The ComebackMay 9, 2017
Everyone’s got a plan until you’re punched in the mouth.1
That could not ring truer for Liverpool in the 2005 UEFA Champions League (UCL) Finals in Istanbul, where lore has it, Rafa Benitez’s side was trailing AC Milan, 3-0 at halftime. In the 2015 Rugby World Cup opener, South Africa, two-time World Champions, were a try down to minnows Japan, whose record in their last 24 games read like Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United: P24 W1 L1 D22. And try after try, try as they may, the heavily over-favoured Springboks fell at the last try from/of the Japs.
It’s Haile Gebrselassie in the 10 000M finals in the 2000 Sidney Olympics, trailing Paul Tergat with the finish line, 70 metres away and drawing ever closer. It’s Mali in the opening fixture of the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations, in Luanda, 4 goals worse than the hosts, Angola with 11 minutes left. It’s Chelsea against Bayern Munich in the 2012 UEFA Champions League Final in the Allianz Arena finally letting in that goal they’d so diligently kept out with 4 minutes to go. It’s Liverpool, Borussia Dortmund 3-1 up against them in the 2016 UEFA Europa League quarter-finals and being outplayed one would think they were a team that’d only met the previous night, for the first time. It is Manchester United against Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League Finals from whence we got: Football! Bloody Hell! It’s Barcelona against Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) in this season’s UEFA Champions League. Or it could be a habit: most notably, Jose Mourinho’s Inter side in the 2009/10 season, Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, especially in the 2012/13 season, this season’s Julian Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim, Massimiliano Allegri’s Juventus and Zinadine Zidane’s Real Madrid.
Smaller teams are used to losing matches and are used to trying to cope with that. Elite players…never ever expect to lose.1
Marti Perarnau’s, Pep Guardiola: The Evolution1 continues from Pep Confidential2 in the serialisation of the maestro’s work from Catalonia to Bavaria and finally the blue sky of Manchester. In it, Perarnau reveals how Guardiola improved as a manager at Bayern despite failing to land the ultimate prize in European football. At the core of this is how do elite teams to quote Donald Trump, ‘’Stay Winning” and for this article how do they comeback.
Luck is no coincidence.*
The examination of the greatest comebacks in football has to start with football. For all the ideas, philosophies and thoughts on the beautiful game, the datum, their commonality is unpredictability. We can never really know what will happen during a football match. Juanma Lilo says:
The laws of the game explain, via its rules, what one can do to increase the probability of winning. But the possibility for all teams to win is the same; if you, nine of our friends, and I play against Bayern Munich tomorrow, we have the same possibilities of winning as they do – 50/50. However, the probability of us winning is very little.**
However, in the quest to push probability and possibility towards certainty, we learn to have expectations that ultimately shape predictability. From these, we get the biggest game changers in football: goals and red cards. We’ve all heard it before, goals change games. Yes, the lack of subtlety in that statement isn’t lost on me, but at times the obvious has to be stated. A typical game starts at 0-0, the ball gets into the net, one of the sides is a goal up. Intuitive. Football is a mathematical sport, with only 7% of games ended with the poverty-struck dread of 0-0. The most common scoreline in football is 1-0, that’s the home side winning by a solitary goal, followed by my favourite scoreline 2-1***. Ralph Honigstein’s author of Das Reboot3 said:
Football is very random, but when it becomes a collective artwork in a way, that’s what gets me*
How do these teams that scoff at our expectations adding to the randomness and unpredictability, do it? In rejecting the notion that the die may fall wherever they may and in expecting the unexpected, we seek insight into a few of the greatest comebacks in footballing history.
Naturally, the one place to start is behind the scenes, where managers prepare their teams for all manner of situations, or not; set up their team to win or for some, to not lose and generally impose the manager’s ideology and philosophy through the gameplan. With technology, there are even more minions analysts and all manner of shadowy personnel who go through videos of their own teams, the opposition and even the opposition’s opposition, all in the hope of increasing their probability of gaining a favourable result 4. In this era, you get the fastidious approaches of almost every manager from North Ferriby United’s Sam Housham in the abyss of the National league to Chelsea’s Antonio Conte, at the summit of the Premiership. In the same spirit, you get the reactionary tactics of job seeker Zdvarko Lokarusic, formerly of a lot of clubs (if you have a footballing related gig, find him here), Jose Mourinho, before his commitment to draws in the league, Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich and Julian Nagelsmann. All this of course, “… until you get punched in the mouth.”
