A Tale of Two Marios

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Photograph courtesy of bundesliga.com

Germany will finally have an international champion at top level men’s football for the first time since 2001.  It is a quite remarkable statistic, taking into account the gushing accolades and envious glances the collective German football system has received since their staging of a fantastic World Cup in 2006.  In short, Germany played exhilarating football, blending typical Germanic efficiency and discipline with a certain uncharacteristic flair and panache – you wanted to watch Germany.  It is said that ‘Germans are best at organising parties, but the worst at throwing them’ – in 2006, going against the grain, Klinsmann’s men brought the party to the pitch.  Claiming a bronze medal at that World Cup, and with a string of promising young talents like the ‘wrong-sided’ left back, Philip Lahm; silky winger, Bastian Schweinsteiger; and the Golden boy, Lukas Podolski, it was expected that this group of players would herald a new generation of technically enterprising young German footballers that would go on dominate the football landscape.

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Photograph courtesy of saxane.com

7 years later, that is hardly the case.  In 2006, 3rd was a genuine success, public euphoria borne of having banished the genuine failure that was Euro 2004 to the deep annals of deliberate ignorance.  In 2008, as Torres poked one over Lehmann, it was a crushing disappointment, excusable in light of Spanish dominance – ‘an off night’.  And so misfortune has evolved into failure, as pity has given way to frustration and exasperation.  In 2010, having promised so much in the their run to the semi (including dispatching 4 goals past both Argentina and England), Germany crumbled against Spain.

Euro 2012 presented a welcome chance of redemption.  Before Germany faced Italy in the semi-final of 2012, Jurgen Klinsmann opened a blog with this assertion laced with sure-fire confidence – ‘I am confident Germany will beat Italy in Thursday’s semi-final and go on to win Euro 2012’.  Speaking after Italy knocked out Germany, lamented the reluctance of the team to ‘sacrifice themselves’, particularly noting how Germany granted Pirlo the Keys to the City. ‘Nobody was willing to look bad – they lost the battles in midfield’, he ruefully observed.  Pirlo, then the frontrunner for the player of the tournament award, ran that game like Bolt in the 100 – effortlessly, superior to all around him.  With each nonchalant swish of the ponytail, Toni Kroos, tasked with negating his influence, merely amplified the Italian’s influence through his ineptitude – the perfect antithesis.

That night, as Germany went two goals down, Joachim Loew did what, in any other context, would be football suicide, the sort of decision met with protests of incredulity and sighs of resignation – he took off his top scorer at halftime.  In his place, Klose came on, energised the team, providing more industry and movement up front.  On the bench, Mario Gomez’s season dwindled to an anti-climactic end.  As Balotelli shone for Italy, Mario was usurped by Super Mario, unwary of another Mario in the waiting.

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Pardon the circuitous route taken to arrive where we are, but it serves to provide context for Saturday’s game.  Germany has broken the hoodoo (at least at club level) and will be guaranteed a champion, crowned in London no less.  Maybe Bayern will break theirs too.  The last 3 years have been characterised by relative failure.  Before this season, Dortmund were the top dogs for two consecutive years, eventually culminating in their 5-2 dismantling of the Bavarians in the German Cup final last season.  This ‘failure’ was hardly restricted to the domestic scene – twice losing finalists in the Champions League in the last 3 years (2010 and 2012), Bayern Munich’s mental fragility was patent for all to see.  Last year against Chelsea, defeat on home turf merely served to reinforce the harsh reality of overwhelming underachievement.

On Saturday, Mario will start for Munich – no, not the languid, slick haired Gomez.  Mandzukic, the cool dude with an even cooler name, will lead Bayern Munich’s line, not so much a spearhead as he is a battering ram capable of genuine moments of sabre-like incision.  After a coming out performance at the Euros, in which he scored 3 goals, including one against Italy’s Buffon – something he had always ‘dreamed about as a kid’ -, Bayern Munich signed him from Wolfsburg.

