Chelsea's unlikely triumph a testament to Di Matteo's tactics
Sometimes football simply doesn't make sense. The cliché that a club's name is on a trophy can't have any truth, and yet it was hard during Chelsea's Champions League final victory not to feel it had some greater power behind it.
Perhaps Chelsea's players came to feel that as well: how else can you explain Didier Drogba finding an equalizer with two minutes remaining? How else can you explain Petr Cech's penalty save on Arjen Robben? How else can you explain how it came from behind in a shootout (Drogba netting the clincher) to beat, of all things, a German side in Germany, in front of the Bayern Munich fans, while going second?
Luck, self-belief, cussedness, a determination that as this side, the core of which was put together in Jose Mourinho's reign, all of those played their parts in Chelsea's 4-3 win on penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw, its first European club championship. But it shouldn't be underestimated what a tactical triumph this was for Roberto Di Matteo. He stifled Barcelona in the semifinal, and he stifled Bayern Munich in a very different way here.
In a sense, his task was made easier by Chelsea's shortcomings. There could be no temptation to engage in an open game. Gianni Brera, the great Italian journalist, spoke of catenaccio defending as being "the right of the weak." This wasn't catenaccio in its true sense (for that requires a sweeper playing behind the defensive line), but this was the spirit of catenaccio.
The dynamic of the game was always going to be similar to that of the matches against Barcelona; in the top five leagues in Europe, only Barcelona had better possession and pass completion stats than Bayern.
Jupp Heynckes' team was always going to dominate possession as Chelsea packed men behind the ball. But the shape was different to the Barcelona games, and necessarily so.
Barcelona's habit is to attack through the center, all flurries of short passes and sharp bursts; Bayern, though, although it uses inverted wingers, has overlapping fullbacks and, in Mario Gomez, a center forward who is more than capable in the air. Against Barcelona, Chelsea could defend the center, cede the flanks and allow crosses, knowing there was little chance of any of Barca's diminutive forwards being able to beat John Terry, Gary Cahill or Branislav Ivanovic in the air. Bayern's height, though, makes crosses much more dangerous.
So rather than the 4-3-3 it deployed against Barca, Chelsea went with a 4-2-3-1 that rapidly became a 4-4-1-1. Mikel John Obi sat deep alongside Frank Lampard in the middle, with Salomon Kalou to the right and, surprisingly, Ryan Bertrand to the left. The 22-year-old had played just nine games before for Chelsea and is more usually a fullback, but he did a superb job occupying the space in front of the quite exceptional Ashley Cole and so preventing Philipp Lahm from getting forward -- as he had so devastatingly in the semifinal first leg against Real Madrid.
There are two ways of combating attacking fullbacks: a team can station a quick player high up the pitch to attack the space behind the fullback -- as England did in positioning Theo Walcott against Danijel Pranjic in the 4-1 win over Croatia in Zagreb in 2008, or as Borussia Dortmund did against Bayern Munich in the German Cup final Saturday, when Kevin Grosskreutz and Jakub Blaszczykowski repeatedly got behind Lahm and David Alaba.
Chelsea could have tried to do that with Juan Mata and Daniel Sturridge, but given how deep its defense prefers to play, that might have left it stretched. So it went for the other option, which is to block the channels with players. Every time Lahm advanced, he found himself allowed to run until he got within 20 yards or so of the Chelsea box at which he hit Bertrand. And if he got by him, there was Cole. The double curtain wasn't impenetrable, but it stemmed the flow of Bayern's chances and ensured that significant numbers of the chances Bayern did have were either shots from range or attempts to get on the end of crosses. Bayern had 35 shots, but only actually forced two saves from Petr Cech.
That said, Bayern should have won comfortably. Chelsea's right did not function as well as its left, in part because Kalou was given a freer role than Bertrand, but mainly because where Ashley Cole was outstanding -- giving a performance that perhaps outstrips even his famous display in the quarterfinal of Euro 2004 when he shut Cristiano Ronaldo out of the game. All those chances, all those misses: Chelsea may have stemmed the tide to an extent, but it still broke against its defenses again and again. It would be ludicrous to deny Chelsea was fortunate; the point is that it put itself in the best possible position to take advantage of any fortune that went its way.
In many ways, Bayern tactically got things pretty much right itself.
Chelsea's main threat was Drogba, and Bayern's policy of positioning Bastian Schweinsteiger in front of him when Cech took goal kicks clearly interrupted his supply (Cech to Drogba had been Chelsea's most common passing combination against Barcelona). From Bayern's point of view, defeat came down to individual errors: Gomez's many misses, Robben's saved penalty and the shootout.
It created chances at a rate of one every three-and-a-half minutes.
Would a change of approach have improved that, or at least made those chances more easily convertible? Perhaps. But then the lack of a central creator meant that it had to focus its attacks down the flanks. Thomas Müller rarely escaped the holding duo of Mikel and Lampard until he and Robben started interchanging late on. That brought the breakthrough, but Müller was taken off three minutes later. Had Luiz Gustavo not been suspended, Toni Kroos could have taken the role -- as he did after Müller came off -- and Bayern would at least have had his drive and intelligence in more dangerous areas, but he was occupied as one of the deep-lying players.
Will Chelsea's successes against Barcelona and Bayern, two teams who prioritize possession, lead to a shift away from proactive passing football in favor of a more defensive approach? It's possible, but few other sides will have the luck Chelsea did. More likely is that the possession-based teams will seek a more effective way of playing, to ensure their passing is not for passing's sake but comes with penetration.