Wenger’s obsession

This originally appeared on ESPN FC on 15 February 2012

For all Arsene Wenger’s reputation as a continental football master, one of the anomalies of his career is that he’s never quite mastered continental football.
In fact, he’s never won any of its competitions but been bridesmaid in all of them.
In 1992, his Monaco team lost the Cup Winners Cup final to Werder Bremen. In 2000, his Arsenal lost the Uefa Cup final to Galatasaray and, most recently in 2006, he saw the Champions League slip away against Barcelona.
The strong likelihood this season, of course, is that the wait will go on. Possibly indefinitely.
Indeed, such has been the scale of Arsenal’s issues in this campaign that it almost seems preposterous to be talking about them as potential champions of Europe any time soon; particularly in the current context of the competition.
After a period in the mid-2000s when a series of teams who finished third, fourth and fifth in their domestic leagues illustrated how open and random cup football can be by lifting Europe’s most prestigious trophy, the Champions League appears to have reclaimed its status as the continent’s ultimate barometer of brilliance. In the last four years, all of its winners – Manchester United, Barcelona and Inter – have also claimed their domestic title in the same season. And, even more impressively, all of those victories were part of extended rallies of trophies.
That hardly gives hope to a team who haven’t lifted any silverware in seven years and are desperately fighting to even qualify for the Champions League.
Worse, Arsenal’s last two appearances illustrated just how far away they are from the competition’s elite end as they were eliminated twice by Barcelona in relatively emphatic fashion.
As such, you would imagine Wenger has a little bit too much on his mind to be looking so far ahead. However, that would also involve discounting just how much the Champions League dominates his thinking.
Over the last two decades, much has been made of Alex Ferguson’s “obsession” with the competition. But Wenger’s is arguably equal to it and has never received anywhere near the same attention or examination.
Sources close to him testify that he sees it as a “gaping hole in his CV” and an objective more pressing than reclaiming the league title. He publicly hinted this himself a few years ago.
“I want to win the Champions League but it’s step by step. And to win not once but two or three times, to go into the history of European football.”
Step by step is one thing though. One of the many idiosyncratic problems with Wenger’s Arsenal is that they’ve never walked any kind of steady line in Europe. They’ve never shown the progression or learning curve that, say, Ferguson’s Manchester United sides did between 1996-1999 or 2006-2008.
Indeed, perfectly illustrating Wenger’s peculiar relationship with the competition, Arsenal have got to the final one season only to exit at the last 16 the next; or dismantled a European giant in one round before being eliminated by a smaller fish in the following.
His very first campaign arguably set the tone: in 1988-89, Monaco absolutely annihilated a very competent Club Brugge only to immediately fall to a mediocre Galatasaray.
And, if you do go back that far, his entire record is revealing. In a total of 15 completed seasons in the European Cup/Champions League, Wenger has reached the final once, the semi-finals twice, the quarter-finals and last 16 five times each and gone out at the first hurdle twice.
With Arsenal, his average round of elimination has been the last 16: exactly where he finds himself now.
Hardly encouraging or edifying. And, for a style that seems so suited to European football, also hard to explain.
But then perhaps his Champions League record also reflects exactly why Wenger’s career trophy cabinet isn’t as glittering as it perhaps should be. Because, as his title-winning sides of 1998, 2002 and 2004 perfectly illustrated, Wenger’s style of management and football both work best when his teams are at full confidence; when the new-age football comes off so naturally that they don’t even have to think about it.
When that confidence is broken, however, it seems to take Wenger a long time to rebuild. And, not only might that explain why he’s never retained a league title but also the oscillating European seasons. In short, his teams seem to find it difficult to overcome a poor domestic run to deliver continental results. The eliminations to Bayern Munich in 2005 and PSV Eindhoven in 2007 would appear perfect cases in point.
What’s more, Wenger has never quite proven himself as tactically pragmatic in Europe as Ferguson or Rafa Benitez – England’s last two champions. Both, for example, evolved and adapted. Wenger hasn’t other than the run to the final in 2006; a run that was also built on Martin Keown’s defensive work.
As such, a lot will depend on his side’s confidence. But that’s also what now makes this tie with Milan so interesting.
Had Arsenal not won at Sunderland on Saturday then you could have been genuinely worried for them. Instead, they claimed the sort of late, electrifying victory against awkward opposition that can change mentalities and seasons. It may well prove their most significant result of the campaign.
But just as significant might be the exact make-up of this Champions League. In contrast to previous years, two of the best sides in Europe – Manchester City and Manchester United – are already out. Meanwhile, the continent’s very best – Barcelona – seem to be struggling with complacency and conditioning. Should they meet Real Madrid early on, too, a path could well be cleared.
All of a sudden, we may end up with one of the most open Champions League seasons since 2007.
It was around that period, of course, that Arsenal enjoyed their best ever performance in the competition.
And it seems it’s going to take something similar if Wenger is ever to master that obsession.

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Champions League final 2014 report: Real Madrid 4-1 Atletico Madrid (aet)

A version of this originally appeared in the Irish Examiner

Real Madrid 4-1 Atletico Madrid

Miguel Delaney, Estadio Da Luz

Having finally put Real Madrid’s name back on the European Cup, a serene Carlo Ancelotti put it into the club’s true terms.

“On my first day, when I went to the Santiago Bernabeu trophy room, I said to the president [Florentino Perez] that there was one trophy missing.”

Ancelotti has completed that job, delivered La Decima, and it’s difficult to think of a more complete victory in terms of the dimensions of their 4-1 win over Atletico Madrid.

This, in so many ways, was the perfect 10th. The wait made it all the more wonderful for Real, the circumstances all the more special.

For a start, right at the death, there was the relief and release of Sergio Ramos’s stoppage-time equaliser. It gave Real new life, and killed all of Atletico’s momentum. From there, there was only one winner, but also one player who needed to score that key goal most.

Gareth Bale went some way to justifying his world-record transfer fee, and overcoming so many earlier misses, by heading in the decisive effort that finally put Real ahead. Marcelo made it 3-1 before the man that Bale succeeded as the world’s most expensive player, Cristiano Ronaldo, got his big goal in his home country.

