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The CL final and the overemphasis on tactics in soccer journalism

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It’s usually not the place of this site to comment on European football matches that don’t involve Canadian players. But this column isn’t so much about an unforgettable UEFA Champions League final as it is about the way the game is covered.

We often get comments or e-mails — unfortunately, the days of the angry handwritten letter written in ALL CAPS looks to be over — asking about tactics. Should they be discussed more? Less?

It’s clear in North American media that we don’t discuss tactics the same way lengths of our European counterparts do. Is that because they are more sophisticated in their coverage of the game? No.

Granted, tactics are an important part of the game. But remember a journalist’s job is to find the angle — the man bites dog, if you will — and if a team trots out the same formation it has been using for the last three months, well that isn’t exactly news, is it?

And, tactics, while important, are just part of the game. Let’s be absolutely clear. Tactics do not win games by themselves. Good tactical decisions by managers give their players the best possible chances they have to succeed. But it is still up to the players to provide the intangibles, the skill, the grit, the desire, to win games.

If games were decided by tactics alone, no one would watch. Because the games would be, well, boring beyond belief.

And, this is also true: Managers can get the tactics wrong and win. Conversely, managers can get the tactics right, and lose. One missed assignment on a set piece, one missed call by a referee, a moment of brilliance by the opponents, can send a pretty good tactical plan spiraling downward. And, conversely, some sterling individual performances can make a ragtag tactical plan successful.

And there’s no better proof on the overemphasis of tactics than the Bayern-Chelsea final.

still lost.

Minutes after the final, columnists and Tweeters were proclaiming that Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo had outfoxed his Bayern Munich counterpart, Jupp Heynckes.

Again, if there was ever a game where individual performances trumped tactics, this was it. Bayern Munich were not undone by tactics or Heynckes’ decision to substitute goal-scorer Thomas Muller right after he scored the 1-0 goal with less than 10 minutes to go.

Let’s be clear about this. Had Mario Gomez not continued his disturbing propensity for making hashes of his chances in big games, this one would have been over by halftime. If Heynckes made any mistakes, it was to leave Gomez, who displayed a first touch as subtle as the subtext in an Oliver Stone movie, on the pitch for longer than 45 minutes. Gomez missed three outstanding chances.

Tactically, you can’t plan for missed chances in the box. You can’t think “Gomez is going to need 10 chances to convert just one.”

You can’t tactically plan for Arjen Robben to hit a poor penalty in extra time that likely would have taken the life out of Chelsea once and for all.

And Chelsea’s equalizer came on a set piece. A moment of brilliance from Didier Drogba, combined with some abnormally poor goalkeeping from Manuel Neuer. The goalkeeper is in position to make the save, gets his hand there, and doesn’t push the ball over the bar as he likely would nine out of 10 times.

Again, nothing you can plan for tactically. It’s up to the keeper and the defenders to make sure the opponents are marked. The keeper needs to communicate to his players who is left unmarked. The manager can’t run onto the pitch and move his players around when a corner is about to be taken.

And Heynckes’ decision to subsitute Muller — who wouldn’t have started had Bayern not been facing suspension issues — was absolutely the correct one. Did it work out? No. But, if facing the same situation, should Heynckes do it again? Absolutely. Muller wasn’t a regular starter and had a calf problem. It was right to get fresh legs in for him, no matter how well he was playing. And, bringing on a defender for an attacking player with less than 10 minutes to go while you protect a one-goal lead… well that is the kind of stuff Heynckes would have been savaged for not doing had he left Muller on and Chelsea tied the game anyway. And, judging by the way Chelsea scored, off a set piece, not open play, it’s probably safe to assume the Blues would have scored no matter had Heynckes made the switch or not.

That’s the beauty — the poetry of football — even if you make the right decision, it doesn’t always work out. If tactics worked 100 per cent of the time, again, the game would be useless to watch. You’d figure it all out on paper and we’d all go home.

Really, the poetry of this game came not from tactics, but from a Chelsea player — Drogba — who used his few scant chances to show off some individual brilliance, and Robben and Gomez’s propensity to waste chance after chance after chance. This was a game about guts, about passion, about desire, not about Xs and Os.

And, unfortunately, in modern soccer journalism, this all too often gets lost in the translation. Too often, we in the business try to show off how smart we are rather than tell good stories.

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