I want to make this piece interactive. So Bayern and non-Bayern fans alike, I would love hearing your response to this question in the comments section. Here it goes:
Did the play of the Bayern squad look familiar on Saturday in the Champions League final, or were you watching something unfamiliar?
I saw something unfamiliar.
Let me explain.
Growing up, I observed a certain sporting mystery: sometimes during climatic moments, a team became unrecognizable during a match. And it was not good. The team looked lost. Literally unsure of itself. That is, its usual patterns and routines vanished to be replaced with something unfamiliar, shaky, or even fragile. Later, I borrowed a concept from philosophy to describe this sporting vanishing act: a team becomes alienated from itself. (If a literary reference helps, think of the epidemic of alienation that humorously and tragically runs throughout the fictional Louisiana in Walker Percy’s novel Love in the Ruins.) From what I remember, the concept derives from the German word Entfremdung, or “estrangement,” and was given a workout by Marx, Hegel, and later by the existentialists.
In sporting terms, alienation is different from a team simply slumping in that the alienation I’m describing occurs climatically, as if a whole season is consummated in it. Perhaps, I’m just describing my own private experience here, but I would wager that other viewers would notice something off in the team’s play. When I’ve seen the alienation occur, two variables are usually in place. First, the team is playing in a momentous event (e.g. Super Bowl, Champions League final). Second, the momentous event is a one-off event (e.g. a one game final, versus a best of seven series or two legged match-up). So big games and one-offs. These two variables wreak psychological havoc on teams, who get nervous about the immensity and pressure of a single game to clinch glory. Some would simply say the team got caught up in the big moment. Obviously, I’m not offering any profound insights here.
However, when I see sporting alienation occur I’m left asking myself, who was that team I just saw? The team didn’t resemble the squad I saw play through a whole season. I distinctly remember alienation happening in a few Super Bowls (sorry, American football is my biggest frame of sporting reference; soccer is making headway though!), for example: the “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams of ’02, the undefeated New England Patriots of ’08 then this year’s version of ’12, and the Indianapolis Colts of ’10). In each case, the team’s identity, style, and modus operandi vanish. Of course I realize two other obvious variables have explaining power in these examples: strategical and tactical adjustments by the opponent and injuries. For example, in ’08, the undefeated Patriots were victims of the first (brilliant Giants’ defensive game plan), while the ’12 Patriots were victims of the latter (the Gronk and a depleted defensive secondary). During the course of a season, teams successful teams can routinely overcome both variables; however, the problem lies with climatic one-off matches when there is no more “rest of the season.”
On Saturday, Bayern became alienated from itself. The obvious variables were in place: the crushing psychological pressure of a one-off title game, compounded by Bayern trying to pull off the feat at home in the Allianz Arena. Second, although not injuries, Bayern dealt with three suspensions, all from the back line: Badstuber, Gustavo, and Alaba. Finally, throw in the predicted Chelsea defensive game plan and the conditions were ripe for Bayern to disappear on itself. And Bayern obliged. But here’s the funny thing, despite all these variables being in place, Bayern should have won this game a few times over. Chelsea gifted Bayern with a strategy of grace in the first half. As expected, Die Roten enjoyed around 60% possession on the ball. Ribéry and Robben took turns jabbing in from right and left flanks. Schweinsteiger had a suburban backyard’s worth of grass to mow in the midfield, and Bayern took plenty of shots on the ball. From my viewing, Bayern seemed to enjoy so much of the ball that it looked shaky and disorganized the few times Chelsea did manage an attack.
What I am trying to say is that Bayern was gifted with on-field play that allowed the team to be itself. Put another way, Chelsea’s strategy should have been a sort of comfort blanket for Bayern. Indeed, Bayern would have probably put up 4-6 goals on many Bundesliga sides at Allianz in these conditions. So Chelsea invited Bayern to play a game that Bundesliga followers know all too well. So I breathed a sigh of relief for Bayern during the first half. Goals seemed inevitable. However, Bayern didn’t look like itself, even with the presence of the usual data – like possession and scoring chances – that we are used to seeing with Bayern and from which we derive their identity and style.
Earlier, I predicted Gomez’s poaching would be Bayern’s key to success. As I saw Bayern attack and Gomez collect chances, I was feeling validated.
Then it began. And here’s when it might a bit mystical. I first noticed problems with Gomez, who looked out of water, overwhelmed, small, and mediocre. (Some would argue that a striker with average technical skills, slightly below average ball-handling skills, and poacher’s positioning is always already mediocre.) Indeed, he registered a .GIF-inducing first half performance. Tweets ensued. The Gomez debacle colored everything else I saw: Schweini began to look slow in the midfield, which was probably true given his injury issues, Robben looked flustered and maniac in his greed, and passing between Bayern players looked strained and awkward. At this point, Bayern was beginning to resemble something else other than itself, and I was having flashbacks to Super Bowls when I saw this happening.
Bayern fans, what were you seeing at this point?
For me, the alienation was on. Bayern seemed less in control of the game, and more part of the game’s own inner narrative logic as play wore on. I’m probably full of crap here, because from an empirical sense, the game was decided by seeming randomness – a Robben penalty miss and the cruelty that is a penalty shootout. However, the game certainly seemed out of Bayern’s control by this point. Bayern was pulled into the game, at the mercy of random occurrence.
Then Müller scores. Strategically, he’s Bayern’s ace because of his unpredictability and awkwardness. Marking him consistently is difficult for defenders and Müller gets his body in position for weird, random things to happen. Others have already observed that his play has a sort of outlying status – perfect for breaking open what was becoming a frustrating match for Bayern. Müller’s goal justified a dominating performance in which Die Roten took a staggering 43 shots at goal (with only seven on target though) and enjoyed 56% of possession, according to ESPN. It was justice. The sense of joy, but mostly relief, seemed palpable in the Allianz stands.
For the rest of regulation, neither Bayern nor Chelsea resembled themselves, as two teams simply tried to play with the ball until time ran out. Identity, game plans, strategy, and tendencies vanished while game itself took over. So why not a Drogba header on Chelsea’s only header with Lahm, the shortest player on the pitch, guarding the post?
I was not surprised when Robben missed the penalty in extra time – the usual data and identities were worth squat at this point. I wondered how psychologically battered the Bayern players were going into penalty kicks. I would venture to guess that they, too, were starting to believe in the narrative of a game beyond their control that shrunk identity and even talent. Entfremdung – estrangement or alienation from a whole season’s worth of a results, run of form, and identity. Fittingly enough, Schweinsteiger, the soul of the team starred in the tragic fall, set up by the pathetic Olić, perhaps the real scapegoat here.
One thing that especially fascinates me about sports is when the quantitative inferences and predictions we draw from our collected data intersect with the psychology (both individual and collective) emerging on the field. Because, by a number of metrics and accounts, Bayern should have won this game. That is, our data tells certain things about Bayern from which we derived their style of play and identity, which tilted this game in its favor. But here’s what these epic one-off games do: they alienate players from the numbers and derived identities. So I wonder, when and to what extent did Die Roten stop believing in themselves?
Bayern fans, a truly cruel ending to your season. I empathize. On one hand, your team resembled itself, but in a deeper sense, it didn’t. Who was that team of little red men we saw running around on Saturday?