Then, there was the significance of all that. The competition’s most successful ever club brought the trophy back to what they consider its rightful home, and against the side closest to home.

Perez looked on proudly. The Real Madrid president could finally say all that outlay was worth it, given how so many of his expensive stars had struck. It was testament to Ancelotti’s ability to handle top players. It also meant the Italian had his hands on a landmark third European Cup as a manager, finally becoming the figure to match Bob Paisley’s record.

On the pitch and off it, the emotions were clear. Iker Casillas said it was better than winning the World Cup. On 90 minutes, the goalkeeper had energetically grabbed Ramos and kissed him, fully aware of the importance and immortality of that equaliser. The two Real stalwarts were the last to leave the stadium mixed zone, but not until after Casillas had held up two hands to signify those 10 European Cups.

In the end, for all the emotion, it’s difficult not to distil it down to the numbers like that: a 12-year wait since Real’s ninth Champions League, over €1bn spent, three world transfer records… and one minute from the most painful failure.

That shows how close Atletico came, but also how far away Diego Simeone’s side really were.

The story of their season has been how they so admirably defied football’s economic realities. In winning the Spanish title, they spent so much energy, rather than money. It couldn’t continue indefinitely, despite Diego Godin’s opening goal. Real had that bit more.

In extreme circumstances like that, it’s difficult to put such a result down to any single factors. Had a bounce gone a different direction, or a ball gone another way, Atletico would be celebrating.

Instead, the only issue that Simeone was lamenting was the gamble on Diego Costa, who went off injured after nine minutes. The true consequence of that was that Atletico could really have done with that extra substitute as the extremities of the game sapped their energy.

“It was my responsibility to have [Diego Costa] play and obviously I made a mistake because I had to switch him as early as I did.”

Simeone, however, acknowledged that Real deserved it late on, but it takes nothing from Atletico’s campaign.

“You have to look at it overall – Madrid were better in the second half, they kept us in our half and we couldn’t get out. Football is wonderful because of that.

“The supporters should be proud of an excellent season, they shouldn’t waste a single second being sad.”

Bale, by contrast, had wasted many a chance.

“A few thoughts crept into my mind,” he admitted afterwards. “It happens and sometimes you don’t get the rub of the green but you have to keep persisting, keep going and you may get that chance that will may get that chance that will make the difference. Thankfully, I was able to get that chance and I was able to take it.”

Ancelotti, meanwhile, insisted it was down to much more than the “rub of the green”.

“You can say I’m a lucky man in the end, or you can say that we tried to do everything until the last second of the game.”

Real certainly did try to do everything, but not just on this night in Lisbon. It means, for now at least, they have achieved everything that has consumed the club for the past decade: la Decima.

***

A version of this originally appeared on The Score

Right at the death, this Real Madrid team ensured immortality. La Decima was delivered in Lisbon, Atletico Madrid suffered devastation.

And, having set it up, Sergio Ramos summed it up.

“It was incredible,” the centre-half said of his injury-time equaliser in Real’s 4-1 win. “That goal isn’t mine, it’s everybody’s.”

It also meant everything.

For all that Gareth Bale ultimately proved his worth with the second goal, and Cristiano Ronaldo crowned his night with the fourth, it was Ramos who provided La Decima’s decisive and defining moment.

His plundering header brought so much to a head.

This had so much wrapped up in it, even by the standards of late goals in this famous fixture, from Teddy Sheringham in 1999 to Arjen Robben in 2013.

Most immediately, it transformed a 1-0 defeat into a 4-1 procession. Real were suddenly soaring after such a struggle.

Yet, whatever about exaggerating their victory, the unexpected extent of the winning margin only emphasised and reflected the importance of that moment – and not just on the night.

Most obviously, of course, it changed the dynamic. Ramos’s goal ensured all of Atletico’s energy was finally eroded, while Real played with a new momentum. That meant, rather than talking about a modern football miracle, we were merely celebrating the club that were already the most successful in the competition’s history. Instead of Atletico continuing to defy the sport’s economic realities, Real confirmed the value of spending a billion. One side won their long-expected 10th trophy, another were denied what would have been a novel first.

The goal may have changed this match, but it also ensured the game in general remains the same.

None of this is to deny the fundamentally sporting qualities of the Real players’ victory. Carlo Ancelotti’s team displayed supreme character to keep going, and then accelerate.

Yet, when it comes to such proper knife-edge moments like Ramos’s equaliser, it can genuinely be difficult and even foolhardy to place too much importance in any individual reasons for success or failure.

Had one kick been slightly under-hit, or one pass further been over-played, it could have been completely different. Atletico would be celebrating.

At the same time, it’s impossible not to look at the multiple strands that ensured that single moment was so decisive.

Here, some blame must go to the otherwise brilliant Diego Simeone. For a start, quite literally, there was the gamble on Diego Costa’s fitness. While the decision to play the injured striker from the beginning was someway understandable, his bizarrely early withdrawal ensured Atletico were denied a substitute in those energy-sapping closing stages. Imagine, by contrast, the effect of bringing Costa on at that point?

Secondly, there was the way in which Simeone’s cynicism eventually proved a negative for his own team. All that defending, and all that systemic fouling, only increased the pressure. Atletico’s time-wasting, meanwhile, gave Ramos an even greater window to equalise.

Yet, from a wider perspective, it would be hugely unfair to overly fault Simeone and his side for any of that that. They themselves are not exactly playing in the fairest context.

The Argentine cannot spend multi-millions on transfers, or call on a series of the world’s most expensive players.

Simeone has to cut his cloth to measure, and that won’t always be pretty, especially after the exertions of the domestic league victory.

In that regard, there was a certain inevitability about Real’s recovery, even if it didn’t feel like it in the anxious moments leading up to it.

Ancelotti’s side won by sheer force of numbers. That’s in an almost literal sense, at least in terms of transfer fees

They were able to rely on record signings, who simply hadn’t expended the same energy in recent weeks. So much effort had been spent on Atletico’s title win. So much money had been spent in Real’s last decade.

It said much that the world’s most expensive player scored Real’s second goal and the next most expensive scored the fourth.

Of course, you can’t put any value on the kind of emotions authentically experienced by all at the club on finally ending that wait, but that in itself raises another issue.