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Photograph courtesy of dailymail.co.uk

I keenly watched him at the Euros, the name catching the eye.   While all the fanfare surrounded the Premier League’s signing of the season, Nikica Jelavic, I was hugely impressed with the fierce competitiveness and exuberant confidence of this ‘unknown quantity’.  His work rate and team ethic were first class – he was shifted out to the right flank against Italy and rather than moan, it was from there that he converted a deep Ivan Strinic cross to draw Croatia level.  Against Spain, while the Iberian kings of the pass dominated the ball in characteristic fashion, Mandzukic ran himself into the ground, not once willing to give up the fight.  Exit was cruel but even in defeat, credit accrued to him.

Hence, it made for interesting reading to find out that his time at Wolfsburg was often characterised by ‘not working hard enough in training, as well as his lack of defensive effort’.  “Surprise, surprise, that was unexpected”.  Not the player who worked tirelessly against Italy and Spain, right?  And in that lies the essence of the player.  He is one that thrives on the challenge, the opportunity to excel at the highest level.  Fortunately for him, he had (has?) enough talent to get away with publicly admitting to not feeling motivated to play against ‘village teams’ during his time at Dinamo Zagreb.  He scored 63 goals in 125 games for Croatia’s premier team, not shabby for a half-arsed, cocky and ‘lazy’ striker.

While Kuper and Szymanski, in Soccermetrics (highly recommended reading), warn against signing players based on their performances in summer tournaments like World Cups and Euro Championships, his goals and application struck a chord with some – Bayern Munich wasted no time in striking a deal for him.  While not quite persona non grata at Wolfsburg…okay, he was – before the Euros, he was placed on the transfer list, Felix Magath stating that ‘they will accept any fair offer’ for him.  Magath, a renowned workaholic coach, infamous for putting his charges through hellish forest long-distance sprints, clearly did not approve.

On his first official game for Bayern, against champions, Dortmund, Mandzukic scored a goal in a 2-1 SuperCup victory and set about showing that he was not at Dortmund merely to ‘pick his nose’, to borrow the phrase of Manchester United’s olfactory excavating Danish substitute goalkeeper.  In the first 12 rounds of the Bundesliga, he scored 9 goals, a highly impressive figure particularly from a player who had recorded a relatively modest 12 the season before.  As Bayern continued to improve, so did Mandzukic.  In one Mario, Bayern had a player of unshakeable confidence with greater versatility, and most importantly, a great utility outside the box – in other words, he did more than put the ball in the back of the net.  And just like that, the plunderer of 41 goals the previous year, including 12 in the Champions League (no penalties) was quickly forgotten.

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The former Stuttgart striker is a player whose confidence is commensurate to the goals he scores.  Even then, it is still qualified.  His first season at Bayern Munich, 2009/2010, was widely deemed to be underwhelming, scoring only 14 goals having bagged 35 the season before at Stuttgart.  An unused substitute in the 2010 Champions League final, he perked up and in 2011, scoring 39 goals.  Gomez was back!  He was superb in 2011/2012 (quantitatively at least) for the most part.  However, like his Euro 2012, his season was set to end in ignominy, labelled a failure and quickly regarded as the embodiment of Bayern Munich’s, in fact Germany’s, collective lack of bottle.  He spurned chances galore in the final at the Allianz Arena, the pressure of playing in the biggest game of his career on home ground metamorphosing his feet into jigsaw pieces, repeatedly crumbling in the box.  And when the penalties came, Bayern’s top scorer declined the chance to take a spot kick.

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Photograph courtesy of bestplayerintheworld.com

At Euro 2012, he started off with a bang, registering three classy finishes in his first 2 games.  Bookies, having failed to learn lessons from the past, quickly slashed odds on Gomez being named top scorer – he failed to register after that, gradually collapsing onto himself, becoming a morose shadow of the smiling assassin of earlier rounds Germany had pinned their hopes on.  In the semi, before being subbed off, he touched the ball only 13 times.  Gomez came in for strident criticism from German legend, Mehmet Scholl, who likened him to a player ‘worried he might get bedsores’ from running too much.

‘If he did more work off the ball, he would get a lot more chances and score a lot more goals’.  ‘A striker today has to work more and help his team mates’. 

