Commentary

Chelsea vs. Bayern, a clash of styles

Updated: May 18, 2012, 3:25 PM ET
By Michael Cox | Special to ESPN.com

Even if Chelsea wins the Champions League final Saturday, Roberto Di Matteo might not be the manager next season. The man in the opposite dugout at Munich's Allianz Arena will sympathize; Jupp Heynckes won the Champions League with Real Madrid in 1998, then was promptly sacked for finishing only fourth in La Liga.

Sometimes, in football, it's difficult to understand what constitutes success.

Yet Di Matteo's spell in charge of Chelsea has unquestionably been a success. Nearly a month after a 2-2 draw against Barcelona, we've had plenty of time to get used to the idea of Chelsea reaching the Champions League final. Yet it's worth taking a step back and considering how extraordinary this European Cup run has been.

[+] EnlargeDidier Drogba
Laurence Griffiths/Getty ImagesThe Chelsea old guard, with the likes of Didier Drogba -- training here for the final -- has been a key to the Blues' revival in Europe.

When Di Matteo took over from Andre Villas-Boas in March, Chelsea wasn't even favored to get past Napoli in the second round, having lost the first leg 3-1 in Italy. Di Matteo's impact was instant -- he scrapped Villas-Boas' high-energy, heavy pressing game and reverted to the approach Chelsea has thrived on since the days of Mourinho: sitting back, then breaking powerfully. He also restored harmony in the dressing room, and it's notable that, despite plenty of new arrivals in recent years, the spine of Petr Cech, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba remains together. All four started Mourinho's first game in charge of Chelsea in 2004.

With Chelsea, and maybe with European football in general over the past few years, everything seems to somehow link back to Mourinho. The Blues' approach at Camp Nou was extraordinary -- they barely left their own half after Terry's red card, in tactics reminiscent of Mourinho's strategy at the same stage, in the same situation, in the same stadium, back in 2010 with Inter Milan. His side didn't want the ball, Mourinho said, because that meant they got drawn out of position, and defensive positioning was key.

There is a further parallel, as Mourinho defeated Bayern in the final of the competition. There, interestingly, he continued with a very defensive approach, playing with two banks of four and leaving only Diego Milito and Wesley Sneijder in attacking positions. That was a continuation of the strategy he'd used at Camp Nou, of course, but the complete opposite of the attacking system Inter was using in Serie A between Champions League matches.

Replicating the formula for success against Barcelona makes sense. Bayern, after all, is the closest thing to Barcelona, at least in terms of ball retention. Across Europe's major five leagues, Barcelona predictably enjoys more average possession than any other side, and also boasts the highest pass completion rate. Bayern is second in both categories. Chelsea will sit very deep and allow Bayern the ball, but prevent it from having space in the final third.

There is one significant difference between Barca and Bayern, however. Whereas Barcelona lacks a tall striker to play crosses toward, Bayern has Mario Gomez, a classic number nine. It also has two fearsome wingers in Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben, who always want to cut inside onto their stronger foot and shoot, but can also cross the ball. Chelsea will be narrow, but not quite as narrow as it was at Camp Nou. If you show Bayern down the line, it can be extremely dangerous.

Bayern's game will be particularly focused on good passing, as the suspension of Brazilian Luiz Gustavo means Heynckes will be forced to pair Bastian Schweinsteiger with Toni Kroos in the two holding roles. They're both playmakers rather than scrappers, and while this means a higher tempo of passing and more opportunities to slide incisive balls into the attackers, it might leave them vulnerable on the break -- which will be Chelsea's main route of attack.

[+] EnlargeBastian Schweinsteiger
Christof Stach/AFP/Getty ImagesBayern's game will be particularly focused on good passing, as the suspension of Brazilian Luiz Gustavo means Bastian Schweinsteiger will pair with Toni Kroos in the two holding roles.

Of course, it will help that Bayern is playing at its home stadium. This is technically a neutral game, but those "neutral" tickets will have found their way into the hands of Bayern fans, and the benefit of playing in familiar surroundings is important. UEFA also allowed Bayern to use its home dressing room, rather than force the team to use one of the two neutral dressing rooms, installed for the purposes of international fixtures. A small thing like that will not decide the match, but Bayern won't be overawed by the occasion -- this will feel like a regular home game. And its home record is excellent -- this season, it conceded six goals in 17 matches at Allianz Arena.

Player absences, too, play a key part in the thinking of both coaches: Bayern has Gustavo, David Alaba and Holger Badstuber all suspended, while Chelsea is without Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Ramires and Raul Meireles. Heynckes will be forced into playing Antoliy Tymoschuk at the back -- he's a holding midfielder rather than a natural center back, and Drogba will test him in the air. Alaba's replacement at left back will be Diego Contento, which is less of a problem.

Di Matteo might have further worries: David Luiz, Gary Cahill and Florent Malouda are battling to be fit. Assuming all are available, his choice comes down to Malouda or Michael Essien. The latter would be fielded wide, with Juan Mata in a central role. Alternatively, Mata can be pushed to the flank with Lampard moving forward and Essien playing alongside John Obi Mikel deep in midfield. Chelsea also has to cope without Terry's leadership skills. Having fought for so long to win the European Cup, and with Terry blowing the club's clearest chance to clinch the trophy with his penalty miss in Moscow in 2008, it would be a bittersweet moment for the center back if Chelsea finally achieves owner Roman Abramovich's main objective without him in the side.

But this isn't about individuals, it's about a clash of styles. After three seasons of Barcelona-inspired tiki-taka ruling Europe, deep defending and counterattacking have experienced a revival. Real Madrid defeated Barca in La Liga, then Atletico Madrid comfortably beat Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League final. If Di Matteo conquers Bayern, 2011-12 will be the season of organized defending and swift transitions, rather than possession football.

Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.