This is now the third season in a row in which one of the super-wealthy modern super-clubs have ended a long Champions League drought. Chelsea at last won their first in 2012; Bayern Munich won a first in 12 years in 2013; Real did the same tonight.

The novelty value of ending these waits starts to wear off, even if that is obviously not the case for those at the clubs.

The feeling grows that the old elusiveness of the European Cup is now gone for such clubs. A cabal of them will just ending up passing the trophy around, even more so than the last decade. If you have the money, you’ll eventually get your turn.

That the last three finals all came down to the last minute actually emphasises the point. It doesn’t show how agonisingly close Borussia Dortmund and Atletico came, but prove how far away they are.

As the margins lessened, the true gaps were revealed.

That is why that Ramos minute was so momentous, and not just for La Decima.

The final rise of the super-clubs, May 2014

A version of this originally appeared on ESPN FC

Miguel Delaney

Lisbon

Carlo Ancelotti was never going to pass up the opportunity. With the Puerto del Sol waiting for the victorious Real Madrid squad in the centre of the Spanish capital, the Italian coach took the microphone, and began to serenade the crowd. Elsewhere Dani Carvajal showed off a beard he had died blonde, while Iker Casillas’s young son cutely bit into his father’s newly-minted Champions League winner’s medal. There were smiles and laughter everywhere.

The exhausted relief of Saturday’s 4-1 win over Atletico Madrid had given way to jubilant release. For all the traditional elitism of a club like Real, these were endearingly base human reactions. The squad were simply revelling in the reflection of that 10th European Cup.

A 12-year wait, and one big weight, had lifted.

It was impossible to begrudge the players or coaching staff.

It was also impossible not to think we’d seen similar scenes rather recently.

Of course we had: in the last two seasons.

The emotions on view around Madrid were similar to those in the Allianz Arena last season and London’s Kings Road the year before.

In 2012, Chelsea beat Bayern Munich to joyously win the first Champions League in their history. The following campaign, the German side immediately bounced back to end their own 12-year wait.

The speed with which Bayern did that is pointed.

It’s difficult to imagine Atletico Madrid returning to such a position so quickly, just as 2013 finalists Borussia Dortmund could only reach the quarter-finals this season. It’s also difficult to think many of the super clubs will ever go on such lengthy droughts again.

This is the wider point to those Champions League wins of the last few years, and the manner in which those three elite clubs claimed victory. While the emotions of people directly involved are obviously so deeply felt, the frequency of these ‘once-a-generation’ celebrations gradually renders them less wondrous for many others. We’ve seen the story before.

If a big club is ending a wait every other season, it only increases the sense they’re all just eventually going to get their turn. That’s possibly because that’s precisely what’s happening. It is the increasing trend in the Champions League, more so than ever before.

A cabal of about seven to 10 super-clubs now have so much power and so close to each other in terms of baseline level that, if they keep generally competitive to a competent level, the odds are the roulette wheel will eventually land in their favour; that the great trophy will come to them.

To illustrate the case, consider the situation in the late 90s, just before the Champions League fully and finally expanded to its current size.

Real Madrid had gone 32 years without winning the trophy before 1998, Manchester United 31 before 1999. Bayern ended up going 25 years prior to 2001. Barcelona, meanwhile, were the great underachievers in the competition’s history. The Catalans only won it once in the first 40 years of the event.

Compare all that to now, and the length of time it is since this list of clubs last won the trophy:

Real Madrid – 0 years

Bayern Munich – 1 year

Chelsea – 2 years

Barcelona – 3 years

Manchester United – 6 years

The point becomes clear. Previously, there was a genuine elusiveness to the trophy, no matter who you were. Now, that true depth of elusiveness only exists for those outside the cabal. Once the big clubs properly adjusted to the extra demands of newly expanded Champions League from around 2007, and built squads of sufficient size, they set a certain bar. Beyond, the sense grows the trophy will merely pass around between them.

This is of course not to play down the achievement of any individual team, since they still have to do all their jobs right and show requisite character to actually go and win it in a given season. But, on a macro level, it is a reality that a core of clubs are no so broadly close to each other that they will just crash against each other to the point the path clears for one.

This is the problem when the economics of European football allow a small group to pull so far clear of the rest. And, if it is immensely difficult to catch up with these sides, it is easy to see who and what they are. It is nothing to do with history or structure, or old money against new money. It is simply those with enough power and potential to employ the world’s top band of players and coaches.

They are, primarily: Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City. Five of them have won it in the last seven years, and City’s time is surely coming.

A secondary growing group, meanwhile, are Paris Saint-German, Arsenal and Juventus. They could eventually be joined by the likes of Monaco. Everyone else has to work so much harder to just keep, and thereby properly compete for the top trophies.

Many may point to the fact Dortmund and Atletico got to the final in consecutive years, but both sides virtually prove the argument.

They are not super-clubs, so needed rare super-coaches to come anywhere near victory. It was still not enough in the Champions League, and the elite are already chasing Jurgen Klopp and Diego Simeone. The fact both of their finals also went to the wire further emphasises the point.

So near, yet still so far.

Atletico were on the brink of something truly radical, to go with their sensational Spanish title win. Instead, continental football reverted to a default state. Real Madrid were talking about returning to their “rightful place”. That very description sums up the issue.

There are a core of clubs that feel the same way and, by law of averages, will soon get similar opportunities.

On this occasion, Ancelotti took his opportunity, and not just on the Puerto del Sol stage. Next season, we’ll likely hear the same old song.

Champions League 2012 report: Bayern Munich 1-1 Chelsea (Chelsea win 4-3 on penalties

Miguel Delaney

In Munich

Moments after Frank Lampard finally lifted the prize that Roman Abramovich has obsessed about above all others, the Chelseaowner strode away from the Allianz Arena podium like a man on another mission.

He hurried past the assembled media, refusing to even admit he was happy. He refused, in fact, to say a thing.

Finally, by the time he got to the Chelsea dressing-room – and by the time the jubilant players made their way back – he spoke.

What Abramovich said, however, was seemingly only for those who heard it. John Terry wouldn’t reveal. Frank Lampard wouldn’t reveal. And, from his boss’s words to whether he will even have a job next week, Roberto Di Matteo was giving nothing away.

