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In praise of two boring finals

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Roar Guru
4th June, 2019
2

This year, we have had a completely featureless Super Bowl and now a completely featureless Champions League final. The stark scorelines were New England 13 LA Rams 3, and Liverpool 2 Tottenham nil.

Both sports – American football and football – have undergone sharp shifts towards attacking play this decade, now almost finished.

The NFL has introduced new rules that protect quarterbacks to a far stronger degree from tackles and career-ending injuries than in previous eras. This has promoted a more dynamic passing game where the ball moves forward far more quickly than the old, scramble in the mud, pure running-based games of the past.

This has created a situation where the very best quarterbacks – Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and sometimes Drew Brees – are completely impossible to defend against. They cannot be defeated by good defences, they can only beat themselves by throwing interceptions.

Likewise, football this decade has branched out from the purely defensive game it was since the 1960s.

Previous to the 2010s, football defences were systematised, but in attack, the usual way was to simply hand your two forwards free roles then wish them luck and hope for the best.

Individual Brazil was the best nation in this set-up – Romario or Ronaldo would win the game for you while the other ten sweated it out without much inspiration. Brazil would often win because they always had the most skilful individual forwards.

In the 2010s, attacking became systematised just like defending. Pep Guardiola, Lionel Messi and Barcelona created highly integrated possession teams where attack became far more collective, involving every player performing their role.

Jurgen Klopp, as well, systematised and collectivised attack in a different way by promoting collective athletic pressing without the ball. This sounds defensive, but it creates attacking situations through the use of all players. The opposition has no one to pass the ball to, and when stealing the ball, attacks begin close to goal.

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Depending on outlook, attacking at football’s highest levels has sharply increased in quality, or defences have declined. Probably both.

The ultra-defensive victories of Inter Milan and Chelsea against Barcelona ten years ago are impossible now in football.

Teams use ball-players in defence now, and with the exception of Atletico Madrid, have simply given up and forgotten all-out defensive play. Both Ajax and Barcelona were both spectacularly unable to hold 3-0 leads in the Champions League semi-finals.

Modern defenders receive barrellings from old-school defenders-turned commentators like Gary Neville and Roy Keane about how things were better in their day, but those two never had to defend against integrated attacking.

One curious argument is that in previous decades, sides like Bayern Munich, Juventus, Germany and Italy classically played very defensive game styles.

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These days, those teams are marketable, very wealthy brands. They cannot afford to be defensive and unattractive as mere football teams, as this affects their bottom line as publicly listed companies. Money.

As a result of the change in both sports, we are now used to the NFL Super Bowl and the UEFA Champions League final being showcases with lots of skill and scoring.

The 2018 and 2019 Super Bowls – both featuring Tom Brady’s New England Patriots – were two extreme polarities.

New England’s extraordinary 2018 loss by 33-41 to Nick Foles’ Philadelphia Eagles was the greatest single match of offensive yard gain in NFL history. Virtually every single possession from both teams was converted into a score.

We have grown to expect this. But in the 2019 finale, halfway through the last quarter, neither New England nor the LA Rams had been able to advance to within 20 yards of their goal one single time for the entire match. The score was 3-3 from two long field goals.

This was perversely fascinating. The odds of this happening to a team featuring Brady are extremely low – even lower than the Philadelphia shootout.

(AP Photo/Steven Senne)

The game had no interesting or noteworthy moments whatsoever until about seven minutes to go. Internet commentary called it the worst Super Bowl. But in its extremes of nothingness, it was strangely a very special game.

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You can’t say the same about Liverpool-Tottenham. Analyst Michael Cox described it: “The game descended into a scrappy mess, featuring plenty of long balls, spells of head tennis in midfield, a particularly high number of throw-ins and a staggeringly low pass completion rate. There was little midfield battle to speak of, and neither side won the ball in advanced positions.”

Liverpool won this game basically by default, on a handball in the penalty box, which is the worst rule in football in terms of consequences.

It was a strange ending to an otherwise terrific Champions League competition where Liverpool, Ajax and Tottenham had given breathless comebacks and eliminated the usual suspects.

It probably happened because of the unheard-of three-week break both endured before the final. Liverpool, while deserving, were lucky to play another English team as out of form as they were.

It was also a strong contrast to the authoritative Real Madrid victories in the previous trio of finals.

Perhaps the clubs and style of England, while occasionally reaching the top, still haven’t found a way to dominate or rule yet.

This is the fifth time an English club has lifted the European Cup in the Champions League. Two were won against other English clubs. The other three were weak showings with miracle comebacks against continental teams, in 1999, 2005 and 2012.

In an age when sports are super-corporatised and advertised as shows and events rather than mere blokes running around and tackling each other, The Independent‘s chief sports writer Jonathan Liew found this a solace.

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“What are we supposed to make of that?” he asked. “Perhaps that, despite all the attempts to harness it, football at its core remains defiantly resistant to control. That despite every imperative to flatten out the peaks and valleys of sporting chance in favour of smooth business certainty, once the whistle blows you can’t guarantee a thing.”