The Arrogant and the Uninspired
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton’s Third Law is elegant in its simplicity and happens to be crucial in the beautiful game. In fact the concept of balance has always been extremely important in football. Much so that in the nineties and early two-thousands, many teams in Europe were obsessed by conventional tactics: 4–4–2 and playing with two destroyers in the midfield.
Conventions however are meant to be challenged. Those who do so successfully are labeled geniuses, creators or innovators. Three words that football punditry has come to associate with Pep Guardiola. Carlo Ancelotti’s 4–4–2 with Madrid in 2014 and 2015 also deserves an honorable mention in terms of football innovation — ostensibly dropping the notion that we need two destroyers in the midfield to win. Football genuinely needs managers who are willing to challenge tactical balance hence why there will always be a place for the Marcelo Bielsa’s of the world somewhere in Europe. However, sometimes, innovation has its limitations, and boldness is essentially stubbornness.
Circa 1962, it is widely accepted that a football team needs to field 6 players more or less dedicated to defending: Traditionally, four classical defenders and two shutters in the midfield. Today Zidane and Guardiola both neglected this traditional equilibrium. Guardiola — as often is the case— was guided by his arrogance. Zidane was uninspired, I supposed limited by injuries in Madrid’s rosters and also for the most part clueless. But in both cases, the result was predictable.
Despite the amount of talent in both teams, El Classico has rarely been very entertaining in the past fifteen years. Sure, there has been a few Manitas and some dominant performances (Ronaldinho’s 2005 comes to mind). Sure, we’ve seen some interesting tactical battles but none were thrilling encounters that deserve to go in the history books as one of the best games of the decade. In that sense, El Classico is tasteless and it’s a shame this is still the most popular game in the world. Purists will blame Madrid’s antifutbol dispositions and in some ways they will be right. Nonetheless, Barcelona, for all of its offensive superiority, is often charmless during those games and deserves criticism for uninspiring play.
Today was an exact representation of what I expected from El Classico. It was a sluggish affair, with poor passing and few shining moments. Madrid conceded the ball to Barcelona and waited for a break. Barcelona essentially accepted possession but did nothing more. In other words, they had the ball but very little happened. Barcelona missed Iniesta, and both Modric and Busquets were for the most part excellent. What else you need to know? 1–1 draw for what was a very boring game.
I turn my attention to Zidane. For all of his brilliance on the pitch, Zidane has been border line amateurish with Madrid. This team is undefeated in the last 32 games but it must be pointed out that Madrid has not had an identity ever since Ancelloti was sacked. The team feels extremely inauthentic, they’re not good on defense and they are certainly not great on offense. Most importantly, the tactical choices are for the most part weird.
Last year, Zidane made a bold decision to stick with Casimiro as a permanent starter in the midfield. This kind of pragmatic realism made me hopeful that we would soon see a coherent Madrid team with fluidity and identity. It’s been more than 6 months since, Madrid won the champions league and they are up 6 points in la Liga standings but their success feels like luck more than anything. In Zidane, madrid fans hoped to find a new Guardiola, what they got instead was a less brilliant version of Ancelloti with all of his Laissez-Faire attitude. Even though he is winning now, I’m not sure this is a good thing for Madrid in the long run.
Meanwhile in England, we got the kind of encounter we wished El Classico would be. Chelsea-City was a fascinating game. One that addressed questions we may have had about the premier league: Are Chelsea a genuine contender? Is Antonio Conte the best manager in the early season? The answer is yes to both of those questions.
Guardiola chose to defy football balance in his own way but football gravity made his team fall. He fielded a 3–4–3 with Leroy Sane, Jesus Navas and Iikay Gundogan as 3 players in his midfield against a Chelsea team that is known for its tactical discipline and its physical endurance. Even though it did not seem like it during the game, it was suicide from the start. When Guardiola fielded a 3–4–3 at Barcelona, he had Dani Alvez, a capable defender, on the right wing. He had Busquets — one of the smartest players in the last two decades — to cover on defense. He had Xavi and Iniesta, two classically trained holders in the midfield. With Bayern, he also had smart players of the defensive ends that enabled his gimmicks: the excellent trio Xabi Alonso, David Alaba and Philip Lahm. With City, as talented as this team is, he does not have those choices on the defensive end of the pitch.
You didn’t have to watch the game to know that Chelsea dismantled City on counters, or to know that it took Chelsea less than five passes to score on each occasions. You didn’t have to watch the game to know that Manchester City was pathetic on defense. Yet Guadiola did what Guadiola does best: My way is the only way. This was the kind of defeat that reminded me of why Bayern lost badly against Madrid and Barcelona in the champions league in 2014 and 2015. Guardiola overreached with his choices: offensive dominance meant accepting holes on defense that a team like Chelsea would always exploit.
I suppose defenders of this approach can point out to the 61% of possession, to the fact that City had a lot of opportunities and even their goal came from a Jesus Navas cross. However you slice it though, this was tactical incompetence: Guardiola is not winning in the premiere league with a team that has no cohesion on defense.