But that was only in keeping with the 2012 Champions League final as a whole and his team’s run towards it.

Of course, the minimalist, defensive style of Chelsea’s victory was not exactly in the manner that Abramovich imagined when he fist decided to buy the club after being dazzled by a Real Madrid master-class at Old Trafford.

In many ways, however, this was a more appropriate win.

First, it was fired – and secured – by the player who arguably defines the Abramovich era more than any other. Unlike both Lampard and Terry, Didier Drogba was bought for huge money, was one of the first to come and – for the moment – is one of the last of those initial signings to remain. The striker refused to be drawn on whether his emphatic winning penalty was his last kick for the club but did, apparently, make an emotional speech in the dressing-room.

That it came to that kick was also because of the kind of drama and occasional chaos that has typified Chelsea’s history in this competition and created such an obsession. All of the club’s keynote moments – from missed penalties to dubious penalties to devastating last-minute equalisers – were repeated on Saturday in reverse. Ultimately, Drogba got to take the kick he never could in Moscow.

Finally, the entire victory was built on the element that has been almost as important to Chelsea’s last decade of success as Abramovich’s wealth: the durable defensive base that Jose Mourinho put in place.

Immediately after the final, there were already questions about the exact ‘morality’ of Chelsea’s win and whether the success of such a defensive system from such an elite club was good for the game.

“I think the supporters are happy,” Di Matteo argued. “You have to try and get the best out of what you have and that’s what we did.”

To a certain extent, he’s right. It may not have been the purest way to win. But, given the circumstances and given the time available, it was the only way Di Matteo was going to win the Champions League [open itals] this [close] season. After the chaos and aging team he inherited from Andre Villas-Boas, Di Matteo had little choice but to revert to the framework the side’s core knew best.

This was something Lampard also touched on as he defended the team’s approach,

“We weren’t playing good football three months ago. We weren’t at a good level. And, to become organised, Robbie’s got to take a lot of credit… he’s built confidence and spirit in the group.”

Lampard also praised the manager’s general demeanour in a statement in which the slightest criticism of Terry’s behaviour could be construed.

“There’s a humility about him, the way he even picked up the cup. He’s been really, really impressive to me.”

Such a description, of course, is difficult to apply to the game itself. It certainly wasn’t a vintage final. Indeed, in terms of general play if not drama, it went exactly as expected: Bayern’s proactive control against Chelsea’s attempts to contain and counter. Given that, many will point to the pity that the team that actually tried to win the game didn’t do so.

But, in truth, Bayern Munich wouldn’t have been vintage champions themselves.

For one, there was their attitude. All through the build-up and many stages of the game itself, there seemed an unsavoury assumption the home team would win. That culminated in the Basler 1999-style moment when Thomas Muller was brought off for Daniel Van Buyten to receive the acclaim of scoring the expected winning goal.

When things went against Bayern, however, their attitude was the exact opposite and just as extreme. As soon as Mario Gomez failed to score the first of many chances, there was an angst creeping into their play. By the time Muller volleyed wide shortly before half-time, their body language betrayed genuine anxiety. They were snatching at chances and trying to force things. The pressure had got to them. And it contributed to a situation where they only scored once from a massive 35 efforts on goal.

By contrast, Chelsea only won one corner. They scored from it.

That illustrated a wasteful front and a soft centre in a hugely inconsistent and incomplete Bayern.

It shouldn’t be forgotten either that, for long stretches, these teams looked exactly what they are: effective also-rans in their domestic league. Chelsea’s otherwise impressive defence still allowed too many chances; Bayern missed them. As a result, the sixth-placed English side are somewhere around Liverpool 2005 in the competition’s pantheon; nowhere near the level of the last few years.

That, however, is knock-out football. Its nuances create such situations; not to mention one where a club from a country famous for scoring penalties let a player from a country infamous for missing them hit the key kick.

Many Chelsea players cited Arjen Robben’s miss as the point they truly believed.

Ultimately, too, they found the formula to properly build on that belief.

It may not have been pure. It certainly does not mean they are the best on the continent. But, in the end, Di Matteo’s minimalism reaped maximum reward. Abramovich, meanwhile, enjoyed the ultimate return on his investment.

***

THE OBSESSION IS finally obliterated.
It may not have been done so in style. It may not have been a vintage final. Chelsea may not be vintage champions.
But they are, ultimately, champions.
The percentage-play tactics received the ultimate pay-off. Indeed, given the nature of Chelsea’s approach, it is arguably – for once – apt that the 2012 final boiled down to the simple logistics of a penalty shoot-out.
Indeed, the identity of the heroes was also entirely appropriate.
Petr Cech has recovered form magnificently over the past few months, and arguably returned to his world-class best. Although neither of Ivica Olic’s or Bastien Schweinsteiger’s penalties were particularly well-struck, they were decently placed and the Czech had to stretch to keep them out.
In front of him, Ashley Cole has been exceptional in Roberto Di Matteo’s reversion to a team more solidly based on Jose Mourinho’s defensive foundation. His battle with Arjen Robben was epic and it was a pity that the rest of the clashes on the pitch didn’t live up to its levels.
One man did though. He arguably surpassed them: Didier Drogba. The man whose energy up front actually makes Di Matteo’s tactics workable ultimately won this game in multiple ways: first with the force that Chelsea had been missing to bring what seemed an unlikely equaliser. Secondly, by facing down Manuel Neuer – and the Bayern stand – to thump home the winning penalty.
For Chelsea, the player that has almost defined the Roman Abramovich era more than any other (unlike both John Terry and Frank Lampard, he was bought in expensively) struck its most decisive kick. For Bayern, it ended an exuberant – and, in truth, expected – party.
All around this final, there was a huge sense of anticipation that Bayern would have a relatively easy ascension.
It didn’t translate to the players though. Although, as also expected, they largely controlled the game with their possession, their failure to quickly make it count gave rise to anxiety strikingly quickly. When Thomas Muller volled wide from an inviting position shortly before half-time, the body language said a lot.
Of course, once Muller finally scored, shortly before full-time, the body language then said even more.
Finally, the Bayern players allowed themselves to believe. They were to regret it.
With Muller taken off for a defender in Daniel Van Buyten, the shape and emphasis changed. Chelsea at last showed a bit of ambition and Drogba made it count.
From there, it was a completely different tie.
Suddenly, it was open. Suddenly, there were no guarantees… until Drogba foolishly fouled for the penalty.
Then, a team from a country famous for scoring penalties allowed a player from a country infamous for missing them to hit one. He did so poorly.
After that, it seemed the two teams were only playing the game out until the situation would be replicated.
It was. But, crucially, for more Bayern players than Chelsea ones.
Di Matteo’s minimalism had prevailed by the narrowest of margins: a tie-breaker.
Of course, Chelsea’s approach may not have been pure. But, to a degree, it was the only way they were ever going to win this trophy this season.
Plunged into a desperate situation, Di Matteo had to revert to what his players knew best: that defensive base, even if he did show some admirable alterations up front.
That may not be to people’s liking. But that’s what cup football is.
Chelsea may not be the best team in Europe. But thanks to the manager’s pragmatism, Abramovich’s riches and the players’ durability and attitude, they are its champions for the very first time.

