Games of 2010: 10-1

December 31, 2010

Jose Mourinho, back at Stamford Bridge with a win

The ten most interesting football games of 2010.

10. Arsenal 1-3 Manchester United

As strange as it might seem now, less than 12 months ago Wayne Rooney was playing superb football. Having spent the last couple of seasons playing second fiddle to Cristiano Ronaldo, in 2009/10 he was the man United based their team around, and he took full advantage.

For much of the season he played as a classic number nine – a pure poacher who stationed himself in the penalty area and waited for service – but in this game he was a false nine, dropping deep into midfield, drawing Arsenal’s centre-backs out of position, and using Nani and Park Ji-Sung to hit Arsenal on the break. The second and third goals both came because of Arsenal’s inability to cope with Rooney’s reverse runs, whilst the first came from Nani, who put in the best performance of his United career to date.

Full report

9. Inter 3-1 Chelsea (agg)

Did Mourinho put some kind of curse upon his former club? No, he simply out-thought Carlo Ancelotti with one of the finest tactical victories of the year. He started the game at the San Siro with a 4-3-1-2 shape which dominated the midfield and overran Chelsea, but when Inter went 2-1 up, he switched to 4-2-3-1 to pin the Chelsea full-backs back, and shut out the game. The defensive move was bafflingly described as an ‘attacking gamble that didn’t come off’ by one British pundit, a recent Premier League manager.

At Stamford Bridge Inter were not particularly attacking nor particularly defensive, but they controlled the game excellently – Wesley Sneijder’s influence grew and grew as the game went on, and he assisted Samuel Eto’o’s brilliant strike to send Inter through.

Full report of first leg | Full report of second leg

8. Manchester United 1-2 Chelsea

It’s a pretty brave move to leave your star striker out for your biggest game of the season, but that’s what Carlo Ancelotti did when he figured that Nicolas Anelka playing a false nine role would be the best way of unsettling Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. Didier Drogba had to settle for the bench.

Chelsea came to Old Trafford and dominated possession in the first half – Anelka dropped deep into space and linked up with the two wingers, Florent Malouda and Joe Cole, who moved high up the pitch between full-back and centre-back and provided a goal threat – Cole scored a clever opener.

In the second half United’s approach changed drastically – they pressed higher up the pitch and Chelsea couldn’t get into the same passing rhythm, meaning Anelka’s ability to link up was not needed. Instead, Ancelotti replaced the Frenchman with Didier Drogba, who held the ball up and waited for support, and then went on to score the crucial second goal.

Full report

7. Barcelona 6-3 Arsenal

A brilliant two-legged tie that had been hyped as the game between the two most attractive sides in Europe. The battle in the first leg was not about what the two teams did with the ball, however, it was what they did without it – Barca came to the Emirates and pressed relentlessly on the front, with Seydou Keita pushed up to a left-wing position and Pep Guardiola’s side closing down Arsenal’s defence to a quite terrifying extent, to the point where Arsenal simply couldn’t get the ball forward into the midfield.

That opening blitz could have seen Barcelona 5-0 up by half-time, but Manuel Almunia had a blinding first half to keep it 0-0. The second half saw Arsenal concede two almost identical goals – Thomas Vermaelen moved up the pitch, and two balls over the top for Zlatan Ibrahimovic to cooly finish put Barca into a commanding lead. Their heavy pressing early on had a clear negative effect towards the end of the game, though, when Barcelona clearly tired and the defence became exposed to the sheer pace of Theo Walcott, and Arsenal battled back to 2-2.

The second leg was a Lionel Messi masterclass – Arsenal couldn’t defend against him and he played all over the pitch, contributing all four goals in a superb performance.

Report of first leg | Report of second leg

6. Germany 4-0 Argentina

Germany had already flattened England, and this was a very similar performance – an early goal and therefore the license to sit back and play on the counter-attack.

The key to the victory was in Argentina’s full-back areas – Gabriel Heinze and Nicolas Otamendi didn’t look to get forward and support Argentina’s attackers, so Argentina’s diamond shape against Germany’s two banks of four was simply 5 v 8, all very narrow, all very easy to defend against (even with the presence of Lionel Messi, since Germany had spare man). Equally, the full-backs didn’t defend well either – their complete lack of pace was shown up time and time again as Germany’s strategy was to get the ball into wide areas on the counter, then centre the ball into the box.

Germany used the ball wisely – not countering when there was no need to and instead retaining the ball, and Argentina’s disjointed pressing opened up space for Mesut Oezil and Bastian Schweinsteiger to oull the strings.

Full report

5. Brazil 3-0 Chile

ZM had hyped up these as the two most interesting sides tactically before the competition – Dunga had Brazil playing a counter-attacking, lopsided 4-2-3-1 shape that opponents struggled to deal with, whilst Marcelo Bielsa had transformed Chile from no-hopers to the most exciting, attacking side in world football – playing 3-3-1-3, pressing relentlessly in the opposition half, playing with width, pace and no fear.

