This aforementioned statement was consistently utilized by Roberto Mancini, the media and even the players when referring to their debut Champions League campaign. They constantly highlighted that although City possessed Champions League experienced players it was their first year in the Champions League as a team. The likes of Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, AC Milan and Inter Milan are always highlighted as the cartel of Champions League football, i.e. they all possess this so called asset of “experience” to be consistently successful in this tournament.
I always found that term to be a vague one to describe the consistent performers. I believe it is incorrect to throw the term experience around as if it is the defining attribute of a team. Managers and players are always changing even among this so called Champions League cartel therefore more often than not these clubs are also fielding teams that have not played together in the Champions League before. Then there are the anomalies to account for players like Xavi, Iniesta, Müller and Badstuber who had very successful maiden Champions League runs without any previous Champions League experience.
There are instead THREE attributes that are always part and parcel of a good Champions League team in modern football. The best teams master all three of these, the consistent teams will master two out of three.
There have been cases of managers who have found a system to play that brings about great domestic success and therefore do not attempt to change it for European play. They start believing that my way is the right way and that was much the case with Mancini this season. The managers who consistently perform in the Champions League have always been able to tactically adapt for every team and even on the fly during the game. These changes might be as small as certain off the ball runs by particular players to complete formation alterations.
One does not need to look that far back in time to recognize this attribute in motion. The impeccable Inter Milan team a few years back was one of the best tactically flexible teams in modern football, their ability to switch from defensive stances to full out counter attack was a scary sight for any rival fan to witness. The Italian clubs have always been the world leaders in tactics as is being showcased again this season by Napoli who utilized a similarly devastating counter-attacking philosophy but founded upon a very unconventional 3-4-3 formation (unlike Mourinho’s Inter which utilized 4 or 5 at the back). Even Wenger and Guardiola who emphasize on sticking with their attacking philosophy are tactical geniuses and their tactical flexibility is often on a smaller scale, it might be placing Messi further in the center or utilizing early crosses instead of late crosses.
European football is the culmination of varying tactical styles and formations and the cartel always has a tendency to hire managers that understand this phenomenon and believe in tactical flexibility.
Workrate & Pressing game
This has always been the unsung hero of Champions League success. The ability to be fitter than your opponent and being able to outrun them for 90 minutes is the main difference maker in all tournament football. Barcelona’s 3 second pressing routine is famous for showcasing their immense work-rate. All of Mourinho’s teams have always prioritized fitness as well. The Bayern under Heynckes also emphasizes on high work rate and pressing. This work-rate is most important in the center of the pitch and with the full backs. If the CM/CDM’s/CAM’s and Full-Backs have high work rate, then more often than not your team will outperform the opposing team. Bayern has Schweinsteiger/Gustavo/Kroos and Müller in the center and with Lahm on the outside they are almost there. Barcelona has arguably the hardest working fullback in Dani Alves and with workhorses like Xavi/Iniesta/Fabregas/Messi in the center there is hardly any room for the opposing team to breath. Mourinho has instilled this same pressing mentality into players like Ronaldo/Özil/Kaka and Alonso. Marcelo is also an extremely hard running full back.
The failure of Manchester United in this season’s Champions League was due to Ferguson’s inability to address this issue in the off-season. Their pressing and work-rate in the center has been consistently diminishing and although in previous campaigns they were able to make up for it with other attributes, they were unable to do so this season. Napoli this season and Lyon this decade have always followed this mantra of being able to outrun their opponents and therefore have achieved success.
Communication on the pitch is often overlooked from the fans’ perspective. Some believe that footballers share an instinctual connection and they do not need to communicate to do that elusive 1-2 or layoff that sweet through pass assist for a goal. The best footballers definitely have this instinctual ability but when the need is for your whole team to play on the same wavelength, constant communication plays a very important role. This is why all the Cartel Clubs emphasize on the need for new signings to quickly master the home language whether it be Spanish, Italian or German.
The core of the current Bayern and Barcelona teams are based on German and Spanish national team players respectively which makes their ability to be on the same wavelength even easier. This is also thanks to the fact that both Löw’s Germany and Bosque’s Spain also follow the mantra of communication and work-rate.
When you sit in awe of the current Barcelona team at its finest you notice all the hand signals between all the potential linkups from the ball carrier. This often leads to insane technical passing within extremely tight spaces against teams who are playing a very good pressing game. Excellent communication is the only way to beat an excellent pressing game.
The term experience alone does not give justice to consistency in the Champions League. It is a mixture of work-rate, pressing, communication and tactical flexibility that always brings about success in tournament football. As history had taught us the Italian teams often prioritized their tactics, the Spanish teams communication and the Germans were known for their work rate. Times are changing though, you would be hard fought to think of a team that has a better work rate than Napoli or the unbeatable pressing game of Barcelona. The Germans no longer depend on tactical rigidity and play an attacking football founded on communication. It is becoming almost impossible to stereotype modern football based on their country of origin anymore, exciting times lie ahead.
One things for sure though if Mancini wants to taste Champions League success he has to become tactically flexible and instill the mantra of high work rate and communication within this current City team.
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