Juventus, top of Serie A, having kept clean sheets in 21 of their previous 25 games, exposed horribly in defense by Real Madrid in QF, letting in three. And yet on Roma, third in Serie A, 21 points behind Juve, hammered Barcelona, who remain unbeaten in La Liga and stand 15 points clear of fourth-placed Real Madrid.
Can’t be just a one-off fluke in a cup competition, or just a coincidence ?
After the miracle of Rome last week, Eusebio Di Francesco, rightly, took credit for his switch to a back three, “to create more width, allow more counterattacks and bring speed, but what really changed was the philosophy of the side.” Roma pressed ferociously from the first minute and that unsettled Barça, who are not used to facing sides that take them on and perhaps had made the mistake of thinking the tie was won.
Daniele De Rossi, operated in a deep-lying playmaker role for Roma. Even protected by Kevin Strootman and Radja Nainggolan, he was somebody Barça had to close down, the obvious fulcrum. Yet just six minutes in he had all the time in the world, Luis Suárez and Messi casually trotting back to halfway, to float a ball over the defensive line for Edin Dzeko to open the scoring.
Gerard Piqué and Samuel Umtiti looked uncomfortable all night against a genuine front two. This was old-school one-on-one defending, not the modern style in which one defender disrupts and the spare man picks up the loose ball. Dzeko, aggressive and relentless, had a superb game.
But by far the biggest issue was Barça’s laxity. As with Juve, the warning signs had been there in the previous round. Chelsea, again and again, especially in the first leg, had got a run at an exposed defensive line as the back of Barcelona’s midfield dematerialised.
This is the same Barça that are still unbeaten in Spain… so absolutely that they forget what it is to fight. It feels like there is now no more statistic more misleading for a top side, not even possession, than goals conceded in the league. Barça have let in 16 in 31 this season, Juve 18 in 31, Manchester City 24 in 32. All of them, when it came to actually defending against a top side, have been found wanting most of the times.
Bayern have been laughably dominant in the Bundesliga. Juventus may be facing more of a challenge this season than in recent years but they have won Serie A six times in a row. Barcelona and Real Madrid more often than not, dwarf the rest in Spain.
PSG were so upset when their run of four successive French league titles came to an end last season that they went and arranged the two most expensive transfers in history !! While their only rival, meanwhile, lost four key players…
In practical terms, on the pitch, what it means is that elite sides have softer underbellies than they have ever had before. Genuine opposition is such a rarity that when they meet it they have no idea how to react.
Nobody can defend. Small teams are overwhelmed but so, too, are bigger sides. In part it is probably to do with law changes; it is much harder now to kill a game by spoiling than it has ever been before. And in part it is to do with the focus on defenders who can play the ball rather than necessarily being able to defend. That is something that is very difficult to examine statistically, given good defending often results in nothing happening.
That is why so many games between ostensibly well-matched elite sides end up with a surprisingly large margin of victory. The Barcelona-PSG last-16 tie last season… 4–0 to PSG in the first leg; 6–1 to Barça in the second was the perfect example of that. It was thrilling but it was essentially two big men taking it in turns to hit a blancmange with an axe. Barcelona, it will be remembered, rapidly succumbed to a better-balanced Juventus in the following round as well.
The CIES Football Observatory noted recently that 21% of all Champions League games finished with a winning margin of three or more goals making it one of the least-balanced competitions in Europe. In its early stages, that is a result of the rich and powerful beating up smaller sides. PSG hammering Celtic, Chelsea hammering Qarabag, Real Madrid hammering Apoel… But ideally that should not be the case from the quarter-finals onward. Liverpool are not richer than City; Roma are certainly not more powerful than Barça.
In the past eight seasons, 21 games at the quarter-final stage or later of the Champions League have been won by a three-goal margin; in the eight seasons before that, there were only eight.
Top sides, the elite who reach those stages of the competition, may be better than their forebears at attacking but the art of defending is being forgotten. There is too much attention on the glitter of glory and not enough on the guts.