On Saturday, one such shift seems to have occurred during the UEFA Champions League final.
There are those who feel soccer is a game of beauty – The Beautiful Game, even – and that its players are beholden to its most honorable pursuits of possession and goals, which will consequently lead to winning. Others say it is a sport, and that the objective of sport and competition is to compete and win – period. How the win is achieved is of little consequence.
Being Dutch, I’ve always felt strongly that professional footballers are entertainers first and foremost. Cease to entertain and the public will lose interest, causing the entire industry to come crashing down, no matter how much you’re winning. (Others would argue that winning is entertaining.) Hence my disdain for teams seeking nothing more from a game than three points or passage into a next round, motive tarnishing method.
Chelsea is one such team employing those dastardly defensive tactics. The Blues tried not to be.
At the beginning of the season new manager Andre Villas-Boas hoped to instill an optimistic, free-flowing style. He was out of a job by March. His assistant, Roberto Di Matteo, was made interim manager and immediately did the opposite, reverting to a defense-for-all and all-for-defense approach. Improbably, Chelsea rode it to Champions League wins over the high-octane offenses of Napoli and Benfica and, critically, Barcelona in the semifinals and Bayern Munich in Saturday’s final – the two teams pointed to as the trendsetters in the resurgence of attractive, attacking football of the last few years. Production conquered process.
There was an exact moment when that pendulum seemed to hurtle back to the other extremity, gliding from aesthetics-soccer to results-soccer. Bayern had taken the game to Chelsea all night long. Bayern, after all, was the very embodiment of the game’s shift back to attacking soccer. After decades of fielding laboring, rough-hewn teams that specialized in eking out 1-0 results, Bayern turned into one of the most powerful attacking machines in the world in recent years, with the game’s most dazzling wingers – Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery – and pin-point precise playmakers, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos.
For 80 minutes Bayern had pounded on Chelsea’s barricaded door until Thomas Mueller finally nodded in the go-ahead goal in the 83rd. And then the Bavarians turned negative. Almost immediately Jupp Heynckes took Mueller out for Daniel van Buyten, a swap that gave Bayern a third central midfielder to reinforce its back line.
And it was that opening that allowed Chelsea into the game for the first time all night. Thoroughly dominated until then, Chelsea now had its opening to venture forward, the space to undertake some attacking of its own and capitalize on all that conserved energy – exactly the chance it hoped to get late in the game on the back of all that defending. Bayern rewarded Chelsea for its cynicism. Rather than keep up the pressure that had allowed it hold the Londoners down all night, Bayern caved.
Just a minute after Mueller came off, Chelsea ventured out and won its only corner of the game. It found the superb Didier Drogba, who in turn found the back of the net with a sublime header. No longer on the back foot, Chelsea tried to attack throughout the 30 minutes of extra time and would win on penalties, all of it enabled by Bayern’s defying its own philosophy, which had brought it to within two minutes and some added time of the European crown.