Gundogan vs. Martinez, a key tactical battle at Wembley

CL Final probable formations

While international finals between familiar league rivals can be pretty dour, the recent history between these sides has been one of mixed domination. Borussia Dortmund had won five straight before Bayern won and drew two in the last four meetings. The stage is set for an interesting tactical contest between Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund and Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern Munich.

Both sides advanced because of the their tactical versatility. They each changed their normal style to face the unique challenges thrown at them by tactically uncompromising opponents and advanced with surprising ease. While there will be several battles on the pitch, the most interesting could turn out to be the one between the 8’s, with Ilkay Gundogan and Javi Martinez battling it out for midfield domination.

Heynckes looked closely at where opponents succeeded against Barcelona and one of the key players in the semifinal was Javi Martinez, who man-marked countryman Andres Iniesta out of the tie. If the Bayern Munich manager was watching the second leg of the quarterfinal between Malaga and Borussia Dortmund, he’ll see Pellegrini effectively man-marked Gundogan out of the match and so effectively shut down the Dortmund midfield that it took a heroic extra-time effort for them to advance. While many anticipate Muller to press Gundogan, Martinez is the clear choice to man-mark because of his superior defensive ability.

Klopp’s strategy will be hampered by the unfortunate injury to talisman Mario Götze. Borussia’s 10 did a fantastic number on Xabi Alonso in the semifinal, and whether Großkreutz will be able to replace him may be key to Dortmund’s success in the final. If Martinez is shadowing Gundogan, Großkreutz may see more freedom in the middle. A smart move by Klopp would be to drop Lewandowski himself to pressure Martinez and Schweinsteiger the way Simeone used Falcao in a counterattacking effort against Real Madrid in last week’s Copa del Rey final.

Against anyone else, both sides essentially play the same strategy: high pressure and dynamic midfield play looking for a targetman. The battle of the 8’s is one to watch, both defensively and offensively, as the one with more impact on the game may well decide the winner. What will be interesting in Saturday’s final at Wembley is if one or both sides attempts to neutralize the other. We could see a change in the normal script, with unheralded heroes stepping up in key duels with a championship winning performance.


The secret to Xavi’s game

Xavi photo via Castroquini2011 on flickr

Xavi photo via Castroquini2011 on flickr

As Xavi Hernandez is lauded as the most successful active player in La Liga with 7 titles to his name, I’d like to pay tribute to the man who recently became the first player to record 100% pass accuracy in the Champions League (96/96).

In psychology there is talk of the micro-expression. But hopefully football will teach the micro-look for better spatial awareness. Watch what I mean about 1:00 into this video by @allas4.

With the advent of HD television and an interest in following the most efficient passer in the game, I suggest that the next time you watch a Barcelona or Spain match, follow Xavi instead of the ball and watch him constantly snap microsecond long looks over his shoulders.

The micro-look is the secret of his game and aids his already excellent skills and anticipation.

On the managerial adaptability of Sir Alex Ferguson


Photo by The Last Moorish King on Flickr

Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement this week. After 26 years in charge of Manchester United, during which he won 13 league titles and a staggering 38 trophies, we can safely say that Sir Alex may be the last of his kind. With such a rich and varied career it is difficult to focus on one, or even a few, things he was best at. So here is very simply what I appreciate most about the great Scot: his adaptability.

Football is cyclical. Arsene Wenger is an excellent example of a similarly able manager who has gone through peaks and troughs as his team has. With all due respect to the Frenchman, his greatest managerial achievements coincided with Arsenal’s golden generation about a decade ago.

Sir Alex largely avoided prolonged mediocrity and has almost always been at or near the top. While you could argue the class of ’99 was a golden generation, Sir Alex has won with less (and arguably more) over a quarter-century, and it would be a pity to name that team his greatest and most memorable achievement. His greatest ability has been to identify the strengths in his squads and build campaigns around key players and key positions on the pitch. His sides have always promoted that football is at its best a team game and that the team can be greater than the sum of all of its parts.

