Do Madrid and Barcelona humiliations prove that footballers are losing out to athletes?

The pair of Spanish powerhouses were undone by the mesmeric workrate of stronger and fitter opponents last week, leading Gianluca Vialli to claim a new era has begun

By Kris Voakes

European football hasn’t seen too many weeks like last week. With Barcelona and Real Madrid representing the twin pillars of modern footballing superstardom, along came Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund and simply blew them out of the water in their respective Champions League semi-final first-leg encounters. While form had suggested that the Bundesliga pair had more than a fighting chance, the manner of the maulings they handed out came as a sensational statement in front of the watching world.

‘Germany 8, Spain 1’ read the headlines, and it was an easy correlation to make. But there was another connection to be drawn as former Italy international striker Gianluca Vialli was quick to point out.

“Tonight has signalled the beginning of a new era,” Vialli claimed in the Sky Sport studios after Dortmund’s Wednesday win. “We have passed from the ball possession and from the typical qualities of Spanish football to a style which is potent, fast, spectacular but effective at the same time. German football represents a new era, the Teutonic formations will be at the top of Europe for several years.”

And there was a lot of truth in what Vialli said. Whereas many clubs have taken an “if you can’t beat them, join them” attitude to taking on Barcelona in particular, with pundits suggesting we have been witnesses to a ‘4-3-3 era’, the superior pressing games and magnificent workrate of the German sides was what brought down the great Spanish myth in such spectacular fashion.

“German football represents a new era, the Teutonic formations will be at the top of Europe for several years”

Gianluca Vialli

Bayern’s ability to make Barcelona play the game in the areas that suited the Bavarians most was the key to last Tuesday’s 4-0 result at the Allianz Arena, while a similar approach spawned a vital supremacy for Dortmund against Madrid 24 hours later. Both managed that through the kind of tireless pressing in every zone of the pitch that neither Spanish outfit have been exposed to.

The 180 minutes served as a demonstration of how to knock the best football sides out of their stride, with Bayern covering a total of 118.7km to Barca’s 113.3 and Dortmund out-running Madrid by 112.8km to 106.6, but to claim that that was all Bayern and Dortmund had in their locker would be to ignore their abilities on the ball which also played a huge part. Both sides were outdone for ball possession. Neither managed to convert their attempted passes as prolifically as their opponents. And yet both were superbly economical on the ball when they had it and made a glut of goalscoring chances.

And, of course, the high quality of finishing also had a lot to do with the results. Barca came unstuck thanks to Jupp Heynckes’ side’s ability to make chances from all angles, while Robert Lewandowski’s predatory poaching did for Madrid.

Still though, Vialli’s comments deserve great reflection. No team will ever get everything right in all areas, and normally a side with significantly less possession will succumb if they are also short of territorial supremacy for large parts of a game, but the German pair were able to ensure that neither opponent was able to cause too much trouble when they had long periods on the ball. And that came about from the strong platform of a breathless running game with and without the ball.

Bayern 4-0 Barca
Dortmund 4-1 Real
Most passes completed

Xavi 87
Andres Iniesta 80
Gerard Pique 72
Dani Alves 63
Sergi Busquets 61
Marc Bartra 58
Jordi Alba 57
Lionel Messi 47
Pedro 44
Bastian Schw’eiger 39

Most passes completed

Fabio Coentrao 56
Pepe 51
Raphael Varane 49
Xabi Alonso 47
Sergio Ramos 47
Ilkay Gundogan 46
Mats Hummels 46
Mario Gotze 44
Marcel Schmelzer 40
Neven Subotic 37

Barcelona’s midfield trio were at the heart of their side’s 63 per cent possession on Tuesday night, but were never where they wanted to be. Xavi completed 87 passes at a 92% success rate, with Andres Iniesta chalking up 80 at 86% and Sergio Busquets 61 at 90%, but those magnificent stats say little about how they were forced into territory from which they were less effective as table-setters for the likes of Lionel Messi, Alexis Sanchez and Pedro Rodriguez than has been their habit over recent years.

Bastian Schweinsteiger completed 39 passes to top the Bayern charts, with his tally bettering only Alexis Sanchez of Barcelona’s starters, yet it was the tenacity and restlessness of his all-round game alongside Javi Martinez which helped to pave the way for the German champions’ success. Ilkay Gundogan’s 46 passes the following night came in only sixth on the night’s stats yet, like Bayern, Dortmund formed their approach such that the Germany international’s input was far more rewarding than that of the more flustered Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira. Making the ball do the work sounds like a great idea, but the real work last week came from the legs.

Some of the world’s most astonishingly gifted footballing technicians were on the field of play over the course of the two fixtures, but for the large part it was athleticism which won out. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund stand on the verge of the Champions League final thanks to a fantastic concoction of ability on the ball, intelligent tactical play, opportunism in key areas and superb organisation.

But above all, it is the unwavering nature of their endeavours as athletes, rather than footballers, which has seen them upset the applecart and move to within 90 minutes of Wembley. Now it remains to be seen whether the rest of the world will follow suit and prove Gianluca Vialli right.

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