The saying goes that possession is nine-tenths of the law, but try telling that to Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich after being closed out in the first legs of their Champions League semi-final matches against Chelsea and Real Madrid respectively this week.
Diego Simeone’s side could only manage a 0-0 stalemate against Jose Mourinho’s men, a result that leaves the tie firmly in the balance ahead of next week’s return to Stamford Bridge, while Pep Guardiola’s side went one worse and suffered a slender 1-0 defeat at the Santiago Bernabeu courtesy of Karim Benzema’s first-half winner for Carlo Ancelotti’s side. This despite having the vast majority of the ball.
The only stat that matters is the scoreline but the aftermath of both games focused on the contrasting approaches. At the Vicente Calderon Chelsea ‘parked the bus’ to escape with a goalless draw, while a day later up the Paseo de la Castellana in the north of the Spanish capital Los Blancos produced a tactically-perfect counter-attacking display to give them the advantage over the reigning champions ahead of the return to the Allianz Arena.
All four team performances can be analysed in their own way. Chelsea’s approach at Atleti may well be seen by some as ‘anti-football’, something not helped by Mourinho being the man who masterminded it. Another perspective could see the Blues’ display as the perfect performance on foreign soil, a stubborn defence that kept La Liga’s current leaders out at home for the first time this season in the Champions League. Madrid the embodiment of the counter-attack. Atleti and Bayern the orchestrators but without that final pass and cutting edge.
In all the analysis and in all the raw post-match quotes, however, one thing is clear. Possession may well be nine-tenths of the law, but it is certainly not the be-all and end-all. If anything, the first legs of these semi-finals have shown that it sometimes suits the better, more tactically-aware teams to play against possession, rather than with it.
"Madrid are the best counter-attacking team in the world,” said Bayern boss Guardiola in the aftermath of his side’s defeat. An acknowledgement that there is more than one way to play the beautiful game, despite his staunch allegiance to possession-based tika-taka.
At the Bernabeu Bayern had a huge 72 per cent of the possession but for the most part Blancos goalkeeper Iker Casillas was relatively untroubled. Indeed, the visitors’ best chance came in the last five minutes when Mario Gotze found some space inside the Madrid box but could only fire straight at the Madrid No.1. Los Blancos’ 28 per cent brought arguably the best chances of the match, with Benzema slotting home Fabio Coentrao’s 19th minute cross in the hosts’ first threatening raid of the match and both Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria missed further opportunities to extend their lead before half-time.
It was much the same as Madrid set-up in the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona in Valencia a week before. Ancelotti prefers the 4-3-3 system but the absence of Ronaldo in the cup final, and Gareth Bale against Munich, Argentine Di Maria became the extra man in the three-pronged attack but dropped back to form a midfield four when his side didn’t have the ball. The two banks of four proved too much for Barca to break down and seven days later Pep’s Munich failed, too. With the long ball quality of Alonso and Luka Modric, coupled with the ball of Di Maria, Ronaldo and Benzema, Ancelotti’s side can turn defence into attack in a matter of moments and that tactic worked to a tee again on Wednesday night.
Twenty four hours earlier at the Calderon it was Chelsea’s turn to nullify their opponents and nullify them they did. Mourinho has been lamented somewhat for ‘parking the bus’ against Los Colchoneros but it’s a tried-and-tested tactic from the Portuguese. His Inter Milan side did a similar job to Barcelona en route to winning the competition in 2010, and Chelsea will just about be favourites for the return leg, despite a failure to grab that crucial away goal. Atleti had 69 per cent of possession to Chelsea’s 31 per cent but were frustrated in front of goal all night. It was the first time they failed to find the back of the net on home soil in this season’s competition so the plaudits, and not blame, must be given to Mourinho, especially seen as people are quick to forget Atleti, and not their neighbours or Barcelona, lead La Liga.
It was the polar opposite for Simeone’s charges in the previous round. Atleti knocked out Barca, drawing 1-1 at the Camp Nou in the first leg but winning the second leg 1-0 despite only having 29 per cent of the ball compared to Barca’s 71 per cent. Bayern again had the lion’s share of possession in their quarter-final first-leg match at Manchester United but could only leave with a 1-1 draw, although the away goal left them in the driver’s seat for the return leg which they eventually won 3-1.
“We have to play a complete match,” said Madrid midfielder Alonso in the pre-Bayern press conference. “Possession is a relative statistic and having it just for the sake of it is pointless. You have to know how to interpret the game and how to harm them.” Job done by Alonso and company then. Bayern may have seemed the team in control, the team dominating, but Madrid were more intelligent with the ball and it paid off.
In some quarters, as with Chelsea and Mourinho, Madrid’s tactics may have been deemed as ‘anti-football’. Former Madrid man Arjen Robben was certainly surprised by their approach. "I expected them to come storming out of the gates, but instead they waited and allowed us to run the game,” he said. "That surprised me.” In others, even from the opposition camp, Ancelotti’s approach was lauded. “Madrid were superior, better, quicker,” said Bayern legend and honorary president Franz Beckenbauer.
A few years ago, with Barcelona in their prime and argued as the best club side to ever play the game under the guidance of Guardiola, tika-taka was the best way, and it seemed the only way. Praise was lavished, trophy upon trophy was gathered and an adaptation by the Spanish national side, too, brought European Championships and World Cups. The easy-on-the-eye approach was the benchmark and the template to adhere to but not anymore. Answers that previously could not be found have been found and there are other ways of playing and other ways of succeeding.
Chelsea and Madrid still have 90 minutes to press home their respective advantages before heading to Lisbon and will likely be on the ‘wrong end’ of the possession statistic once again, but the only stat the history books will look to is the final scoreline, and at ‘half-time’ of both ties both clubs have shown that, as Alonso said, possession is pointless if it is not turned into goals. Tika-taka has been the ‘go-to’ tactic for success in recent seasons but not anymore, and that should be good for the game.