by the wastefulness of the opposition over their own quality. Of course this is football and this is what happens, yet their tactic, to give the other side the ball and hope they don’t score, could have been seriously flawed. That is in the past now and Chelsea are winners, yet where is Greece after Euro 2004? Where is Inter after 2010? A moment of success which history remembers but which cannot be sustained.
It may have been written in the stars, it may have been destiny. Yet if Chelsea are serious about being one of the top sides in Europe then they need to develop a side which plays better football, which keeps better possession and which attacks with fluency. Their defensive strengths make them a better side than Arsenal and even United right now, yet they need to improve their ability to keep the ball and not concede possession. They need to consider the long term and finally move on from the Jose era.
This will not happen overnight and so Abramovich needs to understand that if he wants to see great football combined with trophies, then he has to be patient and allow his manager to build the foundations in the senior level and importantly in the youth academy. It took Barcelona decades to get where they are, yet they continued their belief in what they did and have become a blueprint of how to develop great players and thus, great sides. Now Roman has his grail, perhaps he can be more patient for the future. Unfortunately I doubt it.