You’ll rarely see a more exciting scoreless half than the opening 45 minutes between Liverpool and Bayern this past Tuesday. Liverpool, as we would expect, came out to win, their front three of Mané, Firmino, and Salah driving forward, trailed closely by whoever else saw fit to join them—fullbacks, central midfielders, it sometimes felt like everybody except Jordan Henderson and Alisson were either inside the box or right at the edge of it. Bayern didn’t handle this assault perfectly, but they made blocks and clearances when they needed to and offered a threat of their own going forward, especially down the right side, where Serge Gnabry consistently sent Andrew Robertson the wrong way and used that space to curl in a few terrifying crosses. James Rodriguez gets paid a lot of money to loaf around the fringes of shooting range and take corners, but he is at least very good at the second thing.
All of this came together to produce a frantically well-played half of soccer that surprisingly didn’t include a single goal. The second half was tighter, the action more intermittent. Liverpool pinned Bayern back with a high press that forced the Bavarians to drop their midfielders so deep in support that, even when they broke the press, they hardly had more than two or three players to run at the Liverpool back line. The game ended 0-0, which was slightly disappointing, but it sets up what should be a wonderfully fraught second leg in Munich. It wouldn’t be a huge shock if the aggregate score for the tie ended up at 4-3.
Wednesday’s match between Atlético Madrid and Juventus held close to expectations, with both teams attacking only cautiously, each worried about giving the ball away with too many players forward and getting obliterated on the break. That was the case for a while anyway, then Diego Costa missed a generous chance in the 50th minute, Antoine Griezmann very nearly chipped the ball over Wojciech Szczęsny, and Atleti suddenly realized they could control the game if they wanted to. Alvaro Morata scored a nice header that was incorrectly ruled out by VAR—grumble, grumble, technocracy—but los colchoneros eventually got the goal they deserved, and then another one, both from chaotic set pieces. Those who predicted a goalless draw between the Spaniards and Italians were half-right: Juve barely created anything, but Atleti didn’t have a particularly hard time getting into scoring positions Down 0-2 and headed to Turin, Juventus will have to put in a perfect performance while their opponents basically need only a single goal to put the whole thing out of reach.
Both of these contests were fun to watch, and both home crowds were absurdly loud throughout. The style discussion in soccer—possession vs. counterattacking, five at the back vs. four, the merits of the holding midfielder, motionless busses, etc.—is interesting enough, but it often quickly becomes tedious, the sport’s expansive world swiftly and blithely divided into positive and negative camps, Peps and Mourinhos. When it’s really not that simple. The genuine divide in soccer is defined not by overall approaches or their component parts—playing high up the pitch, or with two holding mids, or using your goalkeeper as an outfield player—but by imagination, its presence or absence.
We want to see clear ideas at work. For example, Liverpool have a fantastic high press. At times on Tuesday, they turned Bayern over in their own half and at once—oh, heavens!—surged toward the box as their attacking trident spread out and dragged dazed defenders in every direction. But Bayern also occasionally broke the press and got the ball out to wing, where they could run at isolated fullbacks and create some havoc of their own. Though Liverpool were inarguably more impressive, and are probably just a better team in general, their opponents held up their end of the bargain and tried, with occasional success, to solve the problems they posed. That push-and-pull was stimulating.
Juventus hardly had any ideas at the Metropolitano, and frustrated bianconeri supporters will tell you that’s the problem with Max Allegri. Atleti fielded a conservative lineup on paper with four central midfielders and Juanfran over the more creatively gifted Santi Arias at right back, but Diego Simeone used the players he picked beautifully, trusting Thomas, Rodri, Saúl, and Koke to win every loose ball and punish every poor touch in the middle of the park. What the Atleti attack lacked in pace and dynamism they made up for with relentless solidity. Juve had a lot of possession but they had a mostly miserable time with it, and when they had to defend, they couldn’t figure out how to mark Antoine Griezmann, who at various times played like a striker, winger, and attacking midfielder. It didn’t help matters that Leonardo Bonucci was consistently outmuscled whenever Atleti hit anything in the air to Morata or Diego Costa.
In the end, the most important aspect of style is having one, to look like you’re trying to do something a specific way, and succeeding. Liverpool and Atleti had styles in their Champions League games. Bayern did something to counteract Liverpool’s efforts, and Juventus were simply flummoxed. In a big match, it’s not always the most attractive team that comes out of on top, but if it’s plain to everyone watching that you’ve got a plan, that’s a fine start toward victory.