Champions League final report 2013: Borussia Dortmund 1-2 Bayern Munich

Miguel Delaney, Wembley Stadium

A wait has ended, a weight is lifted and Bayern Munich thereby rise well above the rest of Europe.

Of that, there can be no argument. If the Champions League knock-out format only occasionally rewards the most rightful winner by accident rather than design, Bayern brutally eliminated any element of chance at Wembley. By the end of this groundshaking showdown with Borussia Dortmund, their utter dominance reflected their undisputed status as the continent’s best team. The 2-1 final score confirmed it.

Jupp Heynckes has now won two Champions League trophies as a manager, while Bayern have lifted five as a club.

The key question now is whether this is the first of many for this squad.

Because, as much as this victory proved the culmination of one period, it may prove the start of something else.

That is the potential effect of a cathartic moment like this. The relief was evident. The release, for everyone else, may be ominous.

Make no mistake. Had Bayern managed to lose this match, and to such a close rival, it could have created an even more neurotic complex about this competition for the club.

Consider the amount of anxieties and and troubling experiences that led up to Arjen Robben’s eventual winner.

At that exact point in the previous year’s final, Didier Drogba had scored the goal that sent Bayern’s match into a tailspin. That strike had been preceded by a series of misses which had been repeated in this game, not least from Robben himself.

As Neven Subotic desperately cleared Thomas Muller’s 71st-minute shot off the line just as the Dutch forward was ready to point, there seemed to be an element of destiny about it all; that Bayern would again be bound to punishing failure.

Instead, Robben made his own destiny by discarding so many difficult moments and memories and even having the poise to second-guess Roman Weidenfeller.

It illustrated remarkable mental fortitude, particularly after Ilkay Gundogan’s penalty had almost immediately cancelled out Mario Mandzukic’s scrambled opener.

“We didn’t resign ourselves to our fate,” Heynckes said afterwards. “We upped the ante and tried even harder. You’ve seen the result.”

We’ve also seen the numbers. The chastening experiences of previous campaigns were offset by the champion-making excess of this one. Bayern have broken virtually every record going in the Bundesliga to arrive at this point. In that, it marks a true completion. They were hardened by the harsh lessons of 2010 and 2012 but also lifted by the luscious excellence of 2012-13.

“I think in the whole history of the Bundesliga there has been no team that has played at such consistency, such a high level, 25 points clearing and winning the championship, breaking almost all the records in the Bundesliga. Today, we saw that my team was determined to win that match.”

That was the other impressive aspect. Bayern did not just overcome the endings of their last two Champions League finals, but also the beginning of this one. For the first half hour, it seemed like an excellently intense Dortmund were going to blow them away. Instead, Heynckes’s side held their nerve and gradually took hold of the game.

“To begin with, we didn’t quite find out feet and I have to pay a compliment to Dortmund,” Heynckes said. “They pressed forward, we didn’t find our rhythm and it was a difficult match for us but, before the breakthrough with Robben, we had two opportunities and after the break we took command of the game. I think it’s because of the second half we really deserved to win.”

It also defined the differences between the two sides. As Bayern increasingly came together, Dortmund started to come apart. The gaps in their make-up grew even larger, allowing the likes of Robben more and more space.

That also reflects the chasm that has developed between the two squads as a whole this season, and that is no accident. It has come about for two reasons.

One, it must be admitted, is Bayern’s immense workrate.

They did not just display drive but also application.

“From the outset of the season, we have been changing things, improving things, adapting things. We have a team spirit and ability to work together which I have never experienced in a championship.

“We’ve worked tremendously hard for it, especially in the training sessions, but also on psychology, on communication.”

There was also, however, the platform and power they enjoyed. Heynckes himself referenced the two key signings that effectively completed the team as a unit.

“[Javi] Martinez and Dante, players that have been bullseye successes.”

And, as respectful as the entire post-match atmosphere had been between both teams and the two managers, Heynckes couldn’t resist one big punch.

“We know [Mario] Goetze will be joining us and I don’t think [Robert] Lewandowski will be hanging about too much either.”

This, perhaps, is the real significance of this final. Had Dortmund won, it would have proven such a blow to Bayern that a true rivalry might have been fostered. Instead, they have only consolidated their singular dominance.

They don’t just have the resources; they don’t just have all the most important signings; they don’t just now have one of the best managers in Pep Guardiola.

They also have the belief and cathartic conquest that completes all of that.

Even Goetze will add another dimension to that attack.

It is frightening and may well see the Champions League retained for the first time since 1990. Now Bayern have finally banished their recent history, the rest of Europe suddenly has a lot of catching up to do – even Barcelona, who they so humbled en route to this final.

As a consequence, Robben’s goal represented the perfect ascension: an emotional last-minute winner to complete a commanding season that actually lifts the club above the Catalans in terms of European Cups won.

“I think of course FC Bayern next year will have to prove that can continue to do these things,” Heynckes said. “But I think it possible that a new era in Europe might have begin under the aegis of FC Bayern.”

It certainly felt like it on the night. Bayern themselves, meanwhile, finally felt like European champions.

***

The perfect season, the most perfect of endings.

Bayern Munich did not just confirm their undeniable status as Europe’s best team and bring an incredible campaign to crescendo. They also washed away away all the woe of the last few years. The relief and release were palpable.

