The laconic irony of Jose Mourinho outmanoeuvring Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona is another example of football transcending the parameters of sport. There was history on show; Mourinho astutely and ruthlessly employed a Catenaccio style of thought emblematic of Italian football in the 50’s and 60’ over the two legs (not to mention the personal history any tie with Barca evokes from him – the ‘Translator’ and his time at Chelsea already etched this encounter with a decade-long script). There was drama; a controversial sending off and a contentious handball. And there was pantomime: Sergio Busquets’ theatrical leap, a sly peek through cupped hands, and Mourinho positively basking in his role as the villain.
To begin, I feel Guardiola was mistaken in starting Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Let me also state that I am a huge admirer of Ibrahimovic but for this matchup his inclusion is mystifying. Inter successfully nullified Didier Drogba when he was the focal point of attack at Stamford Bridge because such a striker, isolated, plays into the strengths of Lucio and Walter Samuel. These are two aerially adept, committed, and very strong centre backs whose specialty lies in defensive clearances from high balls and crosses. Their Serie A match before the first leg saw them struggle with the energy and swiftness of Fiorentina’s Keirrison – a sure sign that the fluid mobility of Pedro, Messi and Maxwell (the latter more a presence to shackle Maicon roaming forward) would be deployed. And if the mentioned game plan did not reap reward then a Plan B in the form of Ibrahimovic could come off the bench and allow for a more direct approach. Guardiola however persisted with Ibra for both legs from the start and, I felt, played into Inter’s hands. Any high ball and all crosses were met with defensive clearances and the big Swede was isolated without any runners creating even an iota of space from the wings or from deep.
Countering Barcelona’s cohesive possession play had many wondering; just how do you stop Xavi and Messi? Almeria’s Chico attempted a strict man-marking mission on Xavi earlier this year at the Camp Nou but his side still lost 1-0. After the Arsenal ties too many were insistent that a double man-marking mission might be employed to suffocate the two Barcelona magicians but then conceding that such a task is too disruptive for a formation (what with Messi having a free role). Mourinho ignored the man-marking scenario – in the post match analysis on Sky Sports and in the papers following the first tie it was still, somehow, suggested the two were marked out of the game. Instead of containing Xavi with tight marking, the Inter team stifled the Spaniard’s options. Xavi is a player who is as dangerous as his options. It is no surprise that Xavi alone made more passes than the entire Inter team, they did not stop service to him, but the skill of the defensive execution allowed no penetrating through balls to come from him. Messi on the other hand is explosive with the ball at feet so as soon as he received it, a minimum of two Inter players (the two/three closest) would converge on the young Argentine. The boldness of Mourinho’s decision relies heavily on a trust that his players have the sufficient tactical awareness to be individually conscious of their role yet collectively disciplined.
The success of Mourinho in the first leg was to adopt a Catenaccio approach to the match, namely, an extreme compactness and discipline on defence and then springing a counter attack. Milito was caught offside five times in the opening twenty minutes because the default ball from deep midfield, after soaking up pressure and committing all but one Barca player into their half, was diagonally up the left hand channel (undoubtedly worked on heavily in training due to the frequency and accuracy of its application) where, normally Puyol, would be isolated. Last night’s fixture didn’t require counter attacking and provided an insight into Arrigo Sacchi’s sentiments whilst at Milan in the 90’s:
“I used to tell my players that, if we played with twenty-five metres from the last defender to the centre-forward, given our ability, nobody could beat us. And thus, the team had to move as a unit up and down the pitch, and also from left to right… when you have the ball, you dictate play. When you are defending, you control the space.”
Mourinho’s team’s occupation of space throughout the Barcelona legs is something to be applauded and to do so with ten men last night belies common sense. Sacchi introduced the pressing game but his words were as resonant last night even though Inter lay deep and allowed Barca possession. The control of space, of the options available, should be a benchmark for teams to replicate when defending. Needless to say, Mourinho’s players displayed highly astute tactical brains: Cambiasso, Zanetti (who has played a staggering 49 times for Inter this season at the age of 36), Lucio and Samuel were defiant and brilliant.
There is a craft and intelligence about last night’s display that should not be lost in the parochial assertion that ‘industry toppled beauty’. The argument against Inter is that the football was destructive, it was not entertaining. Did they not beat Barcelona 3-1 a week ago? Two legged affairs are about tacticians deploying their team with a set of instructions. Inter’s instructions, after deservingly beating Barcelona at the San Siro, was not to lose by more than one goal. They achieved their goal. Their manager’s tactics prevailed. Inter deserve their victory. Football’s difficulty is in marrying tactical thought with practical implementation and last night was a victory for the ideals of the tactician. The ideal that, despite the evident qualities of your opposition, your players have the ability to translate instruction into execution – this requires an intelligent manager and equally proficient footballers:
“Many believe that football is about the players expressing themselves…but that’s not the case. Or, rather, it’s not the case in and of itself. The player needs to express himself within the parameters laid out by the manager.” –Arrigo Sacchi