What a couple of weeks in the Champions League! Nobody was exactly writing the Germans off when the semi-final draw was made but it cannot be denied that the results – particularly those in the first leg – came as a shock to most. Perhaps not the fact that Munich won the first leg, but the scale of the victory, and afterwards that stunning effort by Borussia Dortmund against Real Madrid.
There are a couple of key points to pick out about those ties, points that I thought were key anyway that I wanted to share with you. The first is about something I’ve often talked about, the evolution of football and styles of play that come into prominence. Teams mature and evolve into their cycle of prominence and then another team, or successful style of football, does the same.
Barcelona’s absolute destruction by Bayern Munich has provoked the reaction it always would, with those signalling “the beginning of the end” for the Catalan side and their style of football. It’s obviously much too soon to base the complete end of an era on one result, however damning, but we will now see if Barcelona are capable of rising to a challenge. No ordinary challenge, because this was a team that was comprehensively better than them over both legs and in each leg, so now their next step is to try and improve. The only thing that I would agree gives weight to the theory that Barcelona’s great side might be due to fall apart is the age of some of the key players, like Xavi and Carles Puyol. Xavi is 33, Puyol 35 – but even looking at Andres Iniesta, soon to be 29, you look at that small group of players and wonder if they are capable of another season or more providing that non-stop intensity for entire games over an entire campaign.
Maturity is a quality that is often overlooked in football; people forget when observing Xavi’s masterclasses that when he was younger there were those saying he would never match up to Pep Guardiola. He only really began to get the praise he deserved in around 2007, when he was 27, nearing the peak of his game. It makes it less surprising in a way, then, that with a group of players of a similar age (early to mid 20’s), some of who have properly matured into Bayern’s philosophy, that the German side were able to do what they did in this tie.
Bayern had around 37% of of the ball in the first leg and 40% of the ball in the second leg, meaning that over the tie they had just over a third of the ball, yet ended up winning by a score of seven. This is ruthless German efficiency, players mature enough to play the game without the ball with composure, without panicking, and then when they have the ball, mature enough to make the right decisions.
There you have the absolute beauty of football – everyone is wondering just what can beat this Barcelona side, what will they come up against that will be better than them, and it’s an age old traditional philosophy that we’ve seen all too often rather than something that needed to be broken down by the over analysis of statistics.
The second key point is the nationalities of the players in those German teams. In the first leg, Bayern started with six German players and an Austrian player. Dortmund started with seven German players and two Polish players, and all three substitutes were German too, in their first leg. Players like Lahm, Schweinstiger and Muller are thoroughly versed in the Bayern way, with Neuer they’ve got a keeper who they can keep for the rest of his career too… these players were given a chance and it’s for the better of the club and also the national team, as all four of those players are vital for Germany. If you’re not convinced, have a look at the emphasis in that first point – it was a traditional, trademark German style victory (in both games, for me) and a large number of players were German. It was interesting to note that sports news showed German fans in London being interviewed and they said the reason for their success compared to the English clubs failure was the number of players from their own country in the team.
A quick look at Manchester City’s line up at Madrid earlier in the season shows that only Joe Hart and Gareth Barry were English or even British starters; Chelsea’s was slightly better with three last night (Cahill, Lampard and Bertrand) but for me the lack of British players in British sides is a major factor in the fact that we gave such a poor showing, respectively, in Europe this season.
United try to do it the right way, they always do, but it’s a look at the likes of City and Chelsea that concerns. Abramovich has been at Chelsea for nearly ten years and there has been all this talk of sustainability and investing in the future. Ryan Bertrand’s inclusion has been commendable but he was given a chance almost by accident after the number of suspensions they had last season; a look at his loan history suggests he was destined to move elsewhere before lady luck, and accident, worked in his favour. Josh McEachran has had a great loan spell at Middlesbrough but even if he does manage to break through into that senior Chelsea midfield, two players in ten years is simply not good enough. Have City even tried to bring through a player of their own since the takeover? Yes, they’re building great facilities, but where’s the end product? Michael Johnson and Stephen Ireland both looked to have bright futures in the game, that was until the takeover, and look at the pair of them now – it’s really sad to see. This isn’t really having a go at either club, but for their own long term benefit and health, it’s something that they ought to address and the sooner the better.
I’d like to see a concerted effort from these bigger clubs in fielding more domestic players. It’s good for the domestic game, it’s good for the national team, and, as we’ve seen from the past two weeks, it will work out better for the clubs too.
Before I go, I just wanted to wish Millwall all the very best – they haven’t had a bad season, but I think it goes to show what a distraction the FA Cup can be. Before they played the semi final they were in a position where they could have possibly even sneaked into the play offs, but April was a really bad month for my old club – one win in eight league games and only one point from three consecutive home games means that they head into the final league game of the season against another of my former teams, Derby County, needing a result. I’ve been relegated with Millwall and it’s an awful feeling, so I sincerely hope that they don’t suffer that fate this weekend – come on guys, I’ll be rooting for you!
That’s all for now – I’ll be back next week, have a great weekend everybody. Gordon.