By Christopher Worrall
This weekend saw two big European sides handed humiliating defeats in their own back yards. Playing almost simultaneously on a Saturday night, both Manchester City and Real Madrid were battered by flexible, impressive opponents. In the aftermath of both games, both Liverpool and Barcelona have received great praise for their respective destructions of powerful opposition, and quite rightly. However, this praise should not be the only, or indeed the primary, lesson to take from this weekend. These defeats came largely from failings of the losers, specifically in remarkably similar tactical disasters that spoke of a shared arrogance both teams have shown more than once in recent history.
From the outset, both sides set out with variations of an offensively minded 4-2-3-1. In the case of Madrid, it often resembled more of a 4-2-4 (as astutely observed by Sid Lowe) with James Rodriguez pushing up alongside the front three of Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo. In most games, these tactical set-ups are intended to impose their own game onto the opposition and against weaker opponents, this approach works. Here, this weekend, the assumption of both of these teams – the assumption of dominance – proved a major undoing. More than that, it was a decision bordering on arrogance as both sides were totally outplayed largely because of their own pregame assumptions.
In the case of City, the first half was a combination of lesson and humiliation. True, Liverpool played well, pressed high and caused problems that may have troubled even a top-level performing City. However, from within the first two minutes it was clear that Pellegrini’s side were totally wrong both in shape and mind-set. Individual sloppiness played a big part, with simple passes evading the performances of virtually everyone on the pitch. More than singular poorness however, the whole team was found out time and again to be incapable of handling Liverpool’s approach. In particular, the space between attack and defence was continually galling for all to see. The holes left by City’s undermanned, under-protected back line came largely from a formation which pushed a front four too far ahead without intensity to press and a midfield two that was continually swamped by Liverpool’s fluid midfield and forward line. Yaya Toure, in one of his worst ever games in a City shirt, was the standout victim of this overly attacking set-up that left its defensive aspects hopelessly inept.
As bad as City were, it was worse at the Bernabeu. Both in performance and the scale of the event, Real Madrid were humiliated on their own patch by a scintillating Barcelona. Once again, their initial tactical approach (whether concocted by Rafa Benitez or imposed by Florentino Perez) grossly underappreciated the merits of the opposition. More specifically, the overloading of attacking players left a midfield duo of Modric and Kroos constantly enveloped by Barcelona’s fluid passing midfield, and their ineffective pressing high up the pitch effectively left the team defending with only six players against the free-scoring Spanish and European champions. Time and again, Los Blancos were left hopefully outnumbered and outmanoeuvred in defence thanks to a game approach seeped in overly attacking arrogance and a simplistic belief of ‘imposing’ their system onto an opponent.
Admittedly, it is hard for a manager to please everyone: philosophical approaches such as these are lambasted when failing just as much as the aggressively pragmatic approaches of somebody like Jose Mourinho. However, there surely has to be a balance. If such a balance had existed in either of these teams on Saturday, they may have been facing a much more pleasant aftermath. As it happened, a refusal to compromise led to respective disasters for two of Europe’s best sides. Hopefully a blip, but quite possibly a damning indictment of the failures awaiting teams who assume, rather than plan, a victory over a talented opposition.
With the announcement of a Florentino Perez press conference this evening, speculation is rife that Benitez may even pay with his job.