As we begin the highly anticipated semifinal round of the Champions League, we see one of the great ironies afforded to us by the beautiful game. The best strategy to beat both Real Madrid and Barcelona is exactly the same. How can it be that the two sides, despite playing such contrasting styles, are essentially interchangeable for their German opponents?
Let’s go over how to beat each team, starting with Real Madrid. Under Mourinho, Real Madrid play a counterattacking game. They absorb pressure very well and transition from defense to attack as quickly as any side in the history of the game. But, for all their strength going forward, their weakness is that they are uncomfortable on the ball and can be effectively countered with their own strategy. In their meetings in the first round late last year, Dortmund, a side otherwise known for keeping possession and applying sustained pressure in their opponents half, outmaneuvered Mourinho by giving his side the ball. The results of being handily out-possessed over two matches was that they won 2-1 in Dortmund, and due to a last-minute game-tying goal were unlucky not to win in Madrid.
In the knockout stages of the Champions League, Manchester United were nearly successful while playing this way, while Galatasaray gave Madrid too much space in the first leg and squandered what could have been a great home win in Istanbul. The strategy of giving Madrid the ball has been applied domestically by several teams in La Liga in this campaign, and has led to Madrid only winning about two-thirds of their games, losing pace very early in the season to their bitter rivals Barcelona.
Barcelona are the tactical opposites of Mourinho’s Madrid. They are almost too comfortable on the ball, and will seek to attack and dominate possession even when they are winning and whether or not they are playing well. One of the fascinating tactical battles of the season was seen in the second leg of the quarterfinals between Barcelona and PSG. Ancelotti’s men needed a goal from the first minute of the match, so they sat back and let Barcelona attack, hoping to open up space on the counter. It worked as they were by far the more dangerous side and eventually went up 1-0. Amazingly, after Barcelona scored the 1-1 that would put them through, PSG once again sat back and Barcelona still attacked despite not needing a goal and risking the tie if they conceded. In the end they went through very uncomfortably against a tough team that gave them the ball.
The difference with Madrid is that virtually every side plays Barcelona this way, so they rely on their prodigious offensive talents to win games. Bayern are actually a team that can counter Barcelona’s midfield possession game, but if Heynckes has been observing the last few rounds he’ll go for the counterattacking strategy despite playing the first leg at home after seeing PSG go home on away goals.
So there it is. Two sides that could not play more different football, but need to be played with exactly the same strategy. With each of the first legs being played on German soil, the home teams have the chance to impose their strategy, but neither will want to go into Spain needing a win after having conceded away goals. The odds point to an all-Spanish final, but whether it happens, and in particular how easy it is for it to happen will depend on how the German sides approach the matches.
The German Spanish rivalry that many missed in Euro 2012 has a chance of being played out here as well, albeit with interesting caveats like the Germans who are key players for Madrid, and the Spanish tinge Bayern will likely get next season through Pep Guardiola. How would Bayern play if Pep were already at the helm?