If a team sets up for a match with the intention to utilise the counterattack as their main form of fashioning chances, it’s an intention that’s hard to see as anything other than utterly tactically pragmatic. When a team is technically outmatched by their opponents, when they are less agile, worse on the ball, and more prone to panic, then seceding possession and looking to defend, deeply and obdurately, seems a smart idea. The hope is that, maybe a few times in each half, an opportunity to break quickly will avail itself; to catch the other team unawares (lulled as they are with all the lovely possession). Suddenly the silk cloth is whipped off the apparent meekness of the defending team and their nefarious plan is revealed. Lightning strikes, a goal is scored, the team who felt so on top of things is now behind and they turn, shell-shocked, to see the now leading team smugly setting up in their defensive formation once again. If it goes like this, the plan is a good one. But the plan isn’t fool proof and, in fact, a team can look pretty foolish if these rare counterattacking opportunities aren’t taken, or indeed, never materialise. The plan then looks weak and meek, like a last resort or a desperate attempt to even the odds against superior adversaries. Even when it does work, it can still somewhat resemble a smash and grab.
But when Real Madrid executed it to the tune of five goals to nil over two legs against Bayern Munich, it looked anything but meek. It was bold, bruising, a display of near superhuman speed and muscularity. It was the perfect way to beat this Guardiola-tuned Bayern. It wasn’t a last resort; it was the best answer, the only one. And it wasn’t just the best way for Carlo Ancelotti’s side to beat Bayern Munich, it was the best way for them to beat anyone (at least any team that aspires to attack at all). The reason for this is the pure athletic ability they have in Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, their twin princes. Maybe the two quickest players in the world, Bale had already lowered the collective jaw to the floor with his sprinter’s goal in the King’s Cup. Ronaldo, who scored his 15th and 16th Champions League goals this season at the Allianz Arena, has long been the best full-speed dribbler in the game. That these men can tear the best teams apart with only their pace is no secret.
Yet Guardiola, with his tiki-taka possession blinders on, opted not to field a holding midfielder (despite Javi Martinez, one of the best, being available) until his team were well behind. He instructed Dante and Boateng to play a high line, and for Alaba and Lahm to push forward into midfield. This would all be fine usually, and it did help Bayern predictably dominate possession. But Real (partially as a leftover of Mourinho’s reign) are so well drilled in defence under Ancelotti and are too disciplined to let this sort of pressure worry them. They didn’t wilt and when Bayern fell asleep on two set pieces (just quietly,when has a Guardiola team ever not been vulnerable from set pieces?) and they realised that they needed 4 goals to go through, the scene was set beautifully for Bale and Ronaldo to get their feet set on the blocks and wait for the starter’s pistol. The third goal on the night was the result. It helps hugely to have the supreme passing ability of Luka Modric and Xabi Alonso behind you, as well as the slipperiness of Angel Di Maria to lubricate the quick transitions from defence into attack, but Ronaldo’s first goal in Munich was all about his and Bale’s pace. A good outlet pass from Madrid’s own penalty area came to Karim Benzema, who laid it off superbly for Bale. The Welshman then accelerated away from Boateng, getting ahead of him just enough to be able to square it to Ronaldo, who had been keeping pace but was crucially just behind Bale to avoid being offside. The right back, Lahm, incidentally, was nowhere to be found, having been up and around Real’s penalty area before Bayern lost possession. Ronaldo finished with ease and celebrated in a slightly cringe worthy manner, making sure we all knew it was his record-breaking fifteenth goal. But the transition was so blindingly quick, and the Bayern players couldn’t do a thing.
It just so happened that this game plan was perfect for beating Bayern with, but why wouldn’t you play like this when you have players like Ronaldo and Bale? The modern footballer is a well-rounded thing, and Bale and Ronaldo are obviously more than just running machines, but it is their pure pace that makes them such devastating assets for this counterattacking Madrid side. With them in the side, the tactic isn’t reactionary, it’s primary. They are so good at making forward runs when possession is won, at such a speed so as to be untrackable, that any halfway decent passer (let alone Modric or Alonso) can just put the ball into the space in front of them. Suddenly a golden chance is crafted. For a while there the footballer-as-athlete concept went out of fashion, that being faster and stronger didn’t mean that much anymore, that technique was the asset that needed to be promoted above all else. Ironically, it was Bayern that helped tear down the footballer-as-technician paradigm when they destroyed Barcelona in the Champions League last season. This year they’ve become the type of team they so revelled in humiliating a year ago, and it’s down to Guardiola to assess the fallout. For Real however, a local derby awaits in the final. Atletico have also prospered from playing counterattacking football this season, so we’ll have to see how the Madrid sides match up in Lisbon. What can be counted on, however, is that Real Madrid will have Bale and Ronaldo, locked, loaded and ready to explode down the pitch at any moment.
“These players are champions. You have to look for automatism, which is just a matter of time. We don’t need 30 passes to find a solution. You have to be ready to find it sooner… three passes will do. I can’t go against the qualities in my players, and if we find the solution in three passes instead of 30, that’s what we’ll do. I’m Italian and the counter is one option I like.”