"Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past..."
Barcelona and Bayern Munich will lineup this week for a mouth-watering semifinal showdown in the Champion’s League. The narratives are rife and the squads are impressive, with many pundits giving both teams coin flip odds. Both sides have been incredibly impressive this calendar year, but have sputtered in matches. This preview will attempt to analyze Bayern’s biggest losses of the year, why and how they lost, and how Barcelona can take advantage. Let’s get started.
30 Jan, 2015 – Wolfsburg 4 – 1 Bayern
Besides two mostly meaningless matches (the German Super Cup in August and a Champion’s League group stage match after they had won the group), Bayern did not lose a match at the beginning of the 2014 season. As the calendar turned to 2015 chinks in the armor appeared, yet Wolfsburg’s thrashing of them in late January was a shock to most fans. The four goals Bayern conceded were equal to the four goals scored against them TOTAL in the Bundesliga to that point. So, how did Wolfsburg do it?
In the same way that Busquets is Barca’s "metronome", Xabi Alonso’s ability to do the same for Bayern was shut down. Just as Atletico often send their strikers to harass Barca’s pivot, Das Bost and Kevin De Bruyne did everything they could to make Xabi uncomfortable, and it stunted Bayern’s build up play. Many clubs play deep against Bayern so they aren’t caught out of position in the back, but Wolfsburg made a smart move by cutting off the attack at its source. Xabi can pass brilliantly, but lacks the ball skills and mobility to get out of tight situations. Wolfsburg kept great defensive shape, did not allow Alonso any space, and frustrated Bayern into mistakes that turned into counter attacks.
While Alonso got the forwards’ attention, the midfielders mostly played tight man marking, and Wolfsburg allowed Bayern’s defenders more space. It resulted in several diagonal balls played long, and the forwards never really got service. Lewandowski dropped back so he could receive the ball more easily, but he was also man marked by one center back while the other freelanced, looking for other Bayern players coming into the box. It left some holes on the flanks, but surprisingly Bayern never took advantage.
When Wolfsburg got the ball they used short passing to avoid the press, and when there was space they looked to play long, through balls. Lahm could not play in this match and Rode had a rough night at RB. Same for Bernat on the other side. Alonso could not contribute as much as needed defensively, as Wolfsburg pushed as many players forward and as quickly as possible when they received the ball with an opportunity to counter. Bayern adjusted and moved more players into the middle of the pitch, pushing up the wing backs to provide width, using a three man defensive line and having Muller and Robben run towards the goal from wide positions. It helped avoid the press and reliance on Xabi to get the ball forward. On the other hand, it left gaps then opened Bayern up to simple forward passes. De Bruyne scored a goal when a long pass from the back found him behind Bayern’s three man defense. He was only onside because he was still in his team’s half of the field. Another goal from de Bruyne on another forward pass and the match was well over.
15 April, 2015 FC Porto 3 – 1 Bayern
This match was one of the biggest shocks of this season’s Champions League, not just because an overwhelming favorite lost, but in the manner in which it happened. Pep Guardiola, a manager whose tactics heavily include the use of pressing, saw his squad thoroughly beaten with intelligent pressing. I refer to it as "intelligent pressing" because it was not simply running and chasing the ball, but pressing in certain moments and situations. Porto’s attackers stayed back near Xabi Alonso and would often be the players to initiate the press. The highest players on the pitch, Queresma and Martinez, would decide to press the defense when they saw fit, with the rest of the midfielders following suit. In theory, they were able to reap the benefits of pressing without running out of breath because their attackers were patient, their midfield stayed mostly compact in the center of the pitch, and when either forward decided it was a good moment to attack the rest of the team would follow suit immediately.
Martinez charged Alonso deep in his own half, dispossessed him, and then won the penalty when Neuer brought him down. Quaresma did something similar to Boateng. The first presser won possession on each occasion. The intended effects of pressing that Guardiola knows so well were on display in ruthless, efficient fashion.
When Bayern moved the ball Porto kept their midfield organized and made life difficult. Casemiro would move up to mark Thiago whenever Hector Herrera was pressing higher up the field. They had a plan to cut off the Bayern midfield, or at the very least make it dangerous to navigate, and executed it with precision. Casemeiro’s booking was a small price to pay for limiting Thiago’s access to the ball and space in general. Further, Yacine Brahimi sat deeper on the left wing than normal when Bayern had the ball. Brahimi is a winger and not the strongest defender, but his presence alone limited space for Lahm to attack from midfield toward the right flank. His ball skills and passing were also key in moving the ball from the back to avoid the Bayern press.
Porto had no problem letting Bayern dominate the wings, as they were without Robben and Ribbery. As the game went on and they opened up a lead, they started playing more reactively, chasing Bayerns players, and opening up the center of the pitch. They tried to play between styles, proactive and reactive, and were getting hurt because of it. However, even in scoring Bayern were lucky to avoid the press. Bernat and Rafinha made shaky passes from the back to avoid pressure and somehow Boateng found Thiago for an easy cross to tap-in. It was a play that could have just as easily ended with Neuer once again facing an attacker one on one.
Porto’s intelligent presses and pace were making the entire defense unsure and panicky, as the pace and energy were too much for slower defenders like Dante and Alonso. Boateng, though more athletic, still lacks some of the intangible skills such as positioning, movement, etc. He badly misjudged a long ball to Martinez and Porto were through on a clear cut chance that they once again converted.