Most notably, Arjen Robben overcome so much personal anguish. At almost the same point in the game that Didier Drogba scored last year to send the Munich final into such a tailspin and make the Dutch forward’s penalty miss so decisive, Robbencoolly slotted the winner. More impressively, it came after this final seemed to be following a similar course. You could have forgiven the number-11 for frantically fluffing that late chance given how poor his previous three one-on-ones his previous. Instead, he illustrated composure, character and outright craft to delicately put the ball the other side of the excellent Roman Weidenfeller.

It was cruel on the goalkeeper given how superbly he had performed throughout, barely slipping once. That in itself illustrated just how complete Bayern’s domination was by that point.

For Dortmund, this was no longer a fairytale. It was a grim test of endurance as their goal was increasingly pounded. Ultimately, it reflected the clear chasm that has grown between the sides.

As utterly exceptional as Dortmund can be when they are at their best, any drop-off will reveal the amount of gaps in that make-up. Too many times here, Robben was left in so much space in their half. In that sense, it perhaps made the winner as inevitable as it was innovative.

For that, though, Dortmund can perhaps also look to the opening half hour. While that saw so many of their finest attributes, it also created a franticness that ensured they overplayed too many attacks. It also left them without reward, as Bayern gradually rose to the challenge.

By the end of the half, Bayern were clearly in the ascendancy. They had survived the onslaught and were now surging forward. It perhaps illustrated that there is more to their game, more elements to their side. On the hour, Robben finally illustrated another element to his game as he squared for Mario Mandzukic instead of shooting. The Croatian gladly headed in the opener.

In fact, it was telling that Dortmund’s equaliser had to come from a reckless Dante challenge rather than a true moment of attacking quality. All their energy had seemed expended in the opening half. The irrepressible Ilkay Gundogan still had enough to slot home.

In truth, Dante should have been off the field by then for a second booking, while Franck Ribery also escaped appropriate punishment for an elbow. On Dortmund’s side, though, Lewandowski illustrated similar petulance on a disappointing night for him.

As Bayern struggled to finish, it seemed they needed a forward of the Pole’s calibre.

Instead, Robben showed the quality that has previously been missing on his biggest games.

Now, he’s provided one of the biggest goals in Bayern’;s history. They’ve won it five times. Jupp Heynckes has won it twice.

The question, for the squad as a whole, is whether this will be the first of many.

Robben: vindication and victory

A version of this originally appeared on ESPN FC in May 2013

Soccer - UEFA Champions League Final - Borussia Dortmund v Bayern Munich

On the eve of the Champions League final, as Bayern Munich were getting accustomed to Wembley Stadium in their last training session, manager Jupp Heynckes decided to pull Arjen Robben to the side.

“Look Arjen,” the coach said. “You’re in really good form and tomorrow that is going to be one of the crucial factors.”

It’s the kind of exchange that is often instilled with greater importance only after the fact. Of course, Heynckes may have had a genuine feeling or tactical epiphany. On the other hand, it’s equally possible he was just trying to motivate one of his many players.

Then, there’s the reality that Robben reflects the history of this specific Bayern Munich team better than any other player; that, with sufficient ability and the right circumstances, your time will come sooner or later.

Up until that 88th-minute strike against Borussia Dortmund, after all, Robben had hit 24 shots in Champions League finals without reward. One of them was eventually going to count. Just as Bayern’s sheer resources were gradually going to condition conquest in this competition, Robben has too much quality to fail so completely.

Except, when you listen to his explanation of how the winning moment unfolded and what went through his mind, you realise how much those previous misses had honed the forward for a moment like this. This wasn’t fated, it was fashioned. Most impressively of all, it was clearly a goal borne of intellectual gymnastics rather than basic instinct. Robben reacted to Franck Ribery’s touch and had the presence of mind to register Roman Weidenfeller’s movement.

“When I got the ball, I was free,” Robben said in his post-match press conference. “I anticipated Franck’s movement. The only thought was ‘I hope he lets the ball there’ because I saw the space. I took it well. My first choice was actually to go past him [Weidenfeller] on the left side but then he made a move and I could put it on the other side. He was on the wrong leg.”

Finally, Robben had provided the right finish in a big game and Bayern had at last won that fifth Champions League. Although the Dutch forward later struggled to put the emotion into actual words, his jubilant face and uncontrollable reaction revealed enough.

“For a footballer, this is the greatest you can achieve. When the whistle of a referee blows and you know that you’re winners of a Champions League, for a lot of us it was the thing we really needed that we lacked in our lives.”

That is certainly true of this Bayern squad, not least the likes of Bastien Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm. For Robben personally, though, it wasn’t just about this specific trophy. It clearly meant more to him than most.

It redefined his career.

That feeling grew with every missed chance. It became increasingly apparent that either Robben was going to have to finally score himself or some other Bayern player was going to have to spare him in order to prevent this match becoming another high-profile failure.

That 88th-minute strike, after all, wasn’t just preceded by the three opportunities he had squandered at Wembley on Saturday. There were also the penalty and chances missed against Chelsea in the 2012 final as well as the two crucial one-on-ones wasted against Spain in the 2010 World Cup final.

For all the important goals Robben had scored against Manchester United in the 2009-10 quarter-finals or Barcelona in this year’s last four, he hadn’t yet defined or decided a victorious campaign at the most exacting level. The Dutch forward himself admitted this was on his mind.

“After all the disappointment of last year I personally had, and let’s the say the World Cup – that’s three finals and you don’t want the stamp of loser. You don’t want that tag. At last we did it today and we can’t forget the other things.”

If it seems unfairly stark for an entire career to swing on an individual moment that is still susceptible to unpredictable bounces of the ball – regardless of the stakes – it is ultimately what remains in the memory. Robben has now provided one of the great clubs with a moment they will cherish forever.

The actual reality, beyond the reminiscences, is obviously more complex.

As illustrated by those games against United and Barcelona, as well as countless important domestic fixtures, Robben did produce in decisive games that had their own individual demands. The absence of that keynote performance, though, did reflect the general trajectory of the forward’s career.

