This year’s UEFA Champions League Final between Bayern Munich and Chelsea FC ignited a lot of discussion on whether or not Chelsea’s ultra defensive approach in the final (as well as in the semi-finals against Barcelona) was a clever and effective strategy or simply the death of soccer.
An interview of Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo on the pitch right after the end of the game with an obviously disappointed German TV interviewer summed it up pretty well:
Di Matteo: “We worked very hard to reach this goal. I have to say that Bayern played very good tonight and had more scoring opportunities, but when it comes to a penalty shoot-out you also need luck, and we were that little bit luckier tonight.”
Interviewer: “You said you were luckier – do you also agree Bayern played better than your team?”
Di Matteo: “They play a different style. We play this way with the players we have and we were successful doing so.”
Interviewer: “Your style is successful, but is it beautiful, too?”
Di Matteo smiles, turns around and walks away.
Despite the fact that it is not quite great journalism to ask a coach who just one probably the biggest trophy in club soccer such a silly question, Di Matteo knew well that both Barcelona and Munich had the better players in an one-on-one comparison, but he found a way to still take home the trophy and obviously chose the right strategy.
I will use this opportunity to apply one of the most prominent tools in strategy and strategic marketing to Chelsea in the Champions League final: The Strengths – Weaknesses – Opportunities – Threats Analysis – in short “SWOT” analysis.
Not only is it one of the most prominent, but also one of the best and most comprehensive strategy tools when applied the right way. It’s just a pity that it is rarely applied well. How often have I seen single Powerpoints slides with the headline “SWOT analysis” that just consisted of a few bullet points that seemed randomly discovered.
Obviously this tool wasn’t designed with soccer coaches in mind, but I’ll try to apply it anyway, being a little tongue-in-cheek doing so.
A SWOT analysis consists of three parts: The internal analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses – SW), the external analysis (Opportunities, Threats – OT) and the strategy identification/ choice.
Let’s start with the external analysis. It looks at customers, competition, industry and environment and tries to identify areas in which you see opportunities for creating a competitive advantage or vulnerability to threats.
This is tough to translate to the soccer context, but Di Matteo might have started looking at the bottom line and how value is actually created. The above mentioned interview sums up his findings: It is not important how “beautiful” your team plays, but if it wins or not. This simple looking thought is not only worth looking at in sports. There are so many companies that will never end up on the cover of Fast Company as they are in seemingly unspectacular industries with seemingly unspectacular business models, but create and capture value consistently. The coolness factor is not being paid for in most industries.
He might have looked at market trends: Most of the big clubs play in a 4-2-3-1 formation these days: four defenders, two holding midfielders, three offensive midfielders and a striker. This approach seems well suited for pressing and trying to destroy the opponents’ build-up play. Or, like Michael Cox at zonalmarking.com discovered (heads up): Recently, the more reactive teams won the big matches (see the Europa League final, the FA Cup final and the German Cup final). Ultimately, there’s always the classic rule: Offense wins games, defense wins championships.
He may have also seen that over the last roughly ten years, German teams (including the national team) have not been as clinical as they used to be in big finals (World Cup Final 2002, Euro Final 2008, Champions League Finals 2002 and 2010, UEFA Cup Finals 2002 and 2009) and that English teams in Champions League Finals did fairly well in penalty shoot-outs (Liverpool FC 2005, Manchester United 2008 – against Chelsea though).
Analyzing the competition, Di Matteo may have found that Bayern was under more pressure to attack, given that they were favorites and played at home in front of a euphoric crowd that was expecting nothing less than a victory. He may have also seen that their competitor Bayern Munich usually plays a style of “position play”, trying to have a high share of possession and reach domination in midfield. Or going more into details, that Bayern’s strength is on the outsides in midfield with world-class players Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben; that Thomas Müller, when playing in the central offensive midfielder position (#10) tends to move more towards the right side, and usually doesn’t show the creativity of world class playmakers, essentially forcing Bayern to play via the outside positions. And just like Chelsea (we will get to this later), Bayern also had to deal with a couple of critical suspensions, e.g. the one of Holger Badstuber, leaving only one central defender (Boateng) with a lot of strengths in aerial duels. Also, Bayern did not show any efficiently in converting corner kicks this year (they only scored once from a corner throughout the whole Champions League season).
Now let’s move on to the internal analysis, trying to identify the own strengths and weaknesses.
