Does Defense Win Championships….

….or just get you there? (Guest post by Ryan Hadley)

Shaun visited the Bernabeu earlier this year...

Welcome to the 80,354-seat Santiago Bernabeu in downtown Madrid for the 2009-2010 Champion’s League Final and our Champion’s League preview live from the home of Los Galácticos.

Spain’s best had desperately hoped to be here tonight, but they were unable to join us. In a tragicomic miscalculation intended to cement their return to the top of European football on their home pitch, instead Real Madrid provided the key attacking players contesting tonight’s final when they offloaded Arjen Robben to Bayern Munich and Wesley Sneijder to Inter Milan last summer. Meanwhile, $132 million man Cristiano Ronaldo is in Portugal, auditioning hair-stylists to accompany him to South Africa while mere $80 million mortal Kaka is just happy to be back home in a Brazil where players pass the ball after performing a series of 107 stepovers.

Louis Van Gaal, the mentor is now "the other guy"

Barcelona’s quest to repeat as Champions ended when Jose Mourinho’s well-organized Inter side showed that incisive attacking can be more telling than having 93% of possession and completing 4,387 passes over the course of 180 minutes of football. A managerial Tyrone Slothrop, Jose Mourinho pre-visits the scene of his next conquest (rumored to be in charge of Real Madrid by Sunday, if you hadn’t already heard), as he seeks to prove his eternal greatness as the “Special One”. Along with the rest of us, Louis Van Gaal may soon be wishing he’d demoted Jose to water-carrier. If Inter wins on Saturday, we may never hear the end of it.

While Jose will never let anyone forget that he won both Europe’s club competitions in back-to-back years with Porto, TSG readers may need reminding that his Bayern counterpart has also won the European Cup. Van Gaal took highest honors at the helm of Ajax back in 1995. Mourinho worked as assistant to Van Gaal at Barcelona and will doubtless have something to prove (as if he ever doesn’t) in a trip to the finals which included overcoming his former employers Chelsea and his nemesis (and antithesis) Barcelona. Van Gaal would doubtless like to show the upstart translater a thing or two, especially after letting Lucio leave Bayern for Inter on the cheap, though Jose bought him in a sulk after Chelsea wouldn’t sell Ricardo “Blanky” Carvalho.

Robben's name will be a contender in a whole new slew of conversations with a win

The German side is the Champion’s League’s joint-top scorer with Arsenal and Manchester United. They come into the match with no injuries to speak of, but have elegant french winger Franck Ribéry serving a Red Card suspension. They still garner plenty of attacking threat. In Arjen Robben and with pacy attacking fullback Phillip Lahm, the German club boasts the most potent right flank of any club in Europe. Turkey’s Hamit Altintop will likely slot into Ribéry’s spot on the left, giving Robben the full complement of 10 players to not pass to before throwing up his hands in frustration with them after his attempted 40-yard blast goes out for a throw-in.

With Müller in support, front-runner Olić will be looking for the goal that puts him level with Lionel Messi as the competition’s top scorer. Both players put in a lot of hard work in a side that defends from the front almost as well as their opponents. Bayern don’t have the strongest defensive record with Van Buyten and Demichelis both having their shaky moments. Badstuber rounds out the back four. Looking to win his second Champion’s League after doing it as Eto’o’s Barca team-mate in 05-06, Bayern’s captain Mark Van Bommel will anchor midfield with the man whose name google dares not auto-translate, Bastien Schweinsteiger.

In contrast, Inter have the best defensive record of any club that made it to the quarterfinal stages, conceding 9 goals in 12 matches to Bordeaux’s 6 in 10. While Van Gaal’s is less inclined to make adjustments to his opponent, you can be sure that Inter’s players will be drilled in a number of tactical tweaks to deal with Bayern. After Sergio Busquet’s Hollywood turn in the semifinal second leg saw him red carded, the suspension of Thiago Motta leaves Mourinho with a selection problem at the base of midfield.

The key to unlocking the victory for Inter won't be traveling to South Africa with La Albiceleste

There’s a lot of talk about Mourinho’s tactical adjustment but the reality is that the shape of his 6 defensive players is generally consistent. They form the base for tweaks to the positioning of his 4 attacking players, usually deployed to try and negate the threat of the opposition’s attacking fullbacks. He could look to pair Christian Chievu with Cambiasso as an option that allows him to keep the same shape. Otherwise he may be forced to alter the set-up that brought the side to this point by bringing in Muntari or Stanković.

Mourinho’s first choice back four should be available with Lucio set to return from a calf injury. The Brazil captain has formed an impressive partnership with Walter Samuel at the center of Inter’s defense. Inter’s engine, Maicon and the ageless Argentinian Javier Zanetti round out this quartet of South Americans.

