Real Madrid v Manchester City is undoubtedly the glamorous match of both UEFA Champions League semi-finals, but the other offers a clash of styles that is increasingly rare at the top level of football. If their quarter-final performance against Bayern Munich is anything to go by, Villarreal are likely to settle into an extremely defensive system with all of their players close to their own penalty area and their opponents Liverpool will enjoy the vast majority of possession while trying to break into the “yellow submarine”.

Matches in which a team has tripled or quadrupled shots and time on the ball while their opponent is often classified as “boring” and incorrectly. Not all defensive football is anti-football, and Villarreal add some refreshing diversity to a competition that doesn’t feature as many different tactical styles as it once did. After all, the tactics employed by top teams seem to be becoming more and more similar.

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Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp, once characterized as managers with opposing philosophies, grew closer to each other during their time in the Premier League. There is no tiki-taka against. gegenpressing more; in fact, if you missed the last decade of men’s football at elite level, it would be hard to discern from a single Manchester City v Liverpool game which team was led by an innovator in the way of play. without the ball and which has been managed by an innovator in the way of play with this.

And so, as they competed for every major title, these two once-opposing styles collided and morphed into something aspirational that the majority of clubs around the world want to replicate. City have become a more aggressive pressing team in recent years, while Liverpool have gradually become more possession-oriented, something Klopp himself underlined ahead of City’s Premier League game with Liverpool on April 10.

“City have the highest possession in the league, we’re not far behind,” Klopp told Sky Sports in an interview. “We have similar possession numbers. There are differences in our setup, but there is not as much difference as before. Both teams go for counter-pressure, want to get the ball high.”

With advances in nutrition and fitness training, and the wider acceptance and use of video and data collection and analysis, it’s easier than ever for clubs of all levels to create teams that play pretty football from the back and aggressively squeeze their opponents. The quality that mid-budget sides in top leagues can display using this style is hugely impressive – Serie A’s Atalanta and La Liga’s Real Betis come most readily to mind – and there are more teams than ever before who play in a way that is commonly referred to as “good football”.

But this has come at the expense of tactical variety, and there are very few real clashes of styles at the highest level of the game. of how the game is meant to be played, with micro-level tweaks to maximize individual talent and exploit matchups.

For that reason, a few of the recent Champions League quarter-finals have been a breath of fresh air.

Atlético Madrid, the only team that has consistently resisted all of these tactical tendencies under manager Diego Simeone, opted to pitch their 11 players within 30 yards of their own goal in the first leg of their draw against Manchester. City. Phil Foden put City on the board once, but Atleti persisted in their tactics in the first half of the second leg, albeit with a little more ambition on the counterattack. Simeone’s side had to open up to chase a goal in the final 45 minutes of the game, but with what they’ve done in the previous 135, they’ve given themselves a chance to advance to the semi-finals. .

Between the gaps in form and technical talent separating the two sides at present, facing Manchester City in a tactical mirror match would likely have seen Atleti fall by more than a goal.

Atléti’s tactics produced a type of spectacle that was quite common, but has become increasingly rare at the top level of the game: a team with top-level attacking skills struggling to break through a perfectly organized bunker. It wouldn’t be very entertaining if most football games played out like this, but in today’s era of more consistent tactics, it felt like a nice little treat.

A similar pair of games played out between Villarreal and Bayern Munich, but with a little more precision on the clock for the underdogs, which produced an even better result. Villarreal went deep with two four-man “banks” in a 4-4-2 defensive system, finishing the draw with 35% possession to Bayern’s 65% and 16 shots to Bayern’s 45.

These staggering gaps suggest the Bavarians were significantly better and didn’t have a chance to progress, but according to Michael Caley’s expected goals model, which is calculated using Opta data, Bayern only generated 0.5xG more than Villarreal from those extra 29 shots. The Yellow Submarine’s deep and organized defense frustrated opponents by taking a lot of poor quality shots from outside the box. That is, the team ostensibly in control of the draw (Bayern) and the one on the back foot (Villarreal) finished the 180 minutes with the same number of high-quality chances from central areas inside the surface.

Build around players that match your style

If you’re Villarreal, you can’t have it all when it comes to signing players. Bayern Munich can sign players with no real weaknesses, but Villarreal have to pick the skills they want to showcase in certain positions and build a team with individual skills that complement each other while masking each other’s shortcomings. And the style of play used by Villarreal boss Unai Emery in the quarter-finals maximized the talent of the players he had.

In midfielder Dani Parejo, Villarreal have a player who lacks the athleticism to pull off a transition game against a side of Bayern’s quality, although he does have the ability to pass to create dangerous attacks at from a very small number of chances – among central midfielders, he sits in the 97th percentile for expected assists across Europe’s top 5 leagues. Striker Gerard Moreno is not a pressing machine either, but technically excellent. Fellow striker Samuel Chukwueze is yet to be a consistent provider of goals and assists at 22, but has the ability to create something out of nowhere coming off the bench.

Had Villarreal tried to match Bayern on style, they would have been humiliated. Instead, Emery created conditions where his players could succeed, and this trio capitalized on their best opportunity in the second leg with a precision counterattack to win the draw.

Champions League games like these two quarter-finals – those where one team has a significant advantage in talent and the other has to figure out how to get the most out of the players they have to have a chance – are everything. as compelling as games where two evenly matched sides throw tedders at each other.

Football is at its best when there is variety, and we are lucky to have been treated to two completely different Champions League semi-finals. Manchester City v Real Madrid, a clash between two teams who wouldn’t know how to sit in a bunker in the unlikely event they were asked to, was a home-and-away thriller with several goals for both teams on Tuesday. first leg at the Etihad. But it’s equally intriguing to see Liverpool, a team that likes to attack fast in open spaces, having to face a Villarreal side that have proven they can stifle Europe’s best with their low defensive block.

Everton were kind enough to give the Reds a try in Sunday’s Merseyside Derby, keeping Liverpool off the scoreboard (and with zero shots on target) until the 62nd minute defending with all 11 men deep in their own half , but ultimately falling 2-0. At Villarreal, Liverpool will encounter a side likely to set up with a similar deep position, but with a bit more quality to play trouble and execute counter-attacks.

Many fans – perhaps even Atleti and Villarreal supporters – would prefer to see these defensive teams come out of their shells and show a bit of bravery, but if each team plays the same style of football and the game becomes tactically homogeneous, we are left with something that is frankly not interesting and loses its value as an entertainment product. If the only reason you’re watching the game is to see some nice goals, save some time and hit up YouTube. You can consume hundreds of them in 20 minutes. The presence of great defensive football is what makes great attacking football so satisfying.