Anthony Ding / anthology

Hi reader - welcome to my blog, Anthology! Here I write about a bunch of topics - pretty much whatever I'm interested in at the moment. To see everything I've published so far, check out the blog archive.

This started off on Imprint, the social blogging platform my friends and I worked on, so you can find older posts at Anthology @ Imprint.


Bayern vs. PSG

When the dust settled, a single headed goal by Bayern Munich’s Kingsley Coman - against his former club, no less - was the deciding factor. After some pings in and out of the box, the ball settled to right back Joshua Kimmich, who lofted it high above the Paris Saint-Germain defense. And while PSG’s right back was stuck marking a more central player (I believe it was Lewandowski?), left winger Coman timed his run to perfection. 1-0, the ending scoreline in the Champions League 2020 final.

So Bayern do it again, triumphing in the largest, grandest competition in European football (which they last won in 2013 against domestic rivals Dortmund). And this victory means they’ve completed the treble once again: they’ve already won the Bundesliga and the DFB-Pokal, the German cup.

Game Plans

It’s crazy how Hansi Flick has engineered this turnaround. I remember watching some of Bayern’s matches last year and they looked adrift and lost, without a tactical plan. They had world-class players, sure, with the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Thiago Alcantara, and Manuel Neuer, but it was shocking how disjointed and uncoordinated they were, even against some of the struggling teams in the Bundesliga.

For a club that had been managed by Pep Guardiola, Jupp Heyneckes, Carlo Ancelotti, etc., they may have had many different styles over the years, but they’ve always previously felt like they had a plan, and the players (especially the long-standing, faithful ones like Thomas Müller) knew it.

Flick has revitalized the team and found a tactical style that brings out the best of Bayern’s strong cast. Müller in particular looks so revitalized. Even when Jérome Boateng came down with an injury, Niklas Süle stepped in without missing a beat.

In this CL final, they were methodical and ruthless, dominating over 60% of the possession, while confidently playing with a high line to utilize Alphonso Davies’s recovery speed. Going forward, Bayern looked dangerous on the left with Davies and Coman a constant threat to Thilo Kehrer, and Serge Gnabry and Joshua Kimmich not too shabby on the right.

PSG’s offensive strategy seemed a lot more direct. They fielded methodical midfielders in Marquinhos and Ander Herrera - I didn’t even notice them missing Marco Verratti for the first half. Often, an interplay of quick touches in the midfield led to Angel Di María, Neymar, or Mbappé receiving the ball out wide.

Once the wingers and forwards touched the ball, they’d try switches, crosses, and dribbling through four pressing Bayern players, none of which really worked. Neymar in particular seemed nullified, constantly cutting in only to recycle the ball back to a midfielder. He kept trying to force that creative spark, which played right into Bayern’s strategy. When Neymar or Di María did connect, Mbappé simply could not finish his chances.

But ultimately, I was glad that both teams tried to go for the jugular. Champions League finals tend to be quite solid, as teams seem to prioritize not leaking in goals first, but in this case both sides kept trying to create and push forward in their own unique ways. Although the match finished with only one goal, it never seemed like either team was pulling their punches.

Missed Chances

As well-executed as Bayern’s tactical plan was, they still were nervy at times, especially by playing the high line. It is a final, after all. This resulted in some really beautiful openings for the Parisian side to exploit, especially with elegant through-balls by the attacking trio. Mbappé spurned a very solid chance in the first half, and as the seconds ticked down Choupo-Moting missed another. Lewandowski on the German side also narrowly missed what could be another goal for him. These were mainly the ones that stood out to me.

Neymar and Mbappé, however, needed to do better: they’re regarded as some of the best (and most expensive) players on the planet, but they couldn’t find the finishes. As players with less defensive responsibility, they need to create and score opportunities, and from the viewer’s eye the off-ball movements of Neymar and Mbappé failed to do that.

Neymar has really matured his game recently, but today the pressure got to him. Mbappé, still younger and inexperienced, was dreadfully inaccurate. For all the brilliance that the attacking duo has displayed throughout this Champions League run, it seemed to have dried up when going against Bayern’s wall (read: Neuer).

Veteran Players

At the end of the day, I feel like this game really came down to the mental resolve of the veterans. Thiago Silva of PSG, one of the oldest still-world-class defenders in the top leagues, had excellent positioning all-around, and single-handedly kept his team in the game at times. He had a vital clearance when Kimmich and Coman tried to déjà vu their way to a second goal. Manuel Neuer was crazy good - Man of the Match for me. I wouldn’t be surprised if he wins the Ballon d’Or years later, at age 40 or so, with the saves he’s making. Di María was consistently dangerous, even when the team’s backs were against the wall.

This is something I’m glad top clubs still understand as football economics modernizes to integrate data analytics: the intrinsic value of veteran players, even past the point of physical decline (case in point: Milan bringing back 39-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic).

There’s so much media hype around the 20-year-old phenoms like Mbappé, Erling Haaland, and Trent Alexander-Arnold. And let’s not forget Bayern’s Davies, a Champions League winner at age 19.

But in big games with maximum pressure, the experienced players give the younger ones a foundation to excel. The winning goal may have been scored by the connection between a 25-year-old and a 24-year-old, but the older players kept the teams hungry, disciplined, and spirited. We have to remember that this year, they were playing without the roar of tens of thousands of stadium fans, which meant that the battle became much more a war of attrition.

The exception to this, of course, is a high-octane team like Liverpool, who rely on Jürgen Klopp’s very stamina-intensive gegenpress. Liverpool do have veterans, but they are of the mould of James Milner, who has infinite lungs and can basically run forever. And to be honest, center-back Virgil van Dijk, 26 years young, is playing like a veteran. Nowadays, he’s rarely caught napping or on the wrong side of the ball. And so Liverpool have seen a rapid rise to the top, winning the Prem this year and the CL in 2019.

But the stories today will all be about the current Champions of Europe. For the 2020 Champions League final, Bayern Munich found a way to cohesively integrate their young talent with the stars that have seen it all. They were scrappy at times, yes, but demonstrated a bit more mental clarity and resilience than Paris Saint-Germain did, enough to capitalize on one opportune chance. And in a contested final match between two super clubs, that goal made all the difference.