When Bayern Munich produced one of their most ‘Pep Guardiola-esque’ performances since their Spanish coach arrived at the Allianz Arena, crushing FC Porto 6-1 in the Champions League quarter-final, there was something still a bit underwhelming about the way they destroyed their opponents. Yes, they pressed high, passed the ball around with speed and precision, and tore their opponents to shreds, in a way that Guardiola’s Barcelona used to beat their rivals. But you still didn’t quite feel as though this was quite like those days when his Barcelona beat their rivals.
You could even argue that there hasn’t been an authentic Guardiola style performance since he has arrived at Bayern Munich. That is not to say that Bayern Munich haven’t been dazzlingly good at times, nor is it to claim that they haven’t ever performed at the same level in terms of quality as Guardiola’s Barcelona – but they don’t quite beat their opponents the way Barcelona did. The difference isn’t just the small matter of Lionel Messi’s unique abilities. It is the rest of them – Andres Iniesta and Xavi most of all, but also Pedro Rodriguez, Samuel Eto’o, Dani Alves and the others. It is an aesthetic difference – the shallow feeling that, yes, Bayern Munich are great, but that at the same time Barcelona were so much greater to watch.
The main difference between that group and the current Bayern Munich side is rather simple – it is height. In the Barcelona team Guardiola built, Gerard Pique, Eric Abidal and Sergio Busquets were their only outfield players most weeks over 5''11 tall. In the current Bayern Munich side there are only three outfielders smaller than 5”11 – Phillip Lahm, Thiago and Franck Ribery.
Does this matter? Yes – if you are judging a team on their entertainment factor, how enjoyable and memorable they are to watch – the intangibles that help create the truly historic sides such as that Barcelona team, or the Ajax and Brazil sides of the past – then height, or a lack of it, matters. As much as pundits claim that there are many ways to play football that are equally valid, there is an unspoken truth that everyone has a preference deep down and most people prefer attacking, freewheeling teams. And smaller teams in terms of their height generally play more attractive football.
There is a good reason for it too, because their lack of height makes it easier for them to change direction quickly. This adds an element of unpredictability to their play that makes it much more enjoyable to watch. It also means that when Iniesta has the ball and is up against two opponents trying to tackle him, he is able to glide between them in a way that Bastian Schweinsteiger would find more difficult, simply because there is more of him to manoeuvre through the gap.
Consider the point in terms of the world’s best players. Who is the best player in the history of the game? Pele? Maradona? Or Messi, Johan Cruyff, Alfredo di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas or Garrincha? The answer is subjective, but whoever you go with, the chances are that you will pick a player whose height is between 5”5 and 5”8. Is this a coincidence? No.
Maradona and Messi (5”5 and 5”6 respectively) are similar in their beguiling dribbling skill, which is aided by their lack of height, giving them the dexterity and agility to move more subtly, speedily and skilfully between opponents. Garrincha, perhaps the greatest player to have come from the era before television became widespread, had an incredible ability to baffle and confuse opponents with his movement.
Essentially, the smaller the player, the quicker his feet can be, the quicker he can change direction, the easier he can manipulate tight spaces. And the smaller a player, the more intelligent their movement has to be in order to evade bigger, stronger opponents. Their movement on the pitch is therefore always going to be more pleasing on the eye. Which is why the 5”7 central midfield duo of Xavi and Iniesta is so much more entertaining than the 6'' plus partnership of Sami Khedira and Toni Kroos, which won the World Cup last year.
Chelsea are an interesting case in point. They are essentially playing the same tactically as they did in the first Jose Mourinho era. But the main difference is the height of the players. Having Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas instead of Michael Ballack and Michael Essien makes them much more enjoyable to watch because of the smaller players’ more thrilling movements, rather than because Chelsea’s style is fundamentally more attacking.
It is the speed of the movement of small players in tight spaces which makes them so entertaining and memorable and is why Sir Alex Ferguson termed the Xavi-Iniesta partnership as a ‘carousel’ that you needed to make sure you didn’t get onboard. The former Manchester United manager was unwittingly getting at what makes smaller players so much more entertaining to watch pass the ball around than tall players. It is more mesmeric.
Watching Bayern Munich is great, but it does not mesmerise you in the same way as the old Barcelona side. The movement isn’t as fluid, as fast or as spellbinding. Often the play goes down the wings where the ball is crossed in the air towards Robert Lewandowski or Thomas Muller. There are many more long balls forward, while Arjen Robben and Ribery’s dribbling is the antithesis of the Barcelona style of making the ball do the running.
Having taller players like Lewandowski and Muller means that the temptation is always there to play a quick direct ball forward. If a team have Messi as the false nine they cannot do that, they are forced to play quicker short passes. As a result, it simply isn’t the same level of joy from watching Bayern Munich as Barcelona. The Catalans’ style featured more regular short passing through tight spaces, improbable threaded balls evading the gaps in between well marshalled defences. Fast, mesmeric passing rhythms at angles you don’t expect. And as much as tiki-taka is derided, there is something thrillingly hypnotising about watching a team humiliate their opponents by denying them the ball.
At a time when football debate is often polarised around those who prefer free-flowing attack or well organised team units, this is one point which seems beyond doubt. When you consider the teams and players most people feel to be the greatest and most entertaining, invariably they tend to be a bit shorter than most.