AC Milan 3 – 0 Liverpool HT
There isn’t a better place to start than that surreal night in Istanbul. To understand Rafa’s unlikely triumph is the insight of journalist Jonathan Wilson in The Anatomy of Liverpool5. Liverpool found themselves 1 nil down within the first minute, Paulo Maldini at the end of an Andrea Pirlo freekick. What do you expecti? Hernan Crespo would later poke in two more goals to bury the dazzled scouser outfit. Going by the Liverpool Echo in their match report, ”The only reason Liverpool weren’t fatally wounded by a first half blitz is the fortunate fact immortals can’t be destroyed.”
Somewhere in the stands, Jonatan Wilson quips that there was an odd sense of the inevitability of a comeback. Perhaps even the most ardent of Liverpool fans would have despondent until skipper Steven Gerrard scored. A mere consolation, in my opinion, turned out to be anything but.
I turned to the Standard’s Ian Chadban, who was sitting next to me, and one of us- I don’t remember which, but the other was thinking it- said, ‘They are going to win this
Right, he or Chadban was. In six minutes, Smicer and Xabi Alonso would each score to restore parity and by the end of the 25th day of May 2015, after a penalty shoot-out, Liverpool were champions! Which elicits the question, what made Wilson so headstrong that the improbability of that outcome was inevitable? He gives you: TACTICS.
Jonathan Wilson’s best-known book is Inverting the Pyramid5 which looks at the evolution of football tactics through the ages. He bridges Inverting the Pyramid5 with The Anatomy of Liverpool6 and explains the erstwhile inexplicable by submitting that the turn-around had everything to do with tactics. Liverpool started a 4–4–1–1 formation, Harry Kewell behind Milan Baroš, and Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard in the centre of midfield. Milan played a 4–4–2 diamond formation, with Hernán Crespo alongside Paulo Maldini with Clarence Seedorf and Andrea Pirlo in midfield. However, in the second half the withdrawal of Steve Finnan, the introduction of Dietmar Haman, resulting in the change to a 3-5-2 and Gerrard taking the game to Milan, as the attacking midfielder proved the masterstroke. Wilson describes Haman’s introduction as the epitome of this genius. He (Haman) gave the wingbacks Riise and Smicer the platform to maraud forward- which Milan wasn’t expecting. It turns out, Finnan wasn’t even fit, to begin with. Wilson, goes on to describe, that despite his likely erroneous memory, Liverpool wasn’t exactly poor in the first half- they certainly weren’t better than Milan in the first half, nor were they bad. At three goals down, Liverpool hadn’t been battered. They were unfortunate.
The element of misfortunate and luck cannot be wished away from that game. Sami Hypia was not sent off when he should have been because, in all possibility, the referee felt pity for him playing for the side that was 3-0 down; Andriy Shevchenko had a goal ruled controversially for offside, which Wilson says was offset Milan’s own fortune in the first half.
You can say Liverpool were lucky in some ways in the second half and that things fell for them, but when you watch the game back, they were pretty unlucky in the first half. I had this erroneous memory that they’d been battered in the first half, but that actually wasn’t the case at all. They weren’t on top, but they weren’t that much poorer than Milan. I’d forgotten how late the two Crespo goals were — I thought they were about 25 and 35 minutes, but they were both the last six or seven minutes of the half. So I think at half time, Milan were a little bit fortunate to be 3-0 up. The luck did go both ways.
… they did put in other good performances, so it’s slightly freakish, but it was deserved in the sense of the strength of the comeback. You think of previous games, Juventus in particular, they were excellent in getting that goalless draw. 6
Congratulations Liverpool, but never forget that for a team that was good enough to win the Champions League against that Milan side (who also had a special angst and allergy to the Scudetto) you overly underachieved in the league.
AC Milan 3-3 Liverpool* FT
Bayern Munich 1– 1 Chelsea FT
I don’t really know what it was. It was just something about the atmosphere, picking up on the body language of players. The only other time I’ve had that was when Chelsea equalised against Bayern Munich in the 2012 Champions League final. Both Paddy Barclay and I said, ‘they’re going to equalise’. Even when Bayern got the penalty, we knew they wouldn’t score. There was something about the mood, something about the atmosphere. You could just sense that the team was going to win.