Who will follow him up? The simple answer: David Moyes. But in spirit, Sir Alex leaves a very large void as a long-term manager in an increasingly money and results-driven short-term football landscape. As football fans, we must hope a new high-profile long-term manager arises. As Cristiano Ronaldo tweeted recently: Thanks for everything, Boss.


Di Stefano’s Real Madrid when they won their fifth straight European Cup

It hasn’t been a good week for Real Madrid, who just after losing their bid to play for la Decima are on the verge of losing the league and likely their manager. But a less reported story about the club this week is that Honorary President Alfredo Di Stefano, widely considered the club’s greatest ever player, is having family troubles after marrying his secretary (who is half a century his junior). The club legend’s children have not taken well to their new stepmother and are accusing her of taking advantage of the 86 year-old. They argue he is senile and that the marriage should be anulled.
Here is a video of one of the greatest moments in Real Madrid’s history, at a time when no one would have dared argue with Don Alfredo.

How we went from el clasico to der klassiker in eight days

At the beginning of last week, the odds were pointing at an all-Spanish final in the Champions League. After the draw I wrote about how the German sides should counter what were the Spanish sides that were favored to beat them. And counter they did. Here’s how they did it.

Bayern 7 – Barcelona 0

Such a one-sided number can be used to refer to domination of shots, corner kicks, fouls, etc. But unfortunately for Barcelona, they were outscored by seven goals. The only major offensive stat that Barcelona dominated over both legs was possession, with 63% and 57% in the first and second matches respectively.

This was no different a strategy than that which I had suggested.

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.

Bayern took full advantage of Barcelona’s conspicuously absent high-pressure, and used their skillful midfielders not to dominate the match but rather to pressure and counterattack with the kind of danger everyone from Celtic to Celta has done this season. Rather than taking the side head on, Heynckes allowed a Barcelona diminished by injuries and an apparent lack of tactical nous to sputter, stall, and fall flat. And the German sides’ goals rained in from there.

Klopp 4 – Mourinho 0

While the first tie saw the use of a familiar tactic against Barcelona, the second showdown of the tournament between Dortmund’s Jurgen Klopp and Madrid’s Jose Mourinho was just as interesting as the first. Back in the first round I had commented (before this blog’s existence) that Klopp out-Mourinho’d Mourinho by playing the same lightning fast counterattacking strategy that saw Madrid set records last season. A lot had happened between the ties, Madrid had found form and were odds-on favorites to win the tournament. But the matches here were played in the exact same fashion.

Dortmund again gave the ball to a Madrid side that would rather counter, and were slightly out-possessed by an opponent that looked as uncomfortable attacking as defending. The first leg was characterized by two periods of concentrated attacking pressure by Dortmund that led to Lewandowski scoring a hat-trick in the first ten minutes of each half. Dortmund pressured high and interrupted Madrid’s buildup, man marking Alonso while Gundogan (who had been man marked by Pellegrini) was allowed free reign to dominate the midfield, shifting the momentum in their favor. Down low, Dortmund cut out passing lanes and largely avoided danger.

The second leg saw Mourinho field a more adventurous midfield with the reintroduction of Di Maria allowing Modric and Ozil to play in their most fruitful positions. But despite an initial lapse in concentration from Dortmund, Madrid missed four clear chances in the first half before Dortmund again shut them down. Switching to a fabled three-man defense and scoring two late goals was not enough to overturn a three goal deficit and make up for another 180 minutes where Klopp out-foxed Mourinho.

Der Klassiker

I realize this is not the name of the of the rivalry between Borussia and Bayern, but in light of the two best teams in the tournament beating the odds and preventing el clasico in the final, I think we are poised for a classic game. A lot has been said about the end of respective eras, as much for Barcelona where I don’t think it applies, to Real Madrid as Mourinho all but confirmed his imminent exit, to Borussia who appear about to raided in the transfer market. But I’ll save these thoughts for future posts in anticipation of the delightful final in a few weeks.