Not since Helenio Herrera’s La Grande Inter of 1965 has the Nerazzurri reached the pinnacle of European club football. Yet, as the dust settles following their first major European title for 45 years, the criticisms of their earlier triumph continue to echo into the present: Herrera always prioritised defensive strategy, and, as this year’s Champions League final lucidly exemplified, it appears Jose Mourinho is not too dissimilar.
Inter’s defensive approach has been masked by an ostensibly attacking line-up throughout the Champions League campaign. In the final, Mourinho once again deployed Diego Milito as the lone out-and-out striker with Wesley Sneijder scurrying just behind him. Goran Pandev and Samuel Eto’o also continued their reincarnation as disciplined, labour-orientated wingers by shuttling back and forth on either wing as though it was some kind of penance march. Meanwhile, Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso’s duties rarely stretched beyond protecting the deep back four. Despite three strikers then, only one was expected to provide the real threat and Sneijder’s role also required his involvement in the defensive play.
Serving almost as an antithesis, Bayern Munich set about playing an expansive style of football. They were hindered slightly by Franck Ribery’s exclusion and Louis Van Gaal, as expected, fielded Turkish midfielder Hamit Altintop in a slightly more comfortable centre-of-left role. Elsewhere though, Bayern were unchanged and lined-up in their usual interchangeable 4-4-2 / 4-2-3-1.
Bayern – perhaps foolishly – sought to control the game through patient probing and possession, playing a high defensive line to get as many bodies into effective areas as possible. Van Gaal must’ve overlooked Inter’s resilience against Barcelona in which the Italian club managed to attain only 16% of the possession and managed to concede only one goal, fortuitously, yet skilfully, put away by Gerard ‘Kitchen Sink’ Pique.
Their exemplary display against Barcelona must’ve been cited as the idyll by Mourinho in the build-up to the final. As they did at the Camp Nou, Inter pressed Bayern at intermittent phases, closing down the danger men promptly while remaining conscious of their defensive shape to avoid porosity. The Italian club was more than happy for Bayern to keep the ball around the halfway line as their two lines of four effectively sandwiched the space for Bayern’s industrious strikers.
Against Arjen Robben, Bayern’s only source of any potentially successful probing, Cristian Chivu was vigilante and was constantly aided by Cambiasso sliding across from the centre. Pandev, meanwhile, policed the overlap from Lahm. On the opposite wing, Altintop could hardly give Maicon a sufficient challenge, but it did nullify the Brazilian wing-back’s offensive meandering.
In the middle, Bayern were simply outnumbered. As has been mentioned, Zanetti and Cambiasso sat deep and shielded the back four against Sebastien Schweinsteiger and Mark van Bommel. This allowed Sneijder’s phenomenal work-rate to pose a problem not just for the midfield pairing but also for defensive duo, Martin Demichelis and Daniel Van Buyten, as he raided the backline with all the virtues and ruthlessness of a Viking explorer. Sneijder’s support for Milito, in fact, gave birth to the first goal.
Bayern’s lacklustre defending served as a well contrasted comparison. Inter’s goals were begotten as much as from Inter’s direct and incisive attacking play as an ill-disciplined defence. As Philipp Lahm was expected to push on, Milito cleverly exploited the space the German wing-back left to draw out Van Buyten on several occasions, including the second goal when he turned the Belgian like a cat in a blender – only without the helpless, gratifying screams from within.
The first goal was all important though and came tamely via route one and courtesy of a multitude of defensive errors. The first mistake was Demichalis’ failure to win the header against Milito; the second was Van Buyten’s deep positioning which allowed Milito to run in behind the phlegmatic defensive pairing; the third was Badstuber’s failure to provide cover once this has happened.
Inter, meanwhile, rarely erred and, once the second goal had clinched victory, Mourinho fortified his defence even further by using Cambiasso as an auxiliary defender.
The question is will the attendees of the Bernabeu find Mourinho’s blend of defensive organisation and direct counter attack appealing? Even at Chelsea and Porto the Portuguese made no secret of his desire for strong, disciplined, athleticism in favour of flair and technical qualities. If he restores success to Madrid it’s perhaps inevitable he will win the hearts and minds. But competing with Barcelona will be no easy feat and if playing the Real Madrid way clashes too often with playing the Mourinho way to negative effect, it could well be a temporal appointment for the ‘Special One’.
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