He never really became the dominant world star his talent suggested when Alex Ferguson was so desperately pursuing him in the 2003-04 season. That was emphasised by the manner he was discarded by both Chelsea and Real Madrid, a player only intermittently hinted at brilliance rather than regularly provide it.

Now, with Ferguson there to present the man-of-the-match award that confirmed a crowning moment, Robben had proved himself a crucial player for the best side in Europe.

“I am particularly pleased for Arjen,” Heynckes said, “because we were all tragic figures, not just Arjen. Today he was so crucial. Today, for me, he played a very good game.”

No, Robben may not have ultimately made himself one of the greats. But he now has a great goal to cap an excellent career.

Johan Cruyff interview, October 2013

A version of this originally appeared in the Irish Examiner in October 2013
Cruyff
As Johan Cruyff discusses the transfer approach of a particular European club, he lets out a certain agitation.
“I read in the paper that this team are watching this player, this player, this player. Well, they’re idiots because they’re so different that how can you look at three different players in the same position?
“There are too many different things in football. People who are buying, people who are selling or people accepting to go one place or another – it’s not like that. It’s [about] what the team needs.
“It’s absurd.”
Those last two words comprise a phrase that he uses on four separate occasions over the course of a 40-minute interview. Clearly, Cruyff still gets frustrated with many of the orthodoxies of football, a sport he says has “been always narrow-minded”.
As he finishes a morning with another sport, there are admittedly a few moments when the 66-year-old looks like nothing more than an orthodox retiree. He’s just stepped away from a golf course on a Thursday afternoon and, as Cruyff jokily laments his game after a morning spent hitting shots into the wind, a group of teenagers walk breezily by without an utter notion who he is – a few of them wearing football gear.
The Amsterdam native is, of course, so much more than someone who has won the European Cup three times as a player and once as a manager. He essentially is to football what David Bowie is to modern music. If more celebrated counterparts are put forward as the greatest ever, the innovative mindset that underscored his magnificent talent has made him arguably the most influential figure in the history of his field.
It was the approach Cruyff helped create at Ajax in the early 70s that changed football, the structure he put in place at Barcelona that has come to dominate the game’s thinking, and all that while he himself has evolved as a figurehead for one of the sport’s primary philosophies.
The way he thinks remains almost as fascinating as the way he used to play. When asked about specifics of his career, his answers almost always develop into something more conceptual, more lasting. His litany of quotes have become legendary in their own right, and he seems to unintentionally build to single-line mantras about how to approach things. Some of them are elusively paradoxical, others the kind of eternal lessons that you could still valuably coach kids with. One question about his Ajax team of the 70s ended with a response about his nation’s history for travel – and a potential blueprint for any small-to-mid-sized sports federation looking to alter their future.
“We had the typical mentality for that because the Dutch people have been everywhere: from Japan to Indonesia to New York – which was New Amsterdam – to Cape Town. It’s a country which is so [small] so it’s in their character to try new things and to have a look whatever happens wherever. That’s what they did. Maybe sometimes it’s sport, sometimes it’s business but the same thing we see in skating, the same thing we see in hockey, the same thing we see in baseball. How can a team like Holland in baseball – against Japan and the United States – two years ago win the championship? I mean, it’s there. Try new things. Maybe 10 years you don’t hear anything because there are not that many people, but they are capable.
“It’s a country where everybody talks, everybody thinks, everybody’s got their own mentality… and that’s why they’ve been everywhere. It’s a good quality, but at the same time it’s their worst quality.”
Cruyff had his own external influences very early on his life, picking up what he admits is his idiosyncratic English from the forward-thinking former Ajax coach Vic Buckingham. The one-time Tottenham wing-half arrived in Amsterdam in 1959 and began to change things even before Rinus Michels and Cruyff.
“Buckingham I knew very well because I lived next to the stadium [as a boy]. That’s where I learnt my English – if it’s bad!”
On the day of this interview, Cruyff’s own travels have taken him to Scotland, where there is admittedly nothing all that normal about his round of golf either. He is playing at St Andrews in the same group as Ruud Gullit, as part of the celebrity-filled Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. The famous number-14 adores both the event and the area and tries to make it every year, with the added goal of promoting his charity, the Cruyff Foundation.
Even a discussion of the organisation’s aims, which are to improve the lives of all through sport, evolves into something deeper.Cruyff’s description sounds markedly similar to Bill Shankly’s famous quote about football representing a form of socialism.
“What is sport, besides the physical education you do for yourself? It’s playing together, trying things out, getting better every day, winning together, losing together, helping somebody out. It’s life. It’s totally life, 100%.
“We’ve got in the foundation the 14 rules and, if every person, whatever they do, will use these 14 rules, they will be the perfect person.”
The first of those rules, not unsurprisingly, is to be a ‘team player’: “To accomplish things you have to do it together”. One of the last is to “try learn something new every day”.
With all that in mind, Cruyff’s perspective on an individual sport like golf is interesting, particularly since he was the player that most fully made true the idea of individual creativity flourishing within a collective system.
“A lot of individual sports are advanced… You can always learn from other people. We a lot of times stick in the things that we do. If we say the difference between football and golf, a golf professional has got a coach for driving, a coach for putting. In football we’ve got one coach for 15 people, which is absurd.
“And you say yes, but in golf you need a drive, you need this. Yes, but in football you need your left foot, your right foot, to pass it, to control it, to control it with your chest, you need to see 10 other people what they are doing, so there are a lot of things involved. That’s why you should change a lot of things.”
That was exactly what they did at Ajax when Michels took over in 1965.
“It was a conscious [decision], because the individual is the quality. You need the mentality to put it into the team. Everybody’s different, everybody has a different quality, but you should have the same mentality. It means you’ve got to put your quality into the value of the team itself because, in the end, the best player will never come out of a team who loses too much. It’s impossible.
“That’s what I’m trying to explain… Read the paper and [a club] are looking at three different players for one position and you say ‘how can you look at these three? You can look at these three, or these three, but you can never look at these three.’ It’s impossible. What are you looking for? Somebody who’s called defender or a type of defender?
“It’s a big difference, such a big difference.
“A lot of times people don’t see the quality of the individual, and this individual should function good in the team and the way the team plays.”
