Defensively Minded, But Who Cares?

By rayand via Wikimedia Commons

On May 19th, Chelsea stunned Bayern Munich on their own ground to win the Champions League Final in a dramatic penalty shootout. Despite the German side having the majority of possession, chances and attacking play, Chelsea delivered a gritty, defensively minded performance that eventually gained them the victory.

This style of play from Chelsea was widely expected. Before the game had even kicked off, German legend Gunter Netzer criticised the team in a newspaper column. Suggesting that the style of play employed by the English side in the decisive leg of the Barcelona semi final could make him stop watching football altogether, the former Möchengladbach midfielder bemoaned the negative tactics he expected Roberto Di Matteo to utilise. His comments were echoed by many in the European media after the game, with sympathy for Bayern running high. Munich’s Suddeutsche Zeitung asked “How much bad luck fits into a single football match?” while French sports paper L’Equipe described the victory as “a small miracle”. Marca in Spain derided the amount of money spent by owner Roman Abramovich compared to the time taken to achieve the trophy.

This barrage of criticism, however, seems slightly bitter and unfair. Due to a flurry of bookings in the semi final of the competition, Chelsea were missing many key players through suspension including defensive lynch pin and club captain John Terry (admittedly through his own violent stupidity) and first choice centre back Branislav Ivanovic. This meant Chelsea were forced to play two half-fit footballers in the middle of their defence, with Gary Cahill returning from a hamstring injury just in time and David Luiz barely recovering from the same injury in order to play. In addition, creative midfielder Raul Meireles and Ramires, so important in the second leg against Barcelona, were also banned.

Added to these problems was the fact the final was played in the Allianz Arena, the home stadium Bayern Munich. The German team were even given permission to use their home changing rooms, giving them a huge psychological advantage from the off. Taking all this into account, it is hard to criticise Di Matteo for the defensively minded tactics he used throughout the match.

Bayern Munich are not immune from criticism themselves. If Chelsea were “destructive anti-footballers” as the German media claimed, then it should have been a simple task to hold on for the ten minutes required when it seemed Bayern had scored the decisive winner. The team, however, switched off, allowing Chelsea to score from their first corner of the game. Arjen Robben missed a crucial penalty in extra time, a chance to score that would have surely killed the game. In essence, Munich only have themselves to blame for their defeat.

That is not to take anything away from the Chelsea performance. On a night where they were up against a vastly superior side, they dug deep and battled admirably. Ashley Cole in particular reminded those watching why he is considered one of the finest left backs in the world, while Frank Lampard gave a performance befitting of his stature as a Chelsea legend. David Luiz admitted after the game that he was having hamstring trouble from the 20th minute, yet refused to come off and even scored a penalty in the shootout. However, it was departing striker Didier Drogba who gave the fans an appropriate leaving present, scoring both the equaliser and the decisive penalty in an authoritative performance.

Alan Hansen commented in the Daily Telegraph that finals are purely about winning. His argument is no one remembers the manner of victory, only the result lives long in the minds of the supporters. In this way, to demonise Chelsea for being defensive seems churlish and arrogant on behalf of Bayern Munich and the assorted media. Either way you look at it, the Chelsea fans and players are unlikely to care.