On the weakness side, Di Matteo could have analyzed that position by position, Bayern probably has the better players. He could have also seen Chelsea’s weakness in creating possession against 4-2-3-1 teams. The suspensions, especially those of John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic, were limiting the ability of supporting the outside defenders from the center to fight against the strong outside midfielders Robben and Ribéry , while the loss of Ramires was not helpful for establishing an offensive play via the outsides. The age structure of the team also disallowed to play ninety minutes of defensive pressing, as stamina might have become an issue in that case.
The team’s strengths are experience and efficiency, the great ability of Didier Drogba to successfully occupy a complete opponent’s defense and still finish, and a strong selection of bench players like Cahill and Luis who replaced Terry and Ivanovic or Fernando Torres who came in later in the game. On a tactical side, Chelsea is strong in transition play – capturing the ball in defense and quickly moving it up the pitch, not giving the opponent a lot of time to organize their defense. Also, their moral was good after beating Barcelona in the semis, the team has the coolness and discipline to follow a tactical approach throughout the whole match like the defensive performance at the Camp Nou has shown and they have the ability to block/defend their own box effectively.
Translated into business terms, they don’t need to have a high market share (possession) as they can live with a high return on investment in their niche (winning without running too much in a rather static defensive style), a rather limited product portfolio (strategic variability) that still has proven to satisfy market needs (see Barcelona), an intact organizational setup, and a big broadness on the human resources side (bench players).
Fine, but what to make out of all this? The next and final step is to identify strategic approaches and chose the right one. I don’t know how the Chelsea coaching staff came up with their game plan, but let’s try to analyze it with respect to the findings above.
Chelsea decided to position themselves in their niche of playing defensively, fully oriented towards the result, not the beauty of the game. Therefore they did not try to fight Bayern with their own weapons, but went for the more unusual 4-4-1-1 formation which later developed towards a 4-5-1 when Mata dropped back more and more (only late in the second half, they got more into a 4-2-3-1 style themselves, though still quite defense oriented until Bayern score the 1-0).
Based on the competitive analysis they expected Bayern to play quite offensively, so they had three major ideas (for more on tactical analysis of this game, I recommend the above mentioned Zonal Marking and in case you speak German, spielverlagerung.de:
1) Not compete with Bayern in midfield and defend extremely deep
This strategy is quite rare. It may be based on the findings mentioned above that Bayern would gain control in midfield anyway with their position play and calculated that by playing deep, Bayerns midfield would move more upfront, enabling Chelsea to play long passes to Drogba (and if possible Mata) after capturing the ball, quickly passing by the Bayern defensive midfielders and creating scoring opportunities from ultra-quick fast breaks.
2) Neutralize Robben, Ribéry and Müller
Chelsea tried to get Robben and Ribéry out of the game by moving the game away from their positions and stranding them on the outside. That’s why they fully concentrated on the center of the pitch. Another unusual approach, but an effective one, too. As Müller tends to move towards the right, Di Matteo replaced a left midfielder by effectively a second outside defender on that side of the pitch by bringing in Bertrand instead of the expected Malouda. And throughout the game, Bertrand played deeper than Kalou on the right side. Müller still scored the goal for Bayern, but that was when Bertrand had already been substituted.
3) Be patient
Chelsea was not afraid of a penalty shoot-out. Given the individual strength of Bayern they knew that a 50:50 chance (penalties) would be more than what people thought they had at the beginning of the match. They tried to slacken the speed of the match instead of going into a high speed open duel, neutralizing Bayern’s advantages and waited for opportunities from counter attacks or set pieces. Unsurprisingly, they scored from their only corner kick, while Bayern did not convert any of their 20 corners.
The bottom line:
Not everything worked as planned by Chelsea. The idea to launch effective fast breaks via Mata and Drogba only looked promising at the beginning of the game, later Mata played more defensively and Boateng and Tymoshchuk controlled Drogba well in most transition situations. Müller wasn’t too effective from the right side, but created some good situations through the center. Also, Bayern did create more opportunities than Chelsea would have wished and were unlucky in some situations.
However, the fine analysis of their strengths and weaknesses, of potential opportunities and threats led to a strategy that resulted in Chelsea lifting the cup, not the seemingly “better” team.
That brings us back to the Di Matteo interview mentioned at the beginning: The better team in soccer and the better company is business is the one that is more successful. Teams whining after a match that they would have played more beautiful are as pointless as companies complaining they have the better products and the customers just don’t understand it.
So if you did the right analysis and chose the right strategy, do it like Di Matteo: Enjoy your success, smile, turn around and walk away from the critics.