Ultimately, this very specific interpretation is stamped all over the top level of the game. Through Cruyff, Barcelona and Spain adapted the passing-pressing approach that Ajax initially developed from that base, and Bayern Munich have taken it on further. The principles have not changed: these teams seek to control possession until, when its lost, they press en masse to win it back. The fundamental idea remains to either control the ball or the space to the maximum amount possible, but is now just being applied through the modern trappings that have made the game so physically relentless.
“We said ‘OK, where are the best players?’ Cruyff explains “‘There, in the positions very good but also with the ball – so attack them there. What’s the difference between a good player and bad player? It’s the speed of [control], so if you’ve got to speed them up, it’s to provoke mistakes. And the main thing is that the quicker you can change your mentality, offensive [to] defensive, the first defender is the centre-forward. He’s the nearest by, so the quickest he can put the pressure on, start defending.
“And you run less. You don’t run more. You run less… of course, you’ve got to do possession. It’s a way of thinking and it’s the way you can re-organise the whole thing.” “Because, who’s got the ball, who scores the goal?”
Cruyff doubts whether the actual principles have ever been bettered.
“Well I don’t think so. I think the way Barcelona played, it’s a pleasure for everybody who likes football, because the technical qualities is the highest standard and every little child can try to do the technical qualities. It’s not like somebody runs 100 yards in nine seconds [and] if you can’t do it, you don’t count. You always count because you always can get better. If you want to play basketball you’ve got to be two metres. Otherwise you can’t play. Here, everyone can play and everyone can develop. That’s the nicest thing about the game of football.
“The main thing is, a lot of people think that making a mistake is a problem. No, I don’t think so. Making a mistake is to make you better, as long you learn from your mistake. So I think making a mistake for me is never a problem. It’s a perfect thing, as long as you learn from it and don’t make the same mistake again. The only way you can learn is from your mistakes. You can never learn from the things you did well. It’s impossible.
“That’s what we learned [at Ajax]. You tried something, that didn’t work for that [reason] and that. Do it again. Do something different.
“Football is a game of mistakes and, if you analyse a mistake, you can say OK. If I put somebody where the mistakes come from, with his quality, you’re going to make less mistakes and if you make less mistakes you’ve got more possibilities.
“So it’s a different way of thinking. It’s not like we think this pass is good or bad. If this was the best pass why didn’t he do it? Did he see or didn’t he see it or wasn’t he capable of executing it.
“A lot of times, you’re going to discuss or analyse what he did. Most of the time you’ve got to analyse why he didn’t do the other thing.
“That’s where it all starts, how you see totally different the game. If you analyse it, you can train it on it.”
Cruyff certainly started something at Barcelona. The transformation at the club from his arrival as coach in 1988 was almost as profound as that at Ajax in the late 60s. Over the previous 28 years, the Catalans had won just two league titles and consistently stumbled from crisis to crisis. In the 25 since, they have won 12 Liga championships and the Champions League four times, finally ending the club’s wait for that elite trophy in 1992. Cruyff speaks about such an emphatic metamorphosis as if it was all rather elementary.
“When I came in, they were bad. We had to change. There was no sense to continue something that goes wrong.
“I had a big advantage that I played there [from 1973 to 1978]. You know the mentality, you know what they do, what they think, so it was quite easy to make some rules.
“The players were there, they were good players. You had to put in some character. We brought some players from the Basque country that you know for sure will give it. So it’s a question of compensation in the things you need.”
When his native Netherlands compensated for their inferior ability with a much more negative style in the notorious 2010 World Cup final, Cruyff famously described it as anti-football and put his support behind Spain. Today, he’s a little less dogmatic about it all when asked what sides currently impress him beyond the likes of Barca.
“You can’t say this or that, or this is better than that. You’ve all kinds of different players. A lot of people make comparisons between [Leo] Messi and [Cristiano] Ronaldo. They’re completely different. You can’t compare them. They’re both great in the things what they do, and they’re different. So you can’t say who’s better. You can say who do you prefer as a way of playing. Do you prefer a [more] technical one or you prefer somebody who is technical, who is physical and who can shoot very high. It’s totally different and that’s why it’s so good that the differences are there because you can see that a lot of people make a wrong decision in choosing the team where they go. It’s if the team fits with the quality you have.”
“[Football] has always been narrow-minded because we say ‘he’s a football player’ but in baseball we say he’s a pitcher, he’s a catcher, he’s a third baseman… but why is he a footballer? It’s all different. But, as a coach to direct a team, you’ve got to look at the individual qualities. That’s why I see the game totally different.”
Cruyff is also hoping to influence one more highly distinctive achievement as his life in football comes full circle and brings all of these ideas together. In 2011, if not with about many initial disputes, he was central to a plan that sought to completely restructure Ajax and re-establish many of its principles after almost two decades of losing their way. Just like at Bayern Munich, many ex-players have returned in key roles, with Frank De Boer head coach, Dennis Bergkamp assistant and even Edwin van der Sar marketing director.
“[Bayern’s] organisation was based on football up,” Cruyff says. “That’s what we did now. We copied that. The well-educated ex-players should be the decision-makers within a football club. Not somebody who is a great businessman in whatever, and he makes the football decisions. This is absurd.
“A lot of clubs don’t do this. At Ajax, we did it. OK, the results are not there in one day, which is normal.
“It’s a totally different approach in all these details and, in Ajax, we changed all of them and I think the result will come.”
The ‘result’, however, is the really interesting question. Does he mean and what he seems to mean, that the club can defy current football economics to return to the glory of his time?
“Yes, that’s what we are convinced.
“Everybody who’s there, and all the great players Ajax ever had, they are there now, so we think we can do it. The future will tell us.”
The present, however, involves a lot of painful realities in which such mid-sized clubs are constantly reminded of their status and any of their better players will immediately seek to improve their own – such as Christian Eriksen going to Tottenham Hotspur.
“That’s one of the problems, and that’s the problem with this year, that Eriksen went away.
“At a certain age they will go because the other one will pay more, which is reality. But, as soon as you know reality, you can do something against it. Or start earlier. Or get them back when they are finished but one of the most important things is to treat them well.
“We have these new players, good players but we need to educate them still. Who knows.
“We are all convinced.”
With Cruyff, at least, it’s never been any different.