6 Nov 2020
The football analyst Michael Cox wrote that the change in the back pass law was the perhaps the most ‘transformative’ in football, and ushered in the modern era. For one, it produced more mistakes by defenders and goalkeepers, and therefore more goals. On the other hand, it also forced goalies and defenders to become better ball players making for engaging build-up play.
On Tuesday night, though, it was the former, as Real Madrid took on Inter Milan in our focus match of the week. Both are former Champions League winners, with Real winning it 13 times and Inter thrice. Both have a history, on and off the field. While Real look overwhelming when it comes to head to head record, Inter won their last Champions League at the Santiago Bernabéu, the home of Real Madrid, against Bayern in 2010. That night in Spain is remembered for more, especially for the one individual — José Mourinho — who did not get on the Inter team bus and chose to ply his trade with the Madrid side. Somewhere the wires in the circuit got all mixed-up! Perhaps, that’s what modern football is all about.
The two sides are now managed by former teammates at Juventus, Zinedine Zidane and Antonio Conte. In fact, Conte captained Zidane in the 1997-98 season.
The stage was set for a clash of epic proportions. Only, the Bernabéu is under renovation. The same could be said about the sides — in third and fourth place in Group B and without a win.
Now that’s enough of a digression from the game at hand and the blundering back pass.
It all happened around the twenty-fifth minute, as Inter tried to play through the Real press, and Hakimi’s back pass to the goalkeeper Handanović was punched by Karim Benzema who deftly turned the ball around the keeper’s legs, jumped over his outstretched legs and poked in the first goal of the match.
It was a classic example of how modern football is evolving. There is less reliance on gifted individuals and greater emphasis on tactical awareness. It relies on creating overloadsin certain areas of the pitch which in turn leads to turnover in possession and then creating as many one-on-one situations to isolate and bypass defenders. It lays a premium on ball players, especially ones who can turn and pass in tight spacesor carry the ball forward without giving it away cheaply.
Eden Hazard is exactly that type of player and is blessed with exquisite footwork and a burst of pace. Real’s second came soon after Hazard tricked past an isolated D’Ambrosio into the box to cause mayhem and find his effort tipped away by Handanović. The resulting corner would give Ramos his100th goal for Real Madrid.
Inter hadn’t been particularly bad, but had been guilty of conceding possession and loose passes. Lautaro Martínez, a target for Real’s main rivals in La Liga, Barcelona, had caught the eye even in the absence of his strike partner Romelu Lukaku. He was a threat throughout and buried an ingeniouslycushioned pass from the outside of Barella’s boot past Courtuois for Inter’s first goal.
He was instrumental for Inter’s second goal as well. Real’s sloppy play in the midfield saw them robbed of the ball and Lautaro then headed an assist for Perisic’s goal. Perisic came more into the game and could have given Inter the lead only to pull his shot wide of the post.
For all the error-strewn defending, Real showed how it’s done— playing out from the back. Valverde beat the Inter press in his own half and carried the ball forward and laid on a through ball for Vinícius Jr on the left flank who crossed the ball for Rodrigo to seal the game with a thumping shot to the top corner.
Zidane will be happy with the win, but Conte will take heart from this performance. It looks increasingly though, with Mönchengladbach’s emphatic 6-0 win over Shakhtar Donetsk,that only one of Real or Inter will make it through to the knockout stages.
Group B is poised on a knife-edge.
(Aakash Chakrabarty loves commenting on football, because, well, it’s easy to be an armchair expert!)