Bayern vs. Inter proves you can't judge a team by its country
Even just 10 years ago, a game like the Bayern vs. Inter clash on Tuesday night would have been, generally, unthinkable. Why? Because it was a German team versus an Italian team. In other words, discipline versus defensive nous. Lazy stereotyping was probably off the mark even back at the turn of the millennium, but at least it was grounded in some kind of reality, some kind of expression of national characteristics. Today they're simply way off base. Bayern and Inter provided plenty of evidence of this.
What you saw when Bayern took on Inter in the Champions League was two teams built to attack, with a tendency to leave the back lines exposed. Two clubs that, presumably, were aware of the aggregate score and UEFA's away goals rule but, nevertheless, went at it as if all that mattered was scoring more and more, rather than conceding less and less.
Inter was down 1-0 from the first leg, so, to some degree, the Nerazzurri had to attack. But the goal it needed to wipe out the disadvantage inherited from the San Siro leg came after just three minutes. Conventional wisdom -- and a century of stereotypes -- would have suggested Inter settling down and looking to pick its spots, perhaps on the break. But Inter did no such thing. Leonardo's uber-attacking lineup left the front four of Samuel Eto'o, Wesley Sneijder, Goran Pandev and Dejan Stankovic well up the pitch, with just Esteban Cambiasso and Thaigo Motta to help out the defense. And against a Bayern team that effectively put out a 4-2-4 (and not just any 4-2-4, but one with Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery) running rampant, it was counterintuitive at best, suicidal at worst.
And so after half an hour Bayern was up 2-1, both goals the result of sustained pressure against an undermanned defense. With Bayern leading 3-1 on aggregate, stereotype would have dictated looking to control the game, unleashing the blistering speed of Ribery and Robben on the break. But no, Bayern just kept coming. And with its own defensive difficulties -- Breno and Daniel Van Buyten are hardly what God had in mind when he invented center backs -- Inter notched the two late goals it needed to clinch the 3-2 win and advance to the quarterfinals on the away goals rule.
Of course, the managers of these two clubs are neither Italian nor German: Leonardo is Brazilian and Louis Van Gaal is Dutch. But that doesn't mean their fools. It means they believe in a certain way of playing, one that puts attacking ahead of defending. It's precisely the opposite of the attitude that pushed many to describe Italian and German clubs as "boring" for a long time. And, in a Champions League where none of the teams left (Barcelona aside) have exactly been providing stellar attacking entertainment, at least not in the knockout phase, maybe that style is worth saluting. At the very least it's a reminder that there's more than one way to skin a cat.
And if that means putting up with criticism that the defending is "shambolic," so be it. People described Brazil's defense as poor for decades but that didn't stop the Seleção from winning five World Cups, did it?
What makes the game special is variety, the differences in style and philosophy, and the fact that you can interpret the sport in so many different ways. It used to be that we could -- with some level of truth -- pigeonhole certain countries based on style. No more.
Which is why, by the way, the generalized conclusions whereby the health of the sport in a certain country is based on the number of teams it sends to the Champions League quarterfinals -- as many have done, especially when it comes to Serie A -- is silly. You'll see fewer "death of Italian soccer" stories now that Inter is in the quarterfinals simply because we can't say, "Once again, like in 2008-09, no Italian clubs reached the quarterfinal of the Champions League." Never mind the fact that if the Italian game were dead, an away goal surely isn't going to be enough to resurrect it.
It's a similar story for Bayern. Van Gaal, who will be stepping aside at the end of the season, was asked if he would change his mind if he led the club to the Champions League title.
"How would that change anything?" he replied, showing remarkable honesty.
And he's right. It wouldn't change the fact that his relationship with players and executives at Bayern has soured, or that the team is in serious danger of not even finishing in the Bundesliga top three this year.
Champions League results are important. If advancing in the tournament did not matter, we would not keep score; we'd just have a series of high-profile friendlies. But you judge a manager -- not to mention a team, or even a whole nation -- on the total body of work.
Case in point: Schalke fired its manager, Felix Magath, despite the fact that the club is in the quarterfinals of the Champions League and the final of the German Cup. Why? Because Schalke, after spending some $35 million on Jose Jurado and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, is 10th in the Bundesliga and could yet get sucked into the relegation battle. And that's a much better indication of Magath's work than any Cup run.
A little less stereotyping, generalization and papering over the cracks, coupled with a little more analysis of how teams actually play, would be a boon for everyone. Oh, and maybe a bit less decrying teams' poor defensive performances when they're actually pretty good to watch at the other end of the pitch.