There’s something reassuring about sharing that kind of sentiment with Wilson. There was no way, Arjen Robben would have scored that penalty. No way. As is that sense that a team is going to win, most recently and perhaps the most strongly for me is Arsenal’s comeback over Manchester City in the FA Cup semis in Wembley earlier this month, more of that later.
The UCL trophy was being adorned in Bayern Munich’s colours, I kid you not. After all, this was the “Finale dahoam” (Bavarian for “final at home”) Philip Lahm, Mario Gomez and Manuel Neuer had converted their kicks, Neuer having saved Juan Mata’s first kick for the Blues. Frank Lampard would be the one picking up the Big Eared trophy. Schade! There’s more to this story than the penalty shootouts. Chelsea had endured their worst season in the Roman Abramovich era, er precisely since the formation of the club as we know it. Jose Mourinho would later return to set even lower standards, the nadir to a zenith as league champions. Wet behind the ears manager, Andre Villas-Boas couldn’t have been sacked at a worse time leaving Roberto di Matteo to midwife the club past the mutiny. RDM began with victories in the league and FA competition, in the Champions League, however, was the matter of a 3-1 deficit to Napoli. The reinvigorated Blues made small matter of it, winning 4-1. They’d beat Tottenham Hotspur 5-1 in the FA semis at Wembley, Benfica in the UCL quarters, held on to beat Barcelona 3-2 on aggregate in the semis and win the FA Cup over Liverpool, all whilst barely treading water in the league.
Bayern Munich was under Jupp Heyncknes, and had earned quite the reputation as ‘’almost men’’. This was the German’s third stint at the helm of the Bavarian megastars where he finished second in every last one their competitions, thanks to Arjen Robben and Jurgen Klopp’s gegenpressing witchcraft. They had beaten Real Madrid on penalties in the semis and for the finals were favourites to win in the manner of an African incumbent, seeking re-election unopposed. Roberto di Matteo drove the Chelsea team bus and packed it in front of Petr Cech in goal.
Going into the game, RDM had to work with what he had, and there was a lot he didn’t have. Mutineer John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Raul Meireles and N’golo Kante’s idol, Ramirez were absent (Bayern too were a little light with the absence of David Alaba, Holger Badstuber and Luiz Gustavo, the point being Chelsea remained lighter). Ryan Bertrand having the honour of making his debut for the team in the UCL finals. Against Bayern Munich. In their home ground. Where they’d lost only twice all season. 49 goals for and letting in only 6. RDM, previously of West Bromwich Albion, of course, took the Jose Mourinho approach. Setting up deep in his own half, and by deep, I mean, 2 yards in front of Cech; didn’t want any of the ball, and played on the break. Jupp bought this hook line and sinker. Bayern’s flanks were lit! Robben indefatigable, with whatever he was doing matched by Ribery on the other side. Very good, on the night, and very wasteful!
Jose Mourinho had beaten Bayern Munich in the 2010 finals and provided the template; Real Madrid had fallen to Bayern in the semis because Angel Di Maria and Christiano Ronaldo couldn’t be called upon to help out their fullbacks; Borussia Dortmund in the league had shunted their wings and to break on the counter. Chelsea had sat back against Barcelona in the semis, but seemingly of little consequence to Jupp. Chelsea on this night had two left fullbacks to stifle Robben, Salomon Kalou taking on the wingback role, Lampard was there with Mikel throughout in midfield and Didier Drogba was Didier Drogba, excellent, playing all alone up front, with what might have been an entirely different between him and his nearest placed teammate, Juan Mata, but he still came back to help.
In the 83rd minute, Thomas Mueller “Raumskauntered” (found some room) behind Ashley Cole to head the Bavarians 1-0 ahead. No matter. Torres was subbed on in the 84th for more potency. Mata’s corner converted by Didier Drogba 1-1 just before full time. Robben was called upon to take the penalty after Drogba took Ribery out of the game. Guess who’d done his homework? Yes, Petr Cech was drilled on the finer art of stopping penalty kicks from Robben- the same Robben who confirmed our deepest sublimations that he’d choke right about there and then. He choked. Cech would go on to save Bayern’s last two penalties, because, from the word go, RDM wanted to take his chances from 12 yards out.
