Observations from Champions League action this week:
What might have been a very awkward match for Chelsea turned out to be a very simple one, less because of its switch to 4-4-2 than because of Copenhagen's. The partnership of Nicolas Anelka and Fernando Torres may turn out to be a very good one -- certainly there were signs it had potential on Tuesday -- but its effectiveness, and especially that of Anelka, who remains in the guise of third striker at the club even while in significantly better form than either Torres or Didier Drogba, should not disguise the limitations of the Chelsea midfield.
It's not only that Ramires, when deployed on the right, offers so little as an attacking option; it's also the makeup of the central pairing. Frank Lampard has never really been effective as one of the central players in a midfield four for precisely the same reason Steven Gerrard hasn't -- his natural game is to push forwards, which either leaves the back four exposed, or forced his partner into an explicitly defensive role, which can lead to predictability. Lampard and Michael Essien as a pairing is not quite so ill-sorted as Lampard and Gerrard, but it has the potential to leave the back four horribly exposed against better teams than Copenhagen.
Really the story of the game was Copenhagen's underperformance. Through the group stage, Solbakken had played a 4-4-1-1, with Jesper Gronkjaer drifting behind the center forward Dame N'Doye, often cutting in from wide areas. In their matchup with Chelsea, Gronkjaer was fielded in an orthodox wide-left role, as Cesar Santin came in as the most advanced forward. At halftime, Santin went off for Martin Vingaard, who took up a position on the left, freeing Gronkjaer. With Gronkjaer troubling Essien by operating in that awkward space between Chelsea's midfield and defensive lines, Copenhagen looked far more cohesive, something borne out by the fact they had five shots on target after halftime as opposed to none before.
By then, though, it was too late, Anelka's first-half goal having effectively sapped the life from the game. In the first half, as 4-4-2 ran up against 4-4-2, the game effectively became a series of individual battles. And not surprisingly, Chelsea dominated.
One of the keys to success with an inverted winger is a fullback who overlaps, leaving a fullback unsure whether to show the inverted winger inside onto his stronger foot, or outside where he can roll the ball on for an overlapper. His two-footedness means Cristiano Ronaldo is not a true inverted winger (because he can go outside the fullback as well), but his natural game -- and his main role in the Real Madrid side -- is as a goal scorer, cutting in off the flank. The use of the right-footed Alvaro Arbeloa at left back (oddly a role in which he was one used by Rafa Benitez for Liverpool against Barcelona to counter Lionel Messi's incursions from the flank) denied Ronaldo the option of Marcelo overlapping, and the result was that Anthony Reveillere contained Ronaldo with relative ease.
Arbeloa, meanwhile, countered Michel Bastos as he attempted to cut in from the left onto his stronger left foot, thus coming up against Arbeloa's stronger right. Bastos looked far more effective on the left, when he linked up with Aly Cissokho, an attacking left back whose surges forward as a Porto player once embarrassed Ronaldo in his Manchester United days. On Tuesday, though, with 4-2-3-1's largely canceling each other out, the result was a slightly disappointing stalemate.
By contrast with Cristiano Ronaldo and Arbeloa, Arjen Robben's linkup with Philipp Lahm on the Bayern Munich right was superbly effective. Robben may have dominated the increasingly sluggish Cristian Chivu anyway, but he was aided by the forward surges of his fullback, not just on the outside, but at times on the inside, as when setting up the chance that Mario Gomez blasted way over shortly before halftime. It was little surprise when the winner resulted from a Robben run late on, cutting in from the right on to his stronger left foot -- the classic move of the inverted winger -- and hitting a shot that Julio Cesar parried straight to Gomez.
In the Champions League final last May, when Bayern was without Ribery, Robben represented Bayern's only real threat; on Wednesday, its performance was far more balanced and assured, and not just because of the return of Ribery. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Luiz Gustavo controlled the center, and had Thomas Muller had a better night, Bayern could have been out of sight. The nature of Muller's role, in the center of the trident in the 4-2-3-1, means his pass-completion stats tend to be low because so many of the balls he plays are difficult. That said, 51 percent is still poor. The next lowest on the Bayern side was the 70 percent registered by Arjen Robben.
This wasn't just a bad night for Inter; it was a bad night for Italian football as a whole. All three of Serie A's representatives in the last 16 lost at home; all three looked narrow, tactically antiquated and lethargic, like species comfortable in their own habitat, but desperately vulnerable when exposed to predators from the outside.
The 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree for which Leonard opted just didn't work because it left Bayern's two fullbacks, Lahm and Danijel Pranjic, free to push on or initiate attacks. Wesley Sneijder ended up drifting left in a half-attempt to block off Lahm, but by doing that he left Gustavo free. The other trequartista, Dejan Stankovic, dropped deeper and deeper. Neither he nor Sneijder offered anything in terms of an attacking threat, leaving Smauel Eto'o isolated. (Ironically, Inter's two best chances fell to Esteban Cambiasso breaking from deep.) The two weren't of much defensive use either, stretched impossibly between two opponents.
With a curtain of three holding midfielders, Inter should at least have had the numbers in the defensive areas to smother Bayern -- which may in part explain Muller's ineffectiveness -- but runners coming from deep frequently punctured their defensive stronghold. It was a sign of Inter's disarray that Gustavo twice in the space of five minutes in the first half sent 25-yard shots skimming just wide from precisely that area -- the fabled "red zone" by which Ottmar Hitzfeld is so obsessed.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.