Four key Champions League games played this week have served up some pretty remarkable, and rather disturbing, stats.
Think about this: eight teams -- Barcelona, Chelsea, Inter Milan, Juventus, Liverpool, Lyon, Manchester United, Real Madrid, a list that arguably includes the top seven teams in the world (sorry, about that, Lyon). Teams bursting with attacking, goalscoring talent. On the field, at one time or another, were Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto'o, Thierry Henry, Adriano, Kaka, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Dimitar Berbatov, Nikolas Anelka, Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Alessandro Del Piero, David Trezeguet, Fernando Torres, Dirk Kuyt, Raul, Arjen Robben, Gonzalo Higuain, Karim Benzema, Juninho.
A glittering gallery of goalscorers -- and what did we get? Despite all that talent, despite all the money spent on acquiring and paying that talent, after 360-plus minutes of soccer, we got just four goals. Of those, one was from a direct free kick and one from a set play; only two resulted from open play. So that's the best that the world's best teams, with all their superstars, can do.
Well what was to be expected? These were first-leg games, obviously the away teams would play defensively, making it hard for the home teams to score. Except that it wasn't like that at all. I watched all four games, and one thing was very clear: none of the eight teams was playing defensively. In fact Man U and Juventus -- both playing away -- were the two most attack-minded teams. Juventus had the most shots, 17 (4 on goal), followed by Man U with 15 (5). Man U tied its game, Juventus lost.
You could read into those few stats a simple tale that attacking play does not pay. But there is another revelation here -- one that should not be a surprise. Defensive play has now become so organized, so standardized -- in fact, so easy -- that even when a team is notplaying defensively, it has little trouble in snuffing out its opponents' attacks. Even when those attacks feature a bunch of the world's top goalscorers!
In each game, the team with the greater number of shots on goal either tied or lost; same story with corner kicks; almost the same with possession, where Chelsea was the only team showing more possession that won its game.
So -- four teams had more shots on goal than their opponents, and more corner kicks, and (in 3 our of 4 cases) more ball possession. That three of those teams with superior stats were away teams ought to be an occasion for rejoicing -- but for the fact that none of the four won its game.
Reluctantly, I must mention that there was one stat for which the highest total never appeared alongside a losing team. Fouls. The average number of fouls in each of these four games was 34 -- that's quite high (the 2006 World Cup figure was 31.75). The two winners both outfouled their opponents -- Chelsea 18 -Juventus 13, Liverpool 19-Real Madrid 13. As with all stats, you can take your choice when interpreting the figures -- does more fouls mean a dirty team, or a team that "wants it more"? It might well mean both.
The lack of goals, of course, is nothing new these days and will come as no surprise to those who have been wide awake to the rise of defensive soccer. The stats (a small sample, admittedly) deal with eight elite teams of more or less equal strength. They evidently felt no need to play to play tightly defensive soccer, to indulge in bunker-like tactics. What is disquieting is that the stats suggest that it's not necessary anyway because defensive considerations are now automatically paramount, they are built into the attitudes and the styles not only of teams, but of individual players. Among top teams, it now needs no special effort -- certainly not overtly defensive tactics -- to snuff out goal-scoring. A dominant defense is now on auto-pilot.
Only some such scenario can account for the games mentioned above, games in which top players are genuinely trying hard to score goals, but have immense difficulty finding the net. The same scenario would also explain why we rarely get exhilarating finals these days, why the climactic game is more often than not a low-scoring letdown.