Bayern Munich 1-1 Chelsea* FT
The most noticeable thing about this bunch of talented footballers wasn’t only their ability to play beautiful football, but also their work ethics and determination. Sir Alex always makes sure that their players have the character needed to succeed at United.”****
Manchester United o – 1 Bayern Munich 90′; Manchester United
This is Perluigi Colina’s most memorable match. On this euphoric night, the Red Devils would go a goal down within 6 minutes. Despite David Beckham’s tireless running and Andy Cole’s and later Teddy Sheringham’s best efforts at goal, Oliver Kahn wouldn’t be just wouldn’t be beaten. Oh, and the German’s too were up Peter Schmeichel’s case like a clingy partner! ”Ole Gunnar Solksjaer comes on…” was synonymous with, moments later “Solksjaer wins it!” and pursuant aplomb and hysteria. This game would be dramatically no different. The most remarkable thing for me, from the YouTube video, is the noise! I don’t think there’s ever been a louder roar at the Camp Nou. And why wouldn’t you scream at the top of your lungs or cry like a little b? (Ja, this is the game where Sammy Kuffuor and co cried so much that they had to be helped up, by Colina no less to restart the match) The match report read Sheringham and Solsjaer at 90+1’ and 90+3’. Guess the amount of injury time added- 3 minutes. It is from this game that we got Football- Bloody Hell!7 in Alex Ferguson’s post-match interview and was later knighted. Euphoric!
Manchester United 2-1 Bayern Munich FT
Ferguson and esteemed tactical acumen would be a hard sell to me, not until that season he played Christiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Ji Sung Park interchangeably and dared opponents to mark any of them. Yet, there’s always been a way for Fergie’s team, when he stood up, pointed to his watch, marshalled Solsjaer from the trenches of the dugout or Javier ‘Little Pea’ Hernandez and scream at the fourth official, ostensibly the central referee would also pick this up on the radio, that should they dare not add enough injury time minutes or blow the final whistle before Man U won, they’d have their eyes gouged out by crows. Away, from the speculation, United players had immense character, no doubt instilled in them by the man at the top. And were stark afraid for their lives or the hairdryer, no better eschewed by Glen Hoddle during his time at Tottenham Hotspur.
Tottenham 3-0 Manchester United HT (Premier League 2001)
Tottenham were 3 goals up in, I think Glenn’s side’s best display; after the end of the match, however, the score read Tottenham 3 Man Utd 5! When Glenn was asked, ‘What went wrong?’ He said, ‘’Halftime”. Presumably fresh off 15 minutes of the infamous hairdryer, there was no way, United would leave the lane without the result Fergie demanded of them. Just about every side in the Premier League thought they’d win against Fergie’s United at some point until they didn’t.
Juventus 2-3 Manchester United FT (Champions League semifinal second leg 1999)
In the 1998/99 season, they’d claim the treble, oh, also coming back to win 2-1 against Tottenham Hotspur, on the final day of the season to beat Arsenal by a point. On the way to the UCL finals, they found themselves 0-2 to Juventus, 1-3 on aggregate and then my favourite angry person, Roy Keane, happened, with the single-minded purpose to get his team to the finals, for which he was suspended. Mad respect Keane. He scored the equaliser and they end the game 3-3, giving United their first UCL final in 31 years! Of Keane, Fergie would say:
It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have ever seen on a football field. Pounding over every blade of grass competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose. He inspired all around him. I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player.
Real Madrid under Zinadine Zidane.
Winning the UCL at the first time of asking doesn’t exactly inspire awe and reverence nowadays, especially at Real Madrid, with that Real Madrid team, but what is most baffling is how he’s still the manager, on course to defend the champions league and 4 wins and a draw from winning the La Liga title. If only he weren’t doing so well, I’d smear his name that the camaraderie with president Perez had everything to do with it.
Real Madrid line-up 4-3-3 ‘with a sprinkle of personalities’. They attack, traditionally, almost always from the wings with the fullbacks high up the pitch, always in support of the attacking winger, giving support both on the outside to widen play and the inside to provide a channel into the area. In building up, Casemiro is ‘excused’, instead Toni Kroos (started in the finals against Chelsea) falls back to receive the ball from the centre-backs, Sergio Ramos, Lima, Nacho and Varane; on the other hand, Lucas Modric runs forward to create space for the vertical pass. Kroos then can play the ball directly forward or diagonally to either flank. Modric will then move to either flank with the ball, to receive the ball back, or create an overload, meaning the centre to opposite flank will have more space and less pressure for whoever’s occupying it. The ball is then fed into the centre, through crosses from the outside, or runs that cut in then boom! Goal!