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Photograph courtesy of http://www.gazetta.it

It is in this department that the Croat far outstrips his German namesake.  Jupp Heynckes recently described him as ‘an outstanding team player’, quite in huge contrast to the accusations of lack of application he faced while at Wolfsburg.  In the Champions League, he has committed 24 fouls, the same number as Javi Martinez despite having played over 200 fewer minutes (this is a striker/defensive midfielder comparison, mind you).  Against Arsenal, then Juventus (both legs) and Barcelona, the Croatian was hugely impressive in his work rate and movement off the ball, creating space for others to exploit by virtue of his positional dexterity.  He chipped in with two goals at the Emirates and the Juventus Arena for good measure, illustrating that he is not just a workaholic donkey.  A short while ago, Borrussia Dortmund’s affable, lovable coach, Jurgen Klopp, accused of Bayern of going about football ‘in the same way that the Chinese go about industry – they look at what others are doing and copy it’.  The gegenpressing (it’s really just a hippy term for standard ‘pressing’), immediately pressing the opposition to retrieve lost possession, was ‘copied’ by Heynckes – Mandzukic is absolutely central to this.  Read this from the esteemed Zonal Marking on the Croat’s impact for Bayern Munich against Juventus – it is a mere snapshot of what he has done all season.

‘…He didn’t get himself a goal, but he did pretty much everything else – he teed up the second for Muller, he had a fantastic running battle in the air with Giorgio Chiellini, and also spent periods back helping his own defence.

His pressing from the front encouraged Bayern to push up and support him, while he also helped pressure Pirlo on the few occasions Muller found himself elsewhere. This was a classic ‘defensive’ centre-forward display, and just as Bayern used the ball quickly when they won it, playing through the two wingers, their defensive transitions were also very impressive – they were back into a good shape quickly. For the second ‘first leg’ in a row, Mandzukic’s work to get back and keep Bayern compact was vital…’

With him in the side, a lack of effort is as Silvio Berlusconi to the Queen – incomprehensible.

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This season, as Bayern Munich have steamrollered their way through all, Mario Gomez has hardly been missed.  In many ways, they have been better for it.  While this year’s top goalscorer is Thomas Mueller, the ultra-efficient attacking midfielder on 22 goals, this has not stopped the team from breaking the scoring record in the Bundesliga – 98 goals in 34 games. However, Mandzukic topscored with a relatively low 15 goals.  The team, as a whole is scoring more.  Last season, only 4 players scored 5 or more in the Bundesliga.  In the record-breaking season just concluded, 7 scored 5 or more.

In the Champions League, particularly, it is this hydra-esque quality that has made facing Bayern Munich such a daunting prospect this season.  Before dismantling Barcelona, it was highlighted that 8 Bayern Munich players had scored at least 2 Champions League goals.  In contrast, Barcelona had just 2 with 2 goals or more – Messi with 8 and left back, Alba, with 2.  With Mario Gomez in the line-up, while a bonafide scorer, there is a feeling that he limits the side, his lack of contribution beyond scoring creating a rigidity which often means he is inevitably on the end of all the chances.  It was not coincidence that Germany’s best, most enterprising performance at Euro 2012 came against Greece when the older, yet more mobile Miroslav Klose was granted a starting berth.  While his record is impressive, for a player of such brittle confidence, your team’s chances very finely rest on whether he has a banging day at the office or he timidly calls off sick.

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In more ways than one, both Marios provide metaphors for the old and the new Bayern Munich.  Like Gomez, Bayern Munich of 2010-2012 seemed to freeze at the most crucial moments, failing to take their chances when presented to them.  Of course, it might appear cheap to call out the striker but if goals win games, strikers are the Joker.  Mandzukic will start at Wembley tomorrow, and deservedly so.  A player of unshakable confidence, he represents the diligent hard work and graft of this Bayern Munich, quietly confident yet playing with a professional swagger .  ‘He has a very good professional attitude’, Heynckes says of Mandzukic. As their vanguard, the man leading from the front, he represents the virtues of this current Bayern side – Mr Heynckes, Die Roten are now a very good professional side.

Today’s final will be one for the ages – Do not miss it.