The UEFA Champions League matches that featured Premier League clubs last week really emphasized the gulf in class that currently exists between the top teams in England and the giants that lead the way in the Spanish and German divisions.
In soccer, I was always told to “make the ball do the work” and there was no better example of this when Barcelona and Bayern Munich took apart Manchester City and Arsenal respectively. Without a doubt, there were pivotal moments in both games that impacted the final outcome, but it would be short-sighted to overlook the great divide in the technical ability between the sides and their ability to retain possession with consummate ease.
Having spent the last few months playing 3-a-side soccer (more commonly known as futsal), it has drilled home to me that in England we spend too much time trying to turn athletes into footballers rather than footballers into athletes. So many of our players are big, powerful units who can run all day long but so often it seems we turn a blind eye to those flair players who can add that touch of magic that Andres Iniesta and Toni Kroos provided to light up both encounters.
Even though it was Lionel Messi who scored the goal, it was Iniesta who showed the vision to open up City’s defense with a sublime through-ball. As for Kroos, he produced a midfield masterclass that would require Manchester United to cough up a lot more than the absurd sum of money that they are now reported to be paying Wayne Rooney. Aside from his magnificent goal, the 24-year-old completed 147 passes (the same number of passes made in total by all of the Arsenal outfield players combined) and attempted 121 passes in the Arsenal half, completing 96.1% of them — stunning figures by anyone’s standards.
These mesmerizing statistics highlight that beautiful soccer is best demonstrated in its simplicity. If you dominate possession in the way Barcelona and Bayern Munich did, then you increase your opportunity to win tenfold because when your opponents don’t have the ball, they can’t score. This along with the physical and mental exertion that both chasing and not having possession of the ball has on your opponent is another reason why playing against this method must be demoralizing. To carry out this approach in the backyards of two of Europe’s finest teams takes bravery, as well as incredible levels of competence to keep finding those pockets of space.