Defensively, they are meant to press high up the pitch, but not with the intensity of Klopp and other German managers. Instead, the pressers are deployed in the style of the Jupp side that eviscerated Barcelona 7-0. A man to the ball, and two to the two most likely channels, forcing the opponent on the ball to play it long, from which in the style of Mauricio Pochettino the players in white will get to the second ball (the ball after the opponent miscontrols the ball, takes a touch, lets it bounce etc). Should that fail, Casemiro is the destroyer tasked with reading the game, anticipating passes and finally breaking legs all in the name of getting the ball back.
Unfortunately, beating this system isn’t too difficult and more so because its execution is wanting. The dash of personalities means that often, there is a first or either of the second pressers who isn’t willing to press. Two, the defenders with the exception of Varane, seem to excel at everything else, but defence. Three, they need a new goalkeeper with Keylor Navas, despite not having the best protection accorded to him, that the club can afford, genuinely seems to relish in raising the stakes to ‘we need to score one more than you’. Four, because there are many other better goals getters in team than him, even from ‘Madrid B’, I imagine in the quest to remain relevant, their main striker, Karim Benzema, is too happy, playing a number 10 role that out rightly doesn’t exist, meaning he isn’t there in the center, meaning it is easier to pick the player in the center and finally teams play narrow, with 8-15 yards between the midfielder and the fullbacks and a central midfielder tucking in making sure that the ball stays wide or goes out of touch for a throw in.
However, Real Madrid stay winning like the American president, because in part Zizou’s tactics work and because they have the most phenomenal winning mentality in any team today. In the past so many games, Marcelo has been Real Madrid’s best player, unsurprisingly at the toughest of times. Wherever they were trailing, which is almost every other game, the Brazilian has been getting forward to force goal, which always leaves acres of space behind him, in the space that more cautious left backs would seek to protect. But the reward has always been worth the risk. In the last El Clasico, what amazed me about him was the fact that after the game, he felt guilty for not in his own words “not taking Messi out” in the build up to that last minute goal. These are players hell bent on doing anything and everything to win.
Sure as there was “Fergie time”, there is “Ramos o’clock”. That time, when Real Madrid have been outclassed and the front three are drawing blanks. That moment when, Ramos runs up for the corner kick, which Kroos will take and you just can’t stop Ramos from connecting with the ball and forcing it into the net. Ramos o’clock. This season, Real Madrid have picked up 17 points from the 81st minute onwards in La Liga this campaign, and dropped points in the same time frame, to Barcelona, Atletico, Las Palmas and Sevilla (two goals); P9 W7 D2, making up 20 percent of their points. 3 cleansheets in the last 20 league games between Casilla and Navas, make the subpar performances of Real mercurial after the 80th minute and underline a sense of inevitability to their comebacks, all fuelled by a good attitude, the willingness to fight, perseverance and strength of character, especially from their full backs and captain#.
There is the perfect time to score a goal- as close as possible to the end. (Teams that score the 1st goal within 15 minutes have a 14% chance of winning the game; on the 50th, you get a 47% chance) Also, teams that score, on average tend to take fewer shots whilst those that have conceded take more shots. After the goal, the next most important determiner of games is the red card. Teams that have had a man sent off, play under the strain of a measure of injustice, that cannot be quantified, hence cannot be a metric. They run more than the opposition, coaches instruct the team to sit deeper and exploit mistakes from the side with more hands on deck.
Cameroon 1 0 Argentina Italia ‘90 FT
Africans haven’t ever had a good World Cup tournament. However, since 1978 there had been gradual improvement, with Tunisia winning a match, Africa’s first; 1982 Algeria beating the capitalist West Germans, first European side to take an L from an African country; Morocco winning their group in 1986… The opening match of Italia ’90 at the Giuseppe Meazza, Milan had Cameroon (who had exited their last World Cup with zero points) against the defending World Champions Argentina with Diego Maradona. Cameroon didn’t stand a chance. I believe Cameroon, had only one professional player, the goalkeeper Thomas Nkono, with the rest of the team made up of backpackers across France and players from their domestic league.
