Think back to all the great Champions League matches we’ve seen over the past five years or so.
Barcelona’s comeback against PSG. Roma’s comeback against Barcelona. Liverpool’s comeback against Barcelona. Liverpool’s upset of Manchester City. Every Real Madrid game this season. PSG’s duels with Bayern Munich and Manchester City last year. Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich against Juventus, and then against Atletico Madrid in 2016. All of Ajax’s games from 2019. Whenever Bayern and Real Madrid meet.
The list goes on, and despite the worst efforts of the powers that be, the Champions League knockout rounds come close to sporting perfection: the ideal mix of breath-taking athletic excellence and just enough randomness.
What you will notice both from my list above, and from whatever list you created in your head, is that none of those great games doubled as the most important game of a given season: the Champions League final. Determining the last great final depends on your own personal aesthetics of the sport, but you could make an argument that it dates all the way back to 2005.
Liverpool’s comeback and triumph over AC Milan in Istanbul was a miniature version of what has made the tournament so great in recent years: lots of goals, paired with sudden and massive shifts of momentum more than once. But even that one was missing something: Liverpool finished fifth in the league, and as Jamie Carragher admitted after this past weekend’s final, his team was certainly not the best team in Europe that year. While the round of 16 through the semifinals seems to feature defining tactical clashes between the best teams in the world year after year — stylistic battles, punches being thrown back and forth — the finals seem like they never do.
So just exactly how do the biggest games of the season fall so short? And why does it keep happening?
Pressing is dead, long live pressing
Arguably, the biggest reason why Champions League soccer has been so good over the past decade is because everyone wants to run. The introduction of the high press, and then the reactions to it, are the defining on-field features of the modern game. By selling out to win the ball high up the field, the best teams have the capability of overwhelming the opposition in a previously unseen fashion. But at the same time, this also creates a situation where the pressing team can be the one that gets blown off the field. The highs are higher, and the lows are lower.
It’s a minor problem if your press isn’t fully firing against Bochum or Birmingham City; it’s annihilation if it’s not air-tight against Real Madrid.