Bayern Munich and Coach Juergen Klinsmann took a hammering last week from Barcelona. The soccer played by Barca was a delight to watch -- skillful, swift, powerful at times, artistic at others, even both simultaneously, soccer at its most effective and its most beguiling.
Klinsmann looked totally baffled, as well he might. He was gracious afterward, acknowledging the superiority of the Spanish team, praising Lionel Messi as a wonderful player.
It did seem unfair that Bayern should have been singled out for this humiliation -- after all, surely any of the other six teams in the Champions League quarterfinals, confronted with Barca in such dazzling form, would have suffered as agonizingly.
That seems quite likely. The damage to Bayern was done so quickly, so decisively, that there was barely time for the Germans to gather their wits and work out what to do about it. A goal from Messi, then one from Samuel Eto'o, and barely 12 minutes on the clock.
What made those goals so special was the rapid, intricate, interplay of short passes, something to which the Bayern defenders had no answer. The torture continued. Messi again at 37 minutes, then Thierry Henry with the final goal at 42 minutes. All in the first half.
Yes, those were wonderful goals. They were, as it happens, rather unusual goals by the standards of modern soccer. All of them.
Listen to today's coaches, listen to the players and, of course, listen to the non-stop blather of the TV commentators, and what will you hear? Crosses. Crosses, and crosses and more crosses. "Gotta get our crosses in ... " and so on. A litany that has reached some sort of crescendo with the arrival of David Beckham, well known as one who constantly "whips in" great crosses.
Not much thought is ever given to crosses. Either to where they come from or where they end up -- or, more to the point, whether they are particularly effective. I don't think they are, as it happens. Most crosses are merely lofted into the penalty area, hoping for the best. Occasionally one will land beautifully on someone's head and a goal results -- at which point the TV guys will go orgasmic and tell us how the crosser "picked out" the scorer.
Maybe. I've never seen any stats on the percentage of crosses that find a teammate (never mind how many result in goals) but I'm betting it's low -- which would account for the fact that the figures aren't flaunted. One figure, though, that you might see, is this: that, for example, 40 percent of goals result from crosses. Or 50 percent or maybe 90 percent, doesn't matter, the stat is invalid. Such a stat used to be paraded in England to justify crosses. It had to be pointed out that if crosses are all you do then, yes, most if not all of your goals are bound to come from crosses.
But to get back to those Barcelona goals. This is what happened.
* Goal No 1: Eight-pass buildup, all on the ground, final pass from Eto'o, on the ground, to Messi, who rolls his shot in.
* Goal No 2: Three-pass buildup, all on the ground, final pass from Messi, on the ground to Eto'o, who scores with a ground shot through the goalkeeper's legs.
* Goal No 3: Five-pass build up, all on the ground. Final pass from Henry, on the ground to Messi, who stabs the ball into the net from one yard out.
* Goal No 4: Twelve-pass build up, all on the ground. Final pass, on the ground, comes (accidentally, I assume) from Bayern's Mark Van Bommel. It goes to Henry who rolls his shot in, on the ground.
Four goals, 28 passes, and the ball never left the ground. Therefore, no player - neither attacker nor defender - headed the ball. Three of those passing movements started in the Barca half of the field, yet none featured a long aerial ball forward. And not a cross in sight. No wonder Klinsmann looked confused!
No, of course not, not every team can play like Barca. But what coaches can do is to drop the idea that crosses, damn crosses, are the bread-and-butter, the be-all and end-all of attacking play.
They can apply some intelligence to their tactics, and not merely keep hoofing the ball "into the mixer" (I don't know where that phrase came from, but given its witless awfulness, I'd take it to be British). The coaches might want to try some variation, they might, every so often, want to try keeping the ball on the ground, where the real soccer is played.
And if they can't see why they should try that, then they should be whisked off to the soccer rehab centers (an idea that I just thought of -- I'll be opening them soon, probably in the empty buildings of the academies that I intend to shut down) and forced to watch, repeatedly, the first 45 minutes of last week's Barcelona vs. Bayern Munich game. A sort of detoxification therapy. One that would massively increase the health and the vitality of the sport.