Last week’s European action was the subject of some of the most highly rated and exciting action in the world of football. Between Champions league and Europa League games, fans were subjected to some of the best games of the year. Whether it be a tactical masterclass or simply a thrilling game encompassing rich narrative, there was much to be observed across Europe last week.
A European Football Review – April 18
Guardiola will experiment whenever he wants
Most weren’t surprised when Bayern Munich led the tie against Benfica after the first leg, but it was something many considered to be far from dead. They had kept a clean sheet against a very dangerous Portuguese side after scoring very early on in the game, but still had to deal with the tough task of going away to the Estadio da Luz and doing the same.
With that in mind, not many would think that Guardiola would use this game to experiment with a formation that differs from one that would provide more defensive cover. Not only did he use a more attack-minded 4-3-3 away in Lisbon, he also didn’t play Robert Lewandowski at the tip of the front three. Thomas Müller was used as a central striker with a midfield three of Thiago, Xabi Alonso, and Arturo Vidal.
Guardiola’s use of this formation instead of the expected three at the back is demonstrative of a few things; the first being his trust and high expectation from Joshua Kimmich. Bayern have missed some of their best defenders in Jerome Boateng and Medhi Benatia for large chunks of the season due to injury. Kimmich’s ability to step in and perform in a Guardiola system, which asks a lot of its central defenders both on and off the ball, is impressive in its own right, but to do so at 21 years old makes it so much more remarkable. It was a baptism of fire for the young defender, and one from which he’ll learn a lot.
The other telling observation from Wednesday night’s game was the obvious ploy to prepare for every possible situation or setback in regards to this year’s Champions League. Whilst many football teams are reliant on one or two systems in order to get them through every opponent on the schedule, he has experimented with a variety of different formations and tactics in order to combat the exposure of any specific one.
From a 3-5-2 to a 4-3-3 and almost anywhere in between, Guardiola knows that his legacy as a coach is heavy reliant on whether he can achieve what is considered to be the ultimate club success with a side other than one including Lionel Messi. Whether it be from injury, suspension, or a player simply not having a good game, the Spanish coach has backup plans from A-Z.
Simeone isn’t just a brute
Fans and pundits alike have often associated Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid side with brute physicality and tough tackling, but this week the fearsome Argentine proved to the world that he is much more than the leader of head busting mob. Atlético are a tough and physical team, but also one capable of near-perfect passing and jaw-dropping attacking plays.
Simeone and his team made Barcelona do just about the only thing that they’re not very good at; play the ball long. In a very well-disciplined medium block, which through both surgical positioning and intelligent pressing took Barcelona’s midfield out of the game. The back four and goalkeeper had time on the ball, but no one to pass it to. This tactic would force Barcelona to hoof the ball up to their forwards, allowing for the aerially superior Atlético players to dominate the diminutive Catalan squad.
Simeone’s men pushed the play towards the wings and if any passes were getting through to the centre of the field, they would be quickly and intelligently pressed. This frustration came to a boiling point towards the end of the game as Barcelona threw Gerard Pique, their most adept header of the ball, far up the pitch in an attempt to win aerial duels for the likes of Suarez, Messi, and Neymar.
Atleti chose their opportunities well, knowing all too well of the consequence of a poorly-timed venture forward, an intelligent timidness shown in the first goal. Within five seconds of Barcelona losing the ball, they made two passes and scored. It is with this incisive precision which is why they don’t need a massive amount of possession to create, just one moment dependent on the perfect execution from a few players. Simeone has combined tough tackling and hard work with incisively devastating technical players: a recipe for European glory.
Liverpool made a historic comeback against one of the best teams in Europe on a magical Thursday night, but Dortmund threw the game away. As a great man once said, if at any point during a football the score is 3-3 then there have been a variety of moments in which both managers have lost the plot, and a more true statement could not be uttered about this very contest.
At 3-1 up against a less than stellar Liverpool, the fact the Tuchel didn’t bring on someone like Gündogan on earlier in order to control possession shows the shortcomings of this otherwise talented young manager. The ability to revive and expand upon a system that many perceived Klopp had achieved the zenith of at Dortmund was on display for all to admire in the first half, but his managerial inexperience was on show in the second 45 minutes.
The Dortmund players were completely sucked back into the drama of the game, something that ultimately played into Klopp’s hands. Even at 3-3 the German team could’ve done so much more to hold onto the ball and not get into a back-and-forth with Liverpool, but they played the game as if they needed to win.
However, no credit should be taken from Liverpool—they made a truly historic comeback using their mental strength, Klopp’s most useful tool this season, as the galvanizing force. This use of emotion, which translates onto the pitch via effort, is indicative that Klopp hasn’t been able to instil his philosophies thoroughly, but still intends to achieve as high as he can without excuse.
The German has been quoted saying that he believes his counter pressing style is something that is less of a concrete game plan and more of an instinctive piece of intuition that he integrates within his players. Over time, his Dortmund players could individually recognize the most advantageous moments in which to press, and yet collectively understand where they needed to be in said moment. Regardless of who comes in during the summer or where Liverpool finish in this year’s competitions, Klopp’s Reds are ones to look out for.