From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.35 :: NO.20 :: May. 17, 2012
Have we at last seen the best of Barcelona? The end of them as a dazzling irresistible force, playing the kind of gloriously intricate, inventive football, unmatched by any other team, irresistible in its technical virtuosity, capable, as Chelsea's accomplished goalkeeper Petr Cech, destined to become a hero at Nou Camp, said, of keeping the ball for minutes on end. That, however, was before the return game in Barcelona; where Barca, with a team largely and impressively composed of players nurtured in their juniors scheme, supported hard by the fans in the great stadium, couldn't even defeat a Chelsea team, reduced to ten men for more than half that second leg of the Champions League semifinal.
The idea that Barca had concocted a style, a nursery and a team with such skill and success, resplendently superior to all other sides, crushing conquerors of Manchester United in last year's final at Wembley, were virtually unbeatable perished in the space of a week. Even at Nou Camp, Barca were beaten by their oldest and most bitter rivals Real Madrid and this disaster, which pretty well ensured that Real would win the Spanish La Liga, came hot on the heels of an extraordinary defeat at Chelsea in the first leg semifinal. Extraordinary because Barca utterly dominated the play with 36 shots and headers on goal to Chelsea's four. But Chelsea's was the one that counted. And here as eventually at the Nou Camp, we decry the vulnerability of the Barcelona defence. Defence let it be emphasised being emphatically part of football.
Chelsea late in the second half had never looked likely to score, when suddenly two moments of what the Greeks called hubris, and in this context might be called arrogance or presumptuousness, saw Barca flounder and Chelsea score. Messi, whose header — a somewhat uncommon event — hit the bar at Stamford Bridge, and who would miss that penalty at Nou Camp, was rash enough to try to “nutmeg” Frank Lampard, i.e. put the ball between his legs.
It didn't work. Not only did Lampard win the ball, he then proceeded to direct a sweeping pass leftwards where Brazil's Ramires found himself in a criminal amount of space. The Barca right back Dani Alves, having seemingly forgotten that while overlapping is one thing, a defender's chief task, is to defend. He simply wasn't there when Ramires with super abundant time and space received the ball, picking out Didier Drogba to score the winner.
But what about the second Chelsea goal which equalised the return at Nou Camp? You couldn't even truly say that Chelsea were playing the so called Direct Route football, when an urgent, surely unfocussed, clearance from defence suddenly found Fernando Torres virtually alone bar the opposing 'keeper in the Barcelona half. On he ran quite unopposed, until he so neatly sidestepped the Barca 'keeper Valdes and rolled the ball into the vacant net. The previous Chelsea goal came from a play which Barca themselves might have envied. The goal having come from a move with Lampard perfectly exchanging passes with Ramires who, coming with huge stamina from very deep, having dropped to right back after Terry's expulsion, ran off perfectly to lob Valdes for Chelsea's initial goal.
In parenthesis, Route One football, a bone of such bitter contention when the obsessive Charles Hughes had taken the role of chief coaching mogul at the Football Association, ‘ideas developed in the 1950s by one Wing Commander Charles Reep who called it match analysis' was the almost fanatical proponent of the long ball, at the expense of midfield build up. Graham Taylor at Watford, a still closer disciple of the now elderly Reep, obtained remarkable success with his Watford team, wafting it from the fourth to the top division. But what was new?
It was in fact at Chelsea's Stamford Bridge in 1932, just four days before an epic international match there between England and Austria, that players of Austria's so called Wunder-team watched a match between Chelsea and Everton. As Jimmy Gogan, the little Lancastrian who so famously coached the Wunder-team told me years later; each side had a famous centre forward, big Dixie Dean for Everton, little Hughie Gallacher of Scotland for Chelsea. And both sides banged the ball time and again down the middle to one or other of these two.
Yet for a long ball, such a very long ball, to work as it did for Chelsea when they got their second goal in Nou Camp reflects dismally on the Barcelona defence. However urgently they were seeking a goal what would have made it 3-1 and taken them into the European final.
The truth is that fashions in football change and no system is there forever. By the time the Wunder-team came to Chelsea, English football, led by Arsenal, had been playing the third back game since 1925, the radical change in the off-side law leading the Gunners to turn their once mobile centre half into a stopper, the full backs moving from the middle to the flanks, the rest turning in what came to be known for its shape as the W-Formation, two wingers and a centre forward up front, two inside forwards in central midfield with the so-called wing halves — which used to be like the overlapping full backs of today — operating behind them.
But that formation got swept away in 1958 when in Sweden the Brazilians introduced their 4-2-4 plan at the World Cup which they duly won. Now there'd be four defenders in line, two midfielders in the middle, one a natural inside forward (Didi) the other, a wing half in Zito. This would change in time to 4-3-3, then 4-4-2 though the Italians stuck for many long years to the so called Catenaccio, “big chain” defence, with a sweeper behind full backs and centre half.
By the early 1970s however we had the glittering phenomenon of so called Total Football, the philosophy behind which however optimistic being that anyone could and should do anything; defenders attack, attackers defend. The real inventor as a young man at Bayern Munich was Franz Beckenbauer who as he once told me reckoned that if Giacinto Facchetti could attack for Inter and Italy from left back, then he could do it from the sweeper position. He and Holland's illustrious all purpose centre forward Johan Cryuff at Ajax were the inspirations of this ambitious style. But not a great deal of it remains today suggesting that it was only possible when a club or a national team had a bunch of truly brilliant and versatile players.
But surely the classic example of passing football fashion was the great Hungary team of the early 1950s. In November 1953, they came to Wembley and thrashed England 6-3, the first foreign team to do so. The following May, in Budapest, they destroyed England 7-1, though the Germans (probably doped) did beat them in the 1954 World Cup final in Berne.
But after the Hungarian revolution in 1954, Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis and Zontal Chzhibor stayed abroad. By the time the 1958 World Cup came round in Sweden, two other stars, Nandor Hidagkuti and Josef Bozaik, had faded. Hungary were knocked out by Wales in the first phase. So much for the book “Learn to play the Hungarian way” which appeared in England after the 6-3 rout. What Hungary briefly had was a core of marvellous individuals.
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