From the onset, Cameroon’s game plan was clear: studs and muscle! Maradona spent every other minute playing ‘horizontally’; by the end of the first half, Cameroon’s stats read purely fouls and three yellow cards, but with the most important figure being 0-0 on the scoreboard. On the 61st minute, André Kana-Biyik was shown a direct red card for hacking down Claudio Canniggia on a free run towards goal and surprisingly, the Cameroonians simply got better. In the 67th minute, they were a goal up thanks to Kana-Biyik’s brother, Francois Omam-Biyik, a header from a freekick which custodian Pumpido fumbled into the net. Benjamin Massing would again foul Canniggia, lunging in so hard that he separated the striker’s boots from his feet and was this close to detaching his limbs from his torso. Straight red! Argentina, who themselves, have never shown any aversion to playing dirty unable to find respite nor restore parity. The score held, Cameroon sensational! With Cameroon, actually finishing stronger than Argentina and physically put in their place.
I don’t think they had any intentions of beating us up to win the game. I cannot argue, and I cannot make excuses. If Cameroon won, it was because they were the best side.*****
Said Maradona, and he’d later add that that result was his contribution to abating racism in Italy. Cameroon would be eliminated in the quarter finals. The first African team to reach that far.
Italy 1- 0 Norway; Nigeria 1- 2 Italy*AET USA 1994
Arrigo Sacchi had just lost the opening game of their group to the Republic of Ireland; 21 minutes into the second tie against Norway, the goalie Pagliuca was sent off for handling the ball outside, forcing Sacchi to sub off Roberto Baggio for a keeper. It got worse, Franco Baresi, the sweeper couldn’t continue coming off with an injury early in the second half. There were three new starters in the team. Arrigo complained that his team looked nervous, more because Norway played with tactics straight out of ice hockey, a game touted for its tolerance of violence. Italy’s goose seemed cooked. However, in the second half, Sacchi somehow got his charges to settle down and the other Baggio, scored a diving header- that would earn Italy progression to the knockout round, in the only World Cup group in which all teams finished with the same number of points- 4!
In the round of 16, Nigeria would go a goal up, and in Gianfranco Zola’s sole game in the World Cup, the little Italian would be shown red, controversially. A goal down and a man down, Roberto Baggio would come to the Azzurri’s rescue with a leveller in the 89th minute. Baggio had had a timid tournament since the first game, but Sacchi wouldn’t let them stop trying to go for the win, especially when in all likelihood, it looked like it was ending for them. A Baggio penalty in extra time would seal the comeback.
Chelsea 4 – 1 Westham (Premier League 2006)
Jose’s Chelsea had never lost a home game since Feb 2004. As a matter of fact, a goal within the first 20 minutes and Chelsea seeing the game out was the order of the day until James Collins headed the Hammers in 0-1. Minute 17, Mancine red! Allan Pardew and West Ham couldn’t possibly believe their luck that day; Mourinho’s side had the trappings of the failed experiment of matches past. Hernan Crespo and Drogba didn’t combine well; Robben and Ricardo Carvalho warmed the bench while Paulo Ferreira, Eidur Gudjohnsen and Damien Duff weren’t even in the lineup. In this game, there wouldn’t be any tactical tinkering typical of Jose. Plain and simple, Drogba assumed the role of two men, and with Terry Lampard and John Terry, returned the Hammers to the furnace, so much so, that Mou, subbed Drogba after the fourth goal- he’d done more than enough.
Inter 2009/10; Hoffenheim 2016/17
The game in this generation has seen a greater emphasis on control and dominance from managers, perhaps under the influence of Rinus Michels of Total Football. Arsene Wenger, Louis van Gaal and especially Pep Guardiola, all have a clear vision of what they want their sides to do or not do, timed perfectly to the second. Then there is psychopath and Machiavelli’s Prince8 Jose Mourinho and head turning Julian Nagelsmann taking that control to new heights. This is in contrast to Arrigo Sacchi and Juanma Lillo, with the former destroying Calcio‘s defensively-minded tactical orthodoxy in favour of pressing, shape and work-rate, fluidity and adaptability, where tactics allow for expression and do away with the door bolt. The latter’s beliefs are that the manager suits the players, never the players fitting the mould set by the manager.
It is no secret that Mourinho’s answer to tiki taka– keep possession at all times philosophy- was to renounce possession, make fewer mistakes while provoking the same of the opponent and away from home, being humble, invoking inferiority. In general, this is what worked for Inter’s treble winning side, and with Chelsea. Inter trained with 10 men and even 9 men v 11. At Real Madrid, he encouraged players to get yellows or second yellow cards to get ‘it’ over with. And after a red card, Mourinho’s sides were actually stronger. In 2008/09, Arsene Wenger too would train 10 v 11 situations, because Arsenal then had grown an inexplicable disposition to getting red cards, which apparently counted for nothing when Newcastle came back for 4 goals to level 4-4 after that Abu Diaby red card.
