Earlier today, our editorial staff made the mistake of letting some idiot romanticize two-legged playoffs, as if it was so hard to look up which coaches would be involved in today’s UEFA Champions League matches. Had the author bothered to do so, he would have seen one game was destined to be defined by Chelsea’s José Mourinho – a head coach who never met a first leg on the road he didn’t want to smother into submission. For some, the other end of the tedium spectrum is defined by Pep Guardiola, whose trip to Skakhtar Donetsk (played in Lviv) gave the Bayern boss another shot at his ultimate goal: 101 percent possession in a single match.
Before Xabi Alonso was red carded in today’s 65th minute, Bayern was on its way. The Bavarians were hovering just below the 70 percent possession mark for much of the first hour, a mark that seems nearly impossible to improve on under normal circumstances. Three years ago, while trailing Chelsea in the semifinals, Barcelona kept 80 percent of the ball against the eventual European champions, but that came in a game where the Blues were protecting a lead. Today’s game started (and ended, 0-0) even. In Lviv, no less.
Whereas head coaches like Mourinho and the now retired Alex Ferguson have at times preferred to take a double decker bus on the road in Europe, Guardiola had arrived in the customized Audi Bayern asked him to design two years ago. On nights like these — away from home, in Europe, against inferior yet still dangerous opposition — that design really pays off. The time Shakhtar had to take advantage at home had been reduced to almost half of what it’s used to.
Then Alonso picked up his second yellow, depriving Bayern of its most prolific passer (he was on pace to complete 109 passes, though none went into the opponent’s penalty area). With its man advantage, Shakhtar saw more of the ball, upping the game’s urgency. Three players were cautioned in the final 15 minutes, but Bayern wouldn’t be deterred. No, Pep didn’t get his 101 percent possession (ending with only 65), but Bayern had its clean sheet, outshooting the Ukrainian champions 8-1 in the process. Shakhtar’s only shot came from 35 yards out, while all of Bayern’s came from in and around the penalty area.
Those looking for value for their entertainment dollar weren’t impressed, even though they were likely watching in bars, on illegal internet streams, or by some other method that made their expenditure minimal. But given what Bayern showed, people should consider some begruding respect. For years we’ve been watching Barcelona aspire to this kind of control, and while the Blaugrana has often come close, there’s always been an element of vulnerability to the way it plays. At times that same vulnerability is there with Bayern, as we saw when it was recently dismantled by Wolfsburg. Yet with every month Guaridola’s on the job, every moment that players further master the system, Bayern gets closer. And more and more, from this weekend’s 8-0 to today’s performance in Lviv, München threatens to make performances like today’s its standard, both in Germany and abroad. While that standard didn’t translate to an overwhelming number of chances (only one shot on target), it did produce overwhelming control.
This is the Bayern we’ve come to expect, some might say. Perhaps. But this was on the road, in the knockout rounds of Champions League, against a skilled and talented team. We knew Shakhtar was overmatched (almost any team playing Bayern is), but the home side didn’t even earn a corner kick. Bayern tried 656 passes at an 88 percent clip. It spent much of the match with Jerome Boateng and David Alaba alone at the back, and it didn’t matter. Shakhtar was stifled.
The sliver of people still unwilling to look beyond the final score have already hit Ctrl+W on this post, and not without reason. For all their control, Bayern only put one shot on target. But consider that the difference between dominance and control, and on the road, against quality opposition, with 90 minutes at home to go, this level of control is damn useful. That may make for “boring” soccer, but it doesn’t change the reality of Guardiola’s team. Sometimes, control can be just as admirable as dominance.