Five things we learned in this season's Champions League
Possession does not mean everything, squad depth is key and the Premier League may not contain the talent it hoped
1. Tiki-taka is over
That might be overstating things, but there were some revealing possession statistics during the course of the Champions League and not least in Real Madrid’s 4-0 away victory over Bayern Munich in the second-leg of their semi-final.
It was not only the biggest margin of victory in such an encounter – beating the three previous 3-0 away semi-finals wins – but one that was achieved with just 31 per cent possession of the ball with Madrid scoring three times in the first half.
Teams such as Barcelona and Bayern Munich ultimately struggled in the competition despite claiming the lion’s share of possession.
Instead, aggressive, counter-attacking football appeared to be the most effective route to victory. Both Madrid clubs are at their best when they hit their opponents at speed following a rapid breakdown and while that in itself is not unusual – attacks generally prey on defensive disorganisation – it has not been as obvious or achieved as effectively as this season.
It is an approach that should suit some of the Premier League clubs, Chelsea in particular, which partly explains their passage to the last four but relies also on an efficiency in attack that Jose Mourinho’s team do not possess. It is why they fell in the semi-finals.
It is not as simple as to say the team that counter-attacks wins but such is the degree of organisation that teams possess it is becoming increasingly difficult to break them down unless the ball is moved quickly around them, which is something that both Barcelona and Bayern ultimately failed to do.
Possession for possession’s sake is relatively worthless at the highest level although, fundamentally, every team should want the ball. Hopefully the high priest of tiki-taka, Pep Guardiola, will find a solution.
2. Spain reign
The Premier League is the best league in the world? Well, it has not been this season.
The Premier League is the most exciting in the world? Even that assertion is under attack.
As brilliant and dramatic as the Premier League has been, with three teams slugging it out at the top, La Liga has been even more astonishing with a final day showdown between the top two in Atletico Madrid and Barcelona.
Another Spanish Champions League winner means that Spain has also reasserted its dominance of the European Cup. Their tally of triumphs now stands at 15 – plus 11 runners-up – which moves them further ahead of 12-time winners Italy and England, with Germany claiming seven wins.
With Manchester United failing to qualify for the Champions League next season it means that Real and Barcelona will move ahead of them as the clubs who have entered it the most, with a 20th appearance in the competition. By featuring in the final, Real matched United’s record of 200 Champions League matches.
It was only last year, of course, that it was two German teams in the final, leading to the claim that the Bundesliga would dominate. Whichever league is the strongest and whichever has the best team it does feel, however, that it may be some time for two Premier League clubs to once again contest the final.
3. Squad depth is key
Despite the billions sloshing around the Premier League, and despite the financial muscle flexed by its top clubs, each one of the English quartet had weaknesses in their squads that were exposed in the Champions League. Glaring holes in the Manchester City and Arsenal squads were evident, as were problems at Manchester United and also Chelsea.
City’s lack of a commanding centre-back to play alongside Vincent Kompany proved decisive in both legs against Barcelona, while Arsenal’s absence of a trusted alternative to striker Olivier Giroud meant the raw Yaya Sanogo started the first game against Bayern Munich.
City’s problem in defence has been clear for months, and they hope to acquire Porto’s Eliaquim Mangala and the defensive midfielder Fernando while Arsène Wenger was keen to sign another striker last summer and will try and do so this close-season. These issues must be addressed.
For United it is more about a complete rebuild of their line-up, although their inability to hold onto their advantage away at Bayern showed just how old their defence has become. In midfield they lack creativity and energy and new manager Louis Van Gaal is expected to quickly find replacements.
For Chelsea there is the one big issue, of course, and that is a prolific striker. Jose Mourinho complained about it but was unable to find a solution and each of his strikers – Fernando Torres, Demba Ba and the out-of-contract Samuel Eto’o – could go this summer. Chelsea are confident they will land Atletico Madrid’s Diego Costa by triggering the £31.5 million buy-out clause in his contract and are also pursuing back-up in Bayern M
4. Coaching counts
“Sometimes the best team does not win – it is the one who is most convinced,” said Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone when he knocked out Barcelona in the quarter-finals. Certainly, the Argentinian has demonstrated that he is a match for any coach in the competition.
In achieving the extraordinary feat of reaching the final at his first attempt, he has proved the stand-out manager in the competition, both in terms of motivation and tactics.
Atletico are a team full of very good players, of course, but they are more than a sum of those, playing with a shared fervour and commitment that has been demanded by Simeone. In terms of personality, he is the equal of Jose Mourinho, and the Atletico fans have a banner saying that he is not the 'Special One’ but the 'Sime One’.
It is no surprise, however, that the four sides who reached the semi-finals all had coaches who are charismatic and easily identifiable in Simeone, Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti. At the highest level of club football the elite coaches matter and can stamp their personality on the competition.
By contrast, David Moyes and Manuel Pellegrini are relative novices – albeit Pellegrini enjoyed some success with Villarreal and Malaga during his spells there – and it is some time since Arsène Wenger has imposed himself in Europe.
5. Better to be bold
Chelsea’s semi-final defeat was a huge setback for Jose Mourinho, who has now lost an astonishing six times in eight attempts at the Champions League’s penultimate stage. Losing to Atletico Madrid was his fourth semi-final defeat in a row and the reason he did so was his caution.
It is a recurring theme for Chelsea. This was the third time out of three that they had drawn the first leg of a Champions League semi-final 0-0 and failed to reach the final. In 2004/05 they were held at home by Liverpool before losing 1-0 at Anfield, and in 2008/09 they came away from Barcelona with a goalless draw before going out on the away-goals rule with a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge.
But Chelsea are not the only club who should be kicking themselves. Both Arsenal and Manchester City failed to capitalise when they were on top in their knockout ties. Arsenal began intensely against Bayern Munich at the Emirates Stadium but could not take advantage while City had some decent opportunities midway through the second leg at a nervous Nou Camp.
And neither did Manchester United press home the advantage they had at Old Trafford against Bayern, or show enough nous when they scored at the Allianz Arena.
For all the clubs it was not just about taking their chance but being brave enough to continue to attack and push back their opponents.