Nagelsmann refutes the association with Mourinho, almost vehemently, and he should, but for what it’s worth, his Hoffenheim side, plucked from the fathomable depths of relegation contention in the BuLi to having qualified for the Champions League. But when your side is purposefully better after the 80th minute and training allows premeditated times on when to lose the ball, where to lose it and whom to lose it, well questions will abound as the channelling of your inner Machiavelli’s Prince. It is in lulling teams into a faux sense of security, that these managers’sides thrive.
‘Elephant on a tree’
Football is a low scoring game, the lowest scoring of all the popular team sports- the lack of goals makes the underdog win more often.3
Occasionally, less successful teams have one over the more successful ones, rarely they find themselves 3 or 4 goals up, like an elephant atop a tree. We aren’t exactly sure how they got up there, but the only way is down. These are:
- Tottenham 2-0 against Arsenal at HT. Harry Redknapp was in charge and Spur’s had Gareth Bale and Luka Modric. FT: Tottenham 2-5 Arsenal
- Reading 4-1 Arsenal at HT. FT Reading 5-7 Arsenal. This was in the Carling Cup, Marouane Chamakh and Theo Walcott with the last two goals because who draws 5 all with Reading?
- Tottenham 3-0 Manchester City at HT. The game ended with Kevin Keegan’s Manchester City four goals the better.
- And then there is:
Barcelona 0-4 PSG UCL 2016/17 Round of 16
Critically acclaimed as ‘The greatest comeback E-V-E-R’ but no more than another elephant on a tree. There have been a few reversals of 4 nil goal margins in Europe before, from the top of my head, Deportivo la Coruna turning Milan’s 4-0 lead on its head. In Paris, Barcelona had stared down the barrel and shot themselves in the face. 4 times. Lionel Messi aka Mr Barcelona was woeful, Unai Emery winner of the 3 of the last 4 Europa league titles had sent the Parisians to press every last Barcelona player down- the keeper Andre Ter Stegen, included. All this despite missing their captain and leader Thiago Silva, and struggling to find Julian Draxler his best position.
At the Camp Nou, in the 87th minute, Cavani had finally scored 20 minutes earlier to make it 3-1, the M and S of MSN were distraught. They hang their heads in imminent defeat. The Parisians had a 3 goal cushion like a safety net made of down. In these kinda ties, however, there’s the Black Night from the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Lacking all limbs, the Black Night insisted on challenging King Arthur to a duel. Black Night, Neymar dos Santos Jr.
With Barcelona, slow in the build-up, and deficient of someone willing to take charge, Neymar earned the foul and took the freekick- past Kevin Trapp. After the restart, Luis Suarez would go down in the area… Penalty. Neymar would step and side-foot it past Trapp. 90+1’ Agg 5-5. They needed one more, and who better that Neymar, to (he said later) ask Sergio Roberto to get into the box, dinks the ball into the area with his weaker left foot, find Roberto, goal. Barcelona 6-1 PSG! PSG, the biggest elephant on top of a tree. Those were Neymar’s most important seven minutes of football ever.
We, of course, wallow and dabble in the miasma of dominance from football greats from Maradona to Iniesta to Ronaldo (the Brazilian) to Christiano and even for some reason, Messi, but no doubt, plaudits for the biggest game changer in the modern game must be reserved for Neymar, for that brilliant spate of magic within 7 minutes. PSG’s capitulation magnanimous akin to the star crossed heros of a popular Renaissance who kill themselves within three days of falling in love (or lust!).
List of Resources
- Marti’ Pernanau. Pep Guardiola The Evolution.
- Marti Pernanau. Pep Confidential. 2016
- Thomas Honigstein. Das Reboot… 2015
- Benjamin Alamar. Sports Analytics… 2013
- Jonathan Wilson. The Anatomy of Liverpool. 2013
- Jonathan Wilson. Inverting the Pyramid. 2008
- Patrick Barclay. Football- Bloody Hell! 2010
- Patrick Barclay. Mourinho: Further Anatomy of a Winner. 2015
1975 Monty Python and the Holy Grail