No questions surrounding Diego Milito who will put in a shift leading the line. Mourinho will have decide how best to deploy Pandev and Eto’o. With two excellent defensive shifts against Barca, Eto’o showed Guardiola got the short straw in the Ibrahimovic transfer. In addition, Mourinho’s took an unwanted Sneijder off Real Madrid and put him in a number 10 role that’s largely endangered around Europe allowing him to become Europe’s best player this season isn’t a tricky little 4 foot tall garden gnome named Messi. Don’t expect to see a single Italian Inter’s starting 11.

5 Key Battles to Watch:

Win or lose get used to hearing his name for the next 6 weeks...

How well do Cambiasso and Zanetti deal with Robben cutting in from the left?

Does Mourinho’s left wing player – Pandev or possibly Eto’o – successfully pin back Lahm and keep him from supporting Robben in the attack?

Are Schweinsteiger and Van Bommel able to get close enough to Sneijder to stifle his creative force?

Do Lucio and Samuel do the same job they did on Didier Drogba or will the deeper positioning of Müller and Olić pull them out of shape?

Will Bayern be able to keep Inter’s attack narrow by curtailing the advances Inter’s Brazilian engine, Maicon?

The Details
Rupert has put the game on Fox, not Fox Soccer Channel, in glorious HD for all. Invite a friend over for a free beer around 2.30 PM EDT on Saturday. Just don’t miss it.

26 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/05/20 at 10:58 PM

    I believe that both side will play some sort of 4-2-3-1 formation, even though it may be a little lopsided / asymmetric, whatever you want to call it.
    Inter played a masterclass of strategic football against Barcelona in the Nou Camp. The difference this time of course, is that Inter don’t have the lead going into the game. Just to re-cap in the SF, Mourinho moved (right footed) Zanetti across to left back, to cover (inverted ) Messi, and the little man was pretty quiet. Also, Chivu played just in front to cover Alves’ runs from RB. Perhaps the same this time? I feel that Mourinho will do the same to combat Robben who has had an unbelievable CL this season (think Juventus, Fiorentina, United). He will have to have a plan to keep the bookie’s favourite to score the first goal quiet. With Ribery suspended, this will obviously weaken Bayern Munich and help Mourinho’s plan to utilize Maicon. From Bayern’s point of view, they have to keep an eye on Sneijder. It will be interesting to see how his Dutch international teammate, Van Bommel will keep an eye on him. Also, How will Van Gaal stop Maicon from bombing forward?

    I honestly think Inter will win because their back 5 is more solid. In my opinion, this is where the difference is.


    • Posted by Antonio H. on 2010/05/20 at 11:52 PM

      I don’t think Bayern will be weakened all that much by Ribery’s absense. Although there won’t be another case of *Robbey* Altintop is still class. I think he has a big game stashed away in his back pocket for Saturday


  2. Posted by Antonio H. on 2010/05/20 at 11:50 PM

    Altintop is such a BEAST. I can’t wait to play against him on Turkey Day. Not to Mention my favorite non USMNT player Kazim Kazim will be balling on the opposite wing.


  3. Tuesday…. great post. You’re one of the site’s best commentators and it’s always a treat to get a full column from you.


  4. Many thanks gentlemen.

    I need to come up with something in the way of illustrations for these posts but I’m not gifted in that department as I demonstrated with my attempt at Flash animations.

    Some omissions:

    I ignored the possibility that Zanetti could partner Cambiasso in midfield with Chievu playing left back.

    Pranjic would be the more defensive replacement for Ribery, but I think Maicon is best contained by making sure he spends time defending.

    Sneijder likes to drift out to the left of midfield, into the space vacated by Lahm, so it’s also possible that Jose could have whoever plays on the left play a bit deeper to coax him forward.

    If you can’t tell, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with Jose. Sometimes he is as brilliant as he says he is. Other times he should just shut up. What he did in the last two rounds was brilliant but it doesn’t hurt having 9 World Class players who can carry out your instruction to the letter. Often I feel like he takes more than his share of the plaudits that should rightfully be going to them. Managers get most of the blame when things go wrong, so why shouldn’t they get more credit when they go right?

    You have to wonder about a manager who never stays in town long – he’s great at taking a decent group of players and making it perform consistently but I’m not sure if he’s capable of staying anywhere over the long term and actually building a team. Anyways, the spectacle would be best served were Inter to concede early and have to chase the game.


    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/05/21 at 7:07 AM

      Yeah, from what I have seen of Inter under Mourinho, Cambiasso and Zanetti play the holding, with Zanetti usually dropping off to cover Maicon. But given how they basically cancelled out Messi’s threat, I can see Inter adopting a similar strategy. And I think it would be great if Bayern scored first. Obviously, first and foremost, I just want to see a great game – but I wouldn’t be opposed to Van Gaal winning!

