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John Brewin profile picture  By John Brewin

Luis Enrique and Max Allegri show that pragmatic tactics can be successful

"They refused to play completely," groaned Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. Swansea City had beaten his team on Monday after a first genuine attack of the second half supplied Bafetimbi Gomis' winner.

"If we didn't play how did we get three points?" rebuffed Swansea manager Garry Monk with a knowing smile. Though Arsenal missed a glut of chances and luck had been ridden, a simple formula of sitting back and waiting for an opportunity to arrive had paid dividends.

It has been a week to suggest that the ebb and flow of top-level football eddies back towards the pragmatic approach. Monk's Swansea remain capable of the ultra-passing football which won admiration under Brendan Rodgers and Michael Laudrup, but a harder edge has been honed under Monk.

"There are times you have to be adaptable," explained Monk. "If people don't like that, it's not my problem." This was a logic that Chelsea's Jose Mourinho, once again ruling English football, would readily applaud.

The following night in Munich, Barcelona eased to the Champions League final in a style not completely removed from the Monk masterplan. On the sidelines, manager Pep Guardiola had staged a gala performance of his touchline floorshow, twisting himself in knots as he attempted to shape Bayern into pulling off the impossible. By half-time, he had unfurled himself enough to pat Lionel Messi on the head with the realisation that the mission had failed.

By then, Barca's felling blows, two goals from Neymar, had arrived by much the same route as that Gomis goal, via the counter. Barcelona no longer play with the idealistic possession-as-everything zeal that Guardiola enforced, and his Bayern regime have twice now been untangled by a far simpler game plan at the semifinal stage. Yet again he has failed to emulate Jupp Heynckes, the predecessor, who conquered Europe with far more streamlined and direct football.

Under Luis Enrique, Barcelona operate on the principle that getting Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez on the ball should be enough to win matches. "It was a game that was determined by our rival's need to take risks and attack," as the coach revealed in the aftermath of a 5-3 aggregate win.

With Xavi pensioned to the subs bench, there is less capability to suffocate opponents through jealously keeping opponents from touching the ball. A long pass is no longer an anomaly, it is now a potent weapon, while in defence, each set piece is managed carefully from the sidelines by Juan Carlos Unzue, the former goalkeeper who assists Enrique as a coach. Barcelona have meanwhile scored more goals (22 in La Liga this season) from set plays than in any season since 2008-09.

The denial of a Berlin Clasico came once Juventus allowed Real Madrid to punch themselves out, in search of a clincher the Spaniards could not find. And then, having scored through striker Alvaro Morata, defended Italian-style with centre-back Giorgio Chiellini leading doughty rear-guard efforts.

Real were driven to distraction and recrimination by an ordered opponent playing within a tight framework.

"Isco and [James] Rodriguez aren't particularly strong defensively, so I told my players: the more we push them towards their own goal, the better," said Juve coach Massimiliano Allegri in Madrid.

Allegri versus Enrique in the final may look a low-level billing for Berlin showpiece in this era of coaching superstars, but their progress to the final shared a clarity that too many of Europe's big beasts have recently mislaid.

Even Mourinho tripped himself up when trying to play too defensively against PSG in the last 16, before then finding his team unable to flip itself back into attack mode as the tie slipped away. In England, though, his system prevailed with ruthless efficiency, with a post-Christmas reduction of adventure complementing the pace-setting attack that preceded it, easing Chelsea to the title with little to halt them.

Those who have tinkered too often with their system have been suffering painful seasons. Somewhere in the leather-bound file that accompanies Louis van Gaal to the dug-out is an answer to Manchester United, but his frequent switching of formation led to a grating campaign, until 4-3-3 brought salvation when winning seven Premier League games in a row.

Even then, opponents cracked that code as too linear, and United lurched again. The season, and Champions League qualification, was rescued by a most binary strategy, one that would barely require a diagram in that LVG notepad. When it became clear last Saturday that Ashley Young had the beating of Crystal Palace's Joel Ward, the pressure point was pushed enough for Marouane Fellaini to head in a winner.

That denied Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers, a coach with pretensions to continental acclaim, but whose fastidious fiddling, his frequent "flipping of the triangle", causes confusion within his team. The sight of Raheem Sterling toiling at wing-back or Emre Can, playing what resembles a free role from full-back, suggest a wealth of ideas but a lack of answers. Both Liverpool and Manchester United's managers betray a lack of trust in their players when they fidget.

It has left them trailing in the wake of Chelsea, and Arsenal, too, who despite Monday's moans, have progressed in 2015-16 with 12 wins in 16 matches since Jan. 1 because Wenger found a formula in locking midfield down through Francis Coquelin and stuck to it.

Such simplicity has succeeded. This is a season for the pragmatist, rather than the high-minded types who relentlessly reshuffle.

John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.

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