Fascinating final clash of styles which echoes down the ages

Paul Simpson, editor of FourFourTwo's UEFA-flavoured sister magazine Champions, on the Allianz Arena clash

The 2012 UEFA Champions League final isn’t just a contest for the greatest prize in club football; it is the latest instalment in a never-ending tactical argument.

Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern belong to the grand tradition of Bill Nicholson, Jock Stein, Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola in which teams dominate possession, take the initiative and feel obliged to win in style, as Danny Blanchflower once put it.

Roberto di Matteo’s Chelsea stand for a different, no less valid, tradition in which teams seek to draw the opposition out and punish them on the counter.

Catenaccio was pioneered by the great Swiss coach Karl Rappan in the 1930s, developed in Italy in the 1950s by Milan coaches Gipo Viani and Nereo Rocco and perfected in the 1960s by Helenio Herrera’s Inter.

The counterattacking style of Rocco and Herrera dominated European football in the 1960s. Milan’s triumph over Benfica in the 1963 European Cup final signalled a shift to a new age of austerity on the pitch. Herrera’s Inter emphasised the point by defeating Real Madrid and Benfica to win back-to-back European Cups in 1964 and 1965.

With the goalscoring genius of Giacinto Facchetti at left-back, the panache of Sandro Mazzola up front and the genius of playmaker Luis Suarez in midfield, Inter were a sophisticated, tactically shrewd, technically gifted team but their reputation has been undermined by the legions of moronic imitators who turned catenaccio into a blueprint for boredom.

As UEFA technical director Andy Roxburgh likes to point out, there are many ways to win a football match. The Herrera way came unstuck against Celtic in 1967. Stein admired Herrera and had studied the Argentinian’s methods, once telling his left-back Tommy Gemmell: “Your job is to play like Facchetti”.

In the heat of Lisbon, the immovable object of Inter’s defence crumbled under the irresistible force of Celtic’s attacking verve. The Lisbon Lions played, as Gemmell put it, “pure attacking football”. The left-back did his bit, scoring the equaliser that shattered Inter’s resistance.

1967: Celtic's brio breaks Inter's resolve

European football expected Rocco’s Rossoneri to restate the case for the counterattacking game in the 1969 final against Michels’ Ajax. But Milan attacked from the off. In the 67th minute, when Angelo Sormani made it 3-1 to the Italians, the outcome was settled.

Organised by Michels and inspired by Cruyff, Ajax exacted total revenge in 1972 and 1973, beating Inter 2-0 and Juventus 1-0 in two of the most one-sided finals in the competition’s history. The manner of these defeats was so comprehensive that even Italian football, which had championed catenaccio as “the right of the weak” in the famous words of Gianni Brera, realised a rethink was required.

At this point, the tactical war seemed over. In a sense, it was. As a philosophy of football, counterattacking had had its day. But coaches kept using the tactic when the occasion – or the opposition – demanded.

The most successful exhibition of counterattacking football in a European Cup final since the 1960s was probably Nottingham Forest’s 1-0 win over Hamburg in 1980. For whatever reason – possibly because it encouraged other coaches to underestimate him – Brian Clough perpetuated the myth that he knew nothing about tactics.

As Jonathan Wilson has proved in Nobody Ever Says Thank You, his compelling biography of Old Big Ead, this is errant nonsense. In 1980, with striker Trevor Francis injured, Clough told Gary Mills to move into midfield in a 4-5-1 that utterly stifled the German champions.

After the final (which Forest won 1-0 thanks to John Robertson’s goal), Hamburg coach Brnko Zebec sounded like a man who had just been mugged: “Hamburg carried the whole weight of that game. Nottingham only defended. I say this not as a criticism but as a statement of fact.” Enzo Bearzot, who would win the World Cup two years later with an enterprising Azzurri side, even accused Clough of reinventing catenaccio.