      Regarding Mourinho himself, I do like the way he puts his ego on the line and takes the spot light off his players. What I don’t like is that he hardly offers up any praise when his team loses – there’s always a conspiracy angle. Obviously, you need a luck to win a tournament (3rd goal vs. Barcelona was offside or in the 2nd leg, Barcelona scored a good goal IMO that was ruled out), but Mourinho never acknowledges it. Look at Ancellotti – he won The Double in his 1st season (scoring a record number of goals) but hasn’t made any claims as being special or whatnot.


  5. Posted by itally on 2010/05/21 at 7:23 AM

    A Gravity’s Rainbow reference? Wow…nice (and a bit much for so early in the morning)!


    • Footnote: A psychologist did an experiment on him as an infant to create a certain Pavlovian response to loud noises. Being a responsible psychologist that performs dubious experiments on infants, of course he then extinguishes the trait, only for Tyrone’s adult “encounters” in WWII London to become predictive of the location of V2 rocket blasts.


  6. Posted by dude on 2010/05/21 at 8:08 AM

    I am conflicted. Inter deserve the trophy, having bested Barca and Chelsea, but I don’t want Materzzi to get Anything ever again. Sigh.


    • Posted by kaya on 2010/05/21 at 9:11 AM

      That and I want to see Mourinho lose. Materazzi is just dislikeable, Mourinho is in his own class.
      Awesome article.
      I’m really excited to watch the game… decided to go to my vastly underutilized TV room only to find my $30/month basic cable doesn’t include the ESPNs. wtf….


      • Posted by itally on 2010/05/21 at 9:19 AM

        I believe this is being shown on “regular” Fox (not FSC or ESPN).


        • Posted by kaya on 2010/05/21 at 10:21 AM

          Shoot, yah, I guess I was thinking of the upcoming friendlies being on ESPN2.
          I don’t even know what would be the channel FSN on comcast, but I’m guessing they’ve left it off. “Interesting” they even offer a package of channels for what’s free over the air…


        • Posted by itally on 2010/05/21 at 10:25 AM

          I think the friendlies will all be on ESPN3 (online)…that is, if I’m reading the schedule correctly! HTH.


        • I know the first friendly against the Czech Republic is being listed on ESPN… regular ESPN. I’m not sure if it will stay there, but that’s what Verizon FIOS is telling me.


  7. Van Gaal: “I think that Chelsea, Manchester United and Barcelona are the best teams in Europe but, nevertheless, we can win the title – we have shown our level. We were a little bit lucky against Manchester United but it was deserved I believe. Its always possible that a lower level club wins, that’s sport.” Hilarious sleight.

    Asked if Mourinho was now the greatest manager of his generation: “Well when you are talking that generation, you are right, he is 10 years younger than me of course…”


    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/05/21 at 12:13 PM

      I think people forget that Van Gaal has won championships in 3 countries, and is a European Cup winning manager too. Mourinho doesn’t have the monopoly on being successful overseas.


  8. Posted by matthewsf on 2010/05/21 at 1:20 PM

    Okay…ironically (or pathetically) I finally had the time to sit back and read this as a reader.

    “Both players put in a lot of hard work in a side that defends from the front almost as well as their opponents.”

    Excellent point on Bayern and one that Barcelona–who typically do and admirable job–forgot once they got frustrated with their inability to move the ball against Jose’s squad.

    I disagree with Antonio about Ribery missing. I think it has a measurable impact because Van Gaal can’t ride the horse that’s leading him closest to water.

    Altintop, Olic and Muller are all class, but they also play off Robben really well. If Inter do a good job at handling Robben (and if they do so 1-on-1), I think Munich will lament Ribery’s absence.

    Oddly enough, I think it will be the defense on Sneijder–who’s going to like launch balls over the top to keep Lahm and Contento (Contento, right?) back with some diagonal balls to Eto and Milio–by Munich that will be important as well.

    I’ll be watching from the Phoenix in SF tomorrow with the rest of the Black Sox if anyone wants to stop by…


    • Posted by kaya on 2010/05/21 at 1:48 PM

      I agree with the Ribery thing… thought I wrote that but I guess I was distracted by my pissy fit over comcast. Does Phoenix allow under 21 since they serve food?


  9. Posted by Wilson on 2010/05/21 at 4:56 PM

    This is Robben time to became a world name. Join the level of Rooney, Ronaldo, Kaka, and Messi.

    Robben carried the team beating ManU and Lyon Now the best team (not Barca-no defense) Inter will be his challenge.


  10. Posted by Tom M on 2010/05/22 at 7:45 AM

    Well defense has taken a rest in the promotion battle between Blackpool and Cardiff. An exciting opening half with both teams going up and down the field. Its 2-2 in the 45th minute. Worth a watch


  11. Posted by Tom M on 2010/05/22 at 8:55 AM

    Blackpool goes up. Good for them. Hope the CL game is as exciting as this one


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