Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Champions League Review: Possession Isn't Everything

If Tuesday’s Champions League games revealed anything it’s that there is more to the game of football than possession. Both games ended in 1-1 draws but the parallels don’t stop there, Bayern had 74% possession and pass accuracy of 91% against Manchester United, whilst Barcelona had 71% possession and 90% pass accuracy against Atletico Madrid.

Despite Ryan Giggs’ protestations Manchester United were clearly underdogs ahead of the tie with the newly crowned German champions. Such has been Bayern’s dominance this season that many claimed it’d be a question of how many rather than what the result itself would be. Given the injuries that United faced it’s hardly surprising that this was the view that many took, but perhaps more surprising that it wasn’t the outcome.    

Although United looked particularly vulnerable out wide early on they grew into the game and should have gone in to the lead when Danny Welbeck was presented with a one on one but opted to chip Neuer when a less cultured finish might have beaten the German keeper. It was United who took the lead, with a Vidic header from a Rooney corner, it showcased Bayern’s vulnerability and their use of zonal could be a weakness Moyes looks to exploit in the second leg.

The lead only lasted 8 minutes when substitute Mandzukic knocked down a Robben cross for Schweingsteiger to rifle the ball past De Gea. The scorer’s impact on the game did not finish there, he received a second yellow card, meaning he will miss the second leg and while Bayern have a multitude of talented midfielders to call on his experience will be missed.  It was nice to see Rooney not react to Schewiengsteiger’s claims he dived, the England man just shrugged nonchalantly, Rooney is beginning to show the experience he has.

Bayern had 16 shots, but just 3 of them were on target whilst the United defence managed to get in the way of half their attempts, blocking 8 shots. Despite having almost 3 times less possession United had more shots on target (4) from their considerably fewer (6) attempts. United also restricted Bayern to shots from long range, half their shots came from outside the area, compared to just 17% of United’s ( although that is skewed by the small sample size of 6).

It’s interesting that Bayern opted for Guardiola as a coach, given how last year Bayern tore what was essentially his Barca team apart, 7-0 on aggregate. The result signified a shift in power, an indicator that possession may not be the best way to win games and that a quick counter pressing game was more effective. However, Bayern seem to have taken a step back, their game is now heavily reliant on possession and although Guardiola claimed they were to be a plan A-Z team and not just a plan A team like his Barca were, last night didn’t show that. He has removed the fluidity and pace which made last season’s Bayern so ominous.

Against possession based play teams will park the bus and play on the counter and last night illustrated that it was just as effective a way to play. Bayern played 701 short passes, at times in places it wasn’t necessary, United were happy to let them have the ball in their own half and only really became concerned when they neared the final third. But when they presses Bayern they didn’t look comfortable on the ball, particularly not Neuer who skewed a few clearances whilst being closed down.

Guardiola’s former club Barcelona could only manage a 1-1 draw at home to La Liga leaders Atletico and their away goal will have Simeone’s men believing they can reach the semi-finals. Especially as Pique is now out for 4 weeks added to the lengthy lay-off facing Valdes. Earlier in the season Simeone said he doesn’t care about possession and last night illustrated that. Atletico are very effective at what they do, their defence is one of the best in the world right now and going forward they have the players capable of doing damage. Whislt a lot of the goal scoring onus has fallen on Diego Costa this season, his hamstring injury last night could be bad news for Atletico’s title and Champions league dreams.

Barca managed 19 shots but just 6 on target, whereas Atletico had 2 of their 6 attempts on target. The statistics are remarkably similar to the United Bayern game, but whereas Atletico will fancy their chances going in to the second leg it’s take a brave man to back United to go through against Bayern.

Statistics courtesy of

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