Champions League goals flow freely as art of defending is lost across Europe
After a Champions League goalfest earlier in the week, there was something peculiarly refreshing about Thursday night's exhibition of Atletico Madrid defending.
In their 1-0 victory over Arsenal, Atleti conceded territory and possession to Arsenal for the majority of the contest, yet their centre-backs were entirely comfortable in their deep block: Diego Godin made crucial clearances and punched the air, Jose Gimenez sneakily blocked opponents from getting on the end of crosses. Everyone else mucked in, and it all felt like proper old-fashioned defending. But if Atleti can do it, why can't anyone else?
The most notable aspect of the Champions League semifinals, of course, was the sheer number of goals. And while the eventual tally was inflated by fortunate strikes and questionable penalties, it wasn't entirely a coincidence. Real Madrid attacked. So did Bayern Munich. So did Liverpool. And so, most notably, did Roma.
Roma's boldness meant they suffered badly in the first leg at Anfield, but it also represented something more significant. This was a team from Italy -- seemingly the last bastion of unfashionable, defensive football -- travelling away to a hugely dangerous counter-attacking side and going all-out-attack: three-on-three at the back, a high defensive line, an attempt control the game in the opposition's half.
Italian sides simply don't do that away in European competition. But perhaps now they do: Napoli have played arguably the best football in Europe, and went to Manchester City attempting to play an open game, losing 2-1. Juventus, the most defensive of the three Italian representatives, are nevertheless considerably less defensive than their reputation would suggest, flexible rather negative.
So now even Italians are on board with this attacking football revolution, which has swept through the rest of Europe's major footballing nations. Holland were once celebrated for their attacking football because it was so markedly different from the approach elsewhere in Europe.
Now attacking football, in various guises, is de rigueur. Spanish football was once physical, now it's about possession. German football used to be "efficient," now it's about energy and pressing. English football used to be about long balls, now those old-school managers are seemingly on the verge of extinction. French football, somewhat slow for much of the last two decades, is represented in the Champions League chiefly by Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain, two fast sides committed to attack.
Something significant has changed. Yes, tactical thinking has evidently progressed over the last decade: Pep Guardiola's emphasis on possession and Jurgen Klopp's gegenpressing approach have been the most significant trends, and the two concepts that have appeared most relevant in this season's Champions League too. It's now widely considered that the best way to defend isn't to defend in a traditional sense: it's to keep possession, or to press, and keep your opponents away from your box.
But there's also something wider than tactical nuances, related to off-field developments over the last decade or so. Football now feels, more than ever, a made-for-television event, entertainment rather than competition. Ticket prices have progressed to the extent that attending a top-level football match is almost framed as a luxury experience. And, most significantly, clubs are now overwhelmingly concerned with their brand. Almost everything at a football club is now geared towards good PR and improving the club's reputation, particularly for ever-increasing fan bases in overseas markets.
With clubs desperately increasing their efforts to promote the club's image, the last thing they can afford is a manager who plays defensive football. Managers who excel at organising a defence in the traditional manner, therefore, aren't being promoted to top jobs.
Once upon a time, it was remarkable to hear about a manager of, for example, Real Madrid or Ajax delivering good results but being booed because the football wasn't considered attractive in relation to the club's attacking traditions. But this emphasis on beautiful football has spread everywhere; supporters of almost every club have convinced themselves their side has a commitment to attacking football too. Jose Mourinho has guided Manchester United to a second-placed finish, probably as much as could be expected this season. Yet Mourinho's defensive football has been criticised by supporters and the media, and now a false picture has been painted of United as a club with a grand history of beautiful football.
This is probably the biggest misnomer in modern football. Manchester United under 25 years of Sir Alex Ferguson were entirely committed to winning football; sometimes attacking, sometimes defensive. They weren't renowned for beautiful play -- they were renowned for getting unthinkable results in impossible situations having played poorly. For two decades the biggest cliche in English football was that "the sign of a good side is winning without playing well."
By that measure, Mourinho's side should be widely revered, and yet instead they're castigated. If Mourinho's football isn't suitable for United, it has nothing to do with the traditions of the club, and everything to do with the current demands for a big club's on-field brand.
Yes, standards have been raised, and tactics evolved, thanks to the beautiful football played by Guardiola's sides in particular. Yet this widespread idea that defensive football is somehow unworkable in the modern game is completely untrue. The two most remarkable achievements of the last five years -- Atletico Madrid winning La Liga in 2013-14, and Leicester City triumphing in the Premier League in 2015-16 -- both were achieved by defensive-minded sides who focused on deep defending and quick transitions, each averaging less than 50 percent of possession.
Yet there's been no widespread movement among top clubs to replicate that style of football. The only consequence was managers of top clubs focusing even more on the structure of possession play and pressing, guarding against Atletico-style football rather than seeking to mirror it.
The situation at Arsenal this weekend is particularly interesting. The opposition for Arsene Wenger's final home game is Burnley, who will arrive at the Emirates just three points behind the Gunners, despite having a wage bill that is supposedly around one-seventh as large. If Sean Dyche's side played attractive football, he would be an obvious candidate for the Arsenal job. But Burnley do not. They have the worst pass-completion rate in the Premier League, and therefore Dyche isn't considered in the top 20 candidates to replace Wenger.
Dyche, of course, insists he would play more attractive football with a bigger side, but Arsenal's board will turn to someone who has a track record of delivering that, rather than someone who claims he can. It's not worth the risk to Arsenal's brand. Incidentally, Dyche's Burnley (seventh) will finish higher in the Premier League than Mauricio Pochettino's Southampton (eighth), Brendan Rodgers' Swansea (11th) and Roberto Martinez's Wigan (18th) when those managers made the jump up to Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton, respectively. The difference is the quality of football, not merely because it wouldn't suit the club's players, but because it wouldn't suit the club's brand.
Even Diego Simeone is difficult to imagine at the majority of top European clubs, despite the fact his achievements over the past seven years, with limited resources, are comparable to Guardiola's or Klopp's. Simeone is fortunate that Atletico thrive on their underdog status, happily fighting against the extravagance and excesses of city rivals Real.
But most clubs these days want to present themselves as something more. Everyone has to attack, to entertain. The consequence is this year's Champions League semifinals, which featured 20 goals in four games, and inevitable complaints that the big clubs can't defend. The problem, though, isn't merely that they can't -- it's that they don't want to.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.