Our European guru educates and enlightens
“Open, flowing finals? Only for teams who don’t know what they’re doing.” That was Gazzetta dello Sport’s verdict on Inter’s efficient despatch of Bayern Munich in the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday.
Jose Mourinho’s Inter knew just what they were doing in a game that was more coronation than contest. Mourinho’s tactics – concede possession until they enter your half, regain possession and counter quickly – weren’t pretty but they were pretty effective.
In some ways, his approach is a strange twist on Arrigo Sacchi’s pressing game. Inter don’t press upfield, like Sacchi’s legendary Rossoneri, but they do compress the play, forcing opponents to attack in a confined space, and when they don’t have the ball, show a compactness – especially if you look at the distance between the front and the back lines – that Sacchi would approve of.
Arjen Robben was marginalised, showed wide by Cristian Chivu with Esteban Cambiasso designated to cover inside and outside if the Dutchman got through. Chivu never looked comfortable but it didn’t really matter.
Philip Lahm, presumably under instruction and knowing that tracking back isn’t Robben’s strong suit, rarely made the kind of runs expected of an overlapping full-back. Indeed, in the first 25 minutes he barely hit a forward pass.
Who’s that nutter in the UEFA seats? Oh it’s me
Even though Mourinho’s tactics were brutally pragmatic – striker Samuel Eto’o, once deemed an egotistical iconoclast, often became an extra full-back when Inter lost the ball – some of their play, especially their passing out of defence, was a joy.
Diego Milito’s movement – using the full width of the pitch and playing in front of and behind Eto’o at times – was simply wondrous. When the Argentine feinted past Daniel van Buyten to score Inter’s second, the goal was so technically perfect I jumped out of my seat and shouted “Yes!”, as if I was a demented, diehard Nerazzurri, to the mild consternation of the UEFA officials sitting around me. (I’m not a diehard Nerazzurri by the way – though I may be demented – I was just enthralled by Milito’s brilliance.)
The first goal was technically brilliant – and Route One. Presumably on Mourinho’s orders, keeper Julio Cesar spent much of the first half hoofing long balls up the pitch. Just as I was starting to find this tactic a) irritating, b) repetitive and c) counter-productive (Bayern mostly regained possession) Milito rose to head the ball to Wesley Sneijder who passed with accuracy and speed for the Inter No22 to float the ball into the net to make it 1-0. (Milito deserved his man of the match award although, for awesome efficiency and quiet brilliance, Cambiasso could easily have won that prize.)
Mourinho said defending deep was the best way to mask his team’s lack of pace. But it was Bayern’s lack of pace in attack that made this final so uncompetitive. On Sky Germany, Matthias Sammer and Stefan Effenberg felt Bayern’s lack of confidence was crucial.
Ulrich Hesse, Champions’ contributing editor noted on an email: “The interesting thing was that you just knew from looking at them at half-time that they both felt it was already over. They didn’t say the game was lost, you could just tell from their expressions.”
Sloth, omschakeling and serious downshifts
The only way to beat Inter was to attack them at speed – by that I don’t just mean physical pace but the speed with which the ball travels – and Bayern’s players sometimes took seven touches before passing.
The possession stats tell the story: Bayern had 66% of the ball but only six shots on target, one less than counter-attacking Inter. Apart from one cracking save just after the break from Thomas Muller, Cesar didn’t have much to do. Bayern’s sloth in attack was startling given that Louis Van Gaal has focused them on the importance of exploiting the omschakeling, the moment when a team regains possession and has the chance to strike before the opposition reorganises.
Would Franck Ribery have made a difference? The Wall Street Journal felt, in their best American sports jock prose, that his absence would “seriously downshift Bayern’s attacks”. And Franz Beckenbauer suggested the Frenchman’s fearlessness might have inspired Bayern. But on current form it’s hard to see Ribery changing the result.
It seems presumptuous to query Van Gaal’s tactics but, after Dejan Stankovic came on for Chivu, I was surprised he didn’t bring Muller into central midfield and switch Bastian Schweinsteiger to his old role on the flank to test the sluggish Serbian with his pace.
This might have prevented Inter deploying Cambiasso, Lucio and Walter Samuel to neutralise Robben. Schweinsteiger might also have beaten the defence to the by-line and produced the kind of crosses Miroslav Klose and Mario Gomez could have made something of.
In truth, it’s hard to blame the coach. Inter – especially their defence, Javier Zanetti (in his 700th game for the club), Eto’o, Sneijder, Cambiasso, Milito and Goran Pandev – rose to the occasion.
Too many Bayern players seemed overawed by it. They squandered corners and, as their desperation deepened, began pumping long balls into the box in the vain hope of finding Klose or Gomez.
Even though The Guardian picked Robben as Bayern’s best player (giving him a generous eight out of ten), the Dutch wizard was attracting some serious flak from the heavyweight coaches behind me who felt his failure to track back was stifling Bayern, making their attacks tediously predictable.
But between the 61st and the 68th minute, Bayern looked like they might break through. The Inter fans felt the shift in momentum too, expressing their anxiety and frustration in loud whistles. But Milito’s second goal made this the most one-sided UEFA Champions League final since 2004 when Mourinho won this competition for the first time.
The battle of the soulmates is over
As The Guardian’s Scott Murray noted, Mourinho went through “micro-cycles of emotion” at the end, “smiling, laughing and hugging, crying uncontrollably, then smiling, laughing and hugging again”. He shook Van Gaal’s hand.
The Bayern coach had confessed, in UEFA’s official matchday programme, that he and his opponent were “soulmates who texted each other often”. And they were reasonably generous in their post-match remarks.
The Dutchman had one dig: “People remember my teams”. Great teams, he insisted, live in the memory. They don’t just accumulate trophies. But after a 45-year wait for the European Cup, will any Inter fan ever forget this team?
It is tempting to draw lessons from such a result. It does, incidentally, mean that the city of Milan has now won more European Cups – ten – than Madrid (nine) and Italy, with 12 triumphs, has surpassed England (11). But the game provoked more questions than answers for me.
How myopic – or plain broke – must Premier League clubs be to spurn Milito last summer? Will Mourinho become the first man to win the trophy with three different clubs? He’s already only the second man to win it with clubs in different countries. (Ernst Happel, with Feyenoord and Hamburg, was the first.) Who will Van Gaal buy to bolster his attack and central defence? And does Inter’s victory mean that counter-attacking will become as fashionable as Barcelona’s reinvention of Total Football? (Probably not. The margin of error is so thin, most coaches and teams will struggle to emulate Inter’s feat. It’s still easier to win the game if you control the ball.)
The victory is great news for Massimo Moratti who has born the slings and arrows of Inter’s outrageous misfortune (and, on occasion, outrageous misuse of the family fortune on some naff players) with dignity. And good news for Mario Rosenstock, the Irish humorist whose impressions of The Special One are so convincing the man himself invited him to do them for the Chelsea players. Rosenstock will bring his cult football puppet show Special1TV to BBC3 this summer just in time for the World Cup.
The cult of the Special One triumphed at the Bernabeu in club football’s showpiece fixture. That cult will now face its most merciless scrutiny at the same stadium next season.
NEWS: Moratti: Real deal for Mourinho far from secured
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