The clash between the two was excellent, despite being over in the first half – Brazil’s tendency to sit back before breaking was contrasted with Chile playing high up the pitch, and the entire game was a complicated (speed) chess match that effectively came down to one question – would Gonzalo Jara move up the pitch to close down Robinho? He did, and Brazil countered brilliantly to record a comfortable victory.

Full report

4. Germany 4-1 England

Considering Fabio Capello’s side had a clearly legitimate goal disallowed at 2-1, there really hasn’t been too much whining in England. There’s been the odd reference, of course, but in contrast to disallowed goals in previous tournaments – 1998 against Argentina, 2004 against Portugal – it’s been fairly muted.

The reason? England were completely outplayed by a side that was technically and tactically embarrassingly superior to them. Fabio Capello’s 4-4-2 offered no movement and no creativity, but on top of that the defending was atrocious – the first goal was like something out of a Sunday League game, the second saw the defence dragged all over the shop by some good German movement, whilst the third and the fourth were excellent counter-attacking goals from Germany.

Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney wandered around aimlessly whilst Mesit Oezil, Thomas Muller and Bastian Schweinsteiger combined attacking flair with the old cliched German efficiency – it was overrated individualists up against intelligent, cohesive team players.

Full report

3. Barcelona 5-0 Real Madrid

The most memorable team performance of the year – maybe the only game in this list that will truly go down in history as one of the great football matches.

In a game hyped up so much that many expected only disappointment, Barcelona’s passing, pressing and patience completely stumped Jose Mourinho, who resorted to what looked like a damage limitation substitution at half time, removing Mesut Oezil for Lassana Diarra.

Lionel Messi played as a false nine which caused Real’s centre-backs problems in the main tactical point from the game, but the cohesiveness and understanding between Barcelona’s players was the main difference between the two teams.

Full report

2. Spain 1-0 Germany

We tend to remember only the goalfests as being brilliant games, but this (much like Germany’s defeat to Italy at the same stage four years previously) had the tension and technical quality that makes a truly great contest.

Spain were considered the best side in the competition, but Germany were the side who had hit the true heights with the huge wins over England and Australia. The passing quality on show here was wonderful, thanks to a midfield zone featuring Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, Mesut Ozil, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira.

The difference, though, was pressing. Germany had spent the tournament sitting back and counter-attacking – the games against England and Argentina allowed them to play this way thanks to an early goal in each – but Spain were much better at shutting down Germany moves before they’d crossed the halfway line, meaning Spain dominated possession and eventually went 1-0 up from a set-piece.

From there, Germany had to try and win the ball more quickly but having been outpassed throughout, they were now so tired (and so unused to pressing) that they found it impossible, and Spain passed their way to victory.

Full report

1. Inter 3-2 Barcelona (agg)

In any sport, you tend to find brilliant contests between two teams or players that are well-matched in terms of ability, but completely different in terms of style. This tie, particularly the second leg at the Nou Camp, was a great demonstration of that – Barcelona attacked non-stop whilst Inter sat back inside their own third and simply tried to hang on.

The Clasico was a fantastic display of football, but it was utterly one-sided and was over after 45 minutes. This game was literally not truly decided until the last kick – Barca had a goal disallowed in the final seconds that would have sent them through on away goals.

First, though, we must not forget the game at the San Siro – Mourinho was criticized for his defensive tactics in the second leg, but then he did arrive with a two-goal head start, and quickly found himself a man down. In the first leg there was no sign of defensive play from Inter – they attacked Barca so much it actually seemed to take the Spanish champions by surprise – Maicon bombed on down the left which Seydou Keita couldn’t quite cope with, whilst on the other side Goran Pandev came inside and dragged Dani Alves narrow, opening up space for Wesley Sneijder who moved left.

Inter were aided by a rare tactical error from Pep Guardiola in both fixtures – he started Zlatan Ibrahimovic when (a) the Swede was not fully fit, (b) Barca had been playing very well without him at that point and (c) Inter’s centre-backs were always going to be more vulnerable to an approach based around small, tricky players who link up well and offer good movement. Ibrahimovic gave Barca a different option when he was at the club, but it wasn’t one required at the start of these games.

The second leg was extraordinary – Inter produced one of the most defensive performances in recent football history after going down to ten men. Mourinho, remarkably, was so confident that this was the right approach that he didn’t even want his side to have possession, saying after the game, “We didn’t want the ball because when Barcelona press and win the ball back, we lose our position – I never want to lose position on the pitch so I didn’t want us to have the ball. We gave it away.”

In that sense, it was a brilliant battle of footballing ideology. Barca, having received rave reviews for their focus upon passing and pressing, were suddenly beaten by a side that didn’t press, didn’t attack, didn’t even look to have the ball. Joga Bonito advocates will look upon Inter’s performance at the Nou Camp with disgust, but tactically this two-legged tie was a truly epic contest.

Full report of first leg | Full report of second leg

Games of 2010: 10-1

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