1980: 'Robbo eats Hamburgers' as Forest outwit the Germans

Although Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan proved that Italian teams – especially when illuminated by Dutch genius – could attack and entertain, winning the European Cup in 1989 and 1990, old prejudices lingered.

When Cruyff moved from the pitch to the dugout, he maintained his suspicion of the Italian style. “The Italians,” he famously said, “can’t beat you, but you can lose to them.” (To which Carlo Ancelotti replied: “If Cruyff wants entertainment, he should go to the cinema.”)

The Dutch icon cast the 1994 UEFA Champions League final, in which his Barcelona side faced Fabio Capello’s Milan, as a contest for the soul of football. But with Alessandro Costacurta and Franco Baresi suspended, Don Fabio decided, like Rocco in 1969, that attack was the best form of defence. Milan won 4-0.

1994: Fabio four, Johan nil

Pep Guardiola was one of the Barcelona players shaken by that defeat and, though he still reveres Cruyff as a mentor, he saw at first hand how dangerous over-confidence could be. In his short but spectacularly successful coaching career, Guardiola – along with Jose Mourinho – has raised the bar with the sheer meticulousness of his pre-match preparation.

Mourinho has replaced calcio as the principal public object of Cruyff’s ire, partly because of the Portuguese maverick’s abrasive brand of mind games but also because of the ruthless – and often effective – way he has organised his Chelsea and Inter teams to frustrate Barcelona.

The 2010 UEFA Champions League semi-final was Mourinho’s greatest riposte to Cruyff. As Sandro Mazzola points out in the latest issue of Champions magazine: “With typical Mourinho canniness, Inter didn’t confront Messi – they simply cut off his supply lines, employing a four-man cage tactic”. This was a huge gamble – Messi’s team-mates could exploit the space vacated elsewhere – but it worked. Inter had won and, whatever purists might say about their style of play, the tie was hardly devoid of entertainment.

2010: Inter put Messi in the cage

Two years later, Mourinho’s former club have reached their second UEFA Champions League final after similar heroics at Camp Nou as Roberto di Matteo, replacing Andre Villas-Boas, prioritised results over style.

One reason the debate between purists and pragmatists will never end is that the distinction between the two is not as clear-cut as many purists would suggest.  Possession football isn’t always thrilling – the most enthralling match in Spain’s successful 2010 World Cup campaign was probably their 1-0 defeat to Switzerland – and teams that counter aren’t always dull: Chelsea’s 4-1 victory over Napoli in the round of 16 was as compelling as their disposal of Benfica in the last eight was efficient.

Nobody knows how Chelsea will play in Munich. Facing the same kind of defensive reshuffle as Capello in 1994, will Di Matteo decide attack is the best form of defence? Or will he choose containment? The rope-a-dope Muhammad Ali style tactics worked for 10-man Chelsea in Barcelona, but only with Messi missing a penalty.

With away goals irrelevant in Munich, Di Matteo will need Chelsea to compete in midfield, be resolute and disciplined on the flanks and, when the spaces open up behind Bayern’s wide players, make the most of them.

Heynckes faces his own tough choices. In 2010, Bayern were not simply undone by the absence of Franck Ribery. They were confounded by an Inter team so confident in its organisational nous they were happy to give the ball away. Louis van Gaal’s Bayern were too methodical, too slow and took so many touches – often five or six before finding a team-mate – that the Nerazzurri defenders had time to ensure they were perfectly in position.

2012: Which way will the coaches go?

With Ribery and Arjen Robben in the starting line-up, and Toni Kroos floating free in midfield, Bayern should be more fluent going forward than in Madrid. Mind you, just as Di Matteo is unlikely to emulate the old-school catenaccio of Herrera’s Inter, Heynckes’ Bayern won’t employ the gung-ho attacking football that worked so memorably for the Lisbon Lions in 1967.

Whoever triumphs in Munich, neither side will land a knockout blow in the eternal contest between the ghosts of Herrera and Michels.