Porto basically stuck to the plan and the match ended 3-1. Guardiola took out Gotze for Rode, which gave Bayern more presence in the middle of the pitch, but limited their attacking options. Badstuber also came in for Alonso. Boateng became the holding midfielder, but nothing ever came of it. Otherwise, Muller started as a strike partner to Lewandowski and was, as he has been in this position, ineffective. Bayern looked to have too many central players and not enough wide options, with the obvious losses of Robben and Ribery being felt keenly. Aside from the injuries, a lot of credit has to be given for planning and executing a similar strategy that Real Madrid did when they beat Bayern in last years’ Champions League.
Of course, Bayern also won many games in spectacular fashion, as well. There is no "blueprint", and if there is, you have to be pretty darn good to execute it. However, no match exists in a vacuum, and certain issues like fatigue and injury will creep up. Given the current scenario, what can Barcelona learn from these matches?
Bayern’s Lack of Width
As we know, Bayern’s two best players will not play in this match. On top of that, both of these players make up a majority of the clubs wide, attacking options. Muller and Gotze are serviceable, but don’t belong on the flank. When Wolfsburg and Porto ignored the wings they were not hurt in these matches. Of course, for the second leg of the Porto tie Pep had Lahm going from the center of the pitch to the right flank and it worked wonders as he sent cross after cross into the box. That being said, both of Porto’s fullbacks did not play and this was a huge advantage to Bayern in the second leg. Barcelona can ignore the wings to some degree because the lack of Ribery and Robben makes all the difference. However, they will have to do certain things well to avoid getting exposed by players like Lahm who can play centrally or wide, or move between both.
In both matches these clubs were able to stop Bayern’s attack before it started by harassing the pivot and generally pressing defenders into sloppy mistakes. Barca’s active forwards will have to play defense high up the field to force Bayern into rushed passes and stop them from getting rhythm and continuity. Further, it should be integral that Messi drops back either on the right wing or the center of the pitch to receive the ball in midfield. Much as Brahimi did, having a highly skilled ball player dropping back will help avoid the Bayern press and get the ball upfield. Messi has the added awesomeness of being able to pick out long through balls to two of the best attacking players in the world from this position, something he has excelled at this year. No one knows what Pep will do, but it looks like a back line of Bernat, Rafinha, Boateng and Benatia will start. Bernat and Rafinha can be harassed into mistakes, Benatia is coming off a long term injury, and while Boateng is a dynamo, he makes positional mistakes that can lead to openings. The forwards must press to make life hard for Bayern’s defense.
Wolfsburg played their match perfectly. When they received the ball in tight spaces they played quick, short pass possession football, and when things opened up they played long through balls. It’s easier said than done, but if any team can do this it is Barca, who have shown a penchant for playing both styles. Pep will adapt throughout the match and Barca will have to show intelligence and flexibility, as well. Barcelona will want to open Bayern up to quick strike attacks in which they are most vulnerable looking down the triple barrel of MSN, but will also need to utilize one touch, quick passing.
On the last point, the midfield will play a big part in this match. As I said before, a majority of Bayern’s players are centrally minded. Bayern will happily concede the wings if they can boss midfield. Rakitic, Busi, and Iniesta should be a good combination. Iniesta and Rakitic have played more defensively this year than in the past, so they should be able to drop deeper when needed. The midfield needs to stay compact, maintain their line, and harass players when it makes sense. They can’t start chasing shadows if Bayern is zipping the ball around. This will be key because it is the one area where I feel Bayern can really take control.
This is touched on in the other sections, but I believe that pressing will be a key to the game. Not in the sense of Manchester United chasing ghosts like in that Champions League final, but intelligent pressing as Porto was able to achieve, starting with the forwards. The best offense will be to cut off Bayern’s ability to comfortably move the ball out of the back and specifically upfield to midfielders like Thiago. Bayern was susceptible to Porto’s press because they did not play another team that could do it so well, even though it is a large part of German football in general. Bayern haven’t played a club as good as Barcelona this year, so perhaps we can accomplish the same feat. I don’t expect Pep not to account for this, however.
Which leads us to the defensive considerations. Much like Casemiro marked Thiago and wouldn’t allow him service, our defense should be a mixture of zone and man marking, with an emphasis on stopping Xabi from getting the ball forward and Thiago/Gotze/Muller from receiving it in space. Lewandowski also needs to be shadowed if he drops deep to receive the ball. Pique could serve as a first defensive roadblock while Mascherano uses his speed and tackling ability to track down anyone making forward runs. I’ll discuss the fullbacks and striker’s contribution in a moment.
And lest we forget, Bayern is very, very hurt. Even in some of these losses, as well as other lackluster games they won or drew, Bayern played admirably and Pep coached well considering all of the injuries. This match won’t be much different, with Ribery and Robben definitely out. As the defense faces issues with getting the ball forward and not being made fools by pressing strikers, the most talented ball player and athlete, David Alaba, will not play. Further, Lewandowski is scheduled to play, but how effective can he be? His main attribute is being a "target man", the kind of player Bayern lacks otherwise. He can be a hugely disruptive force in the box, but what if he is coming off serious head injuries and doesn’t have the requisite physicality back yet? It will almost hurt Bayern more to have him in the match if this is the case, though he could be used as a decoy. Muller has shown that he cannot play as a center forward as competently as a raudmueter. Lewandowski will be a big part of the plan because of this, and it will be interesting to see how he and Pep cope with the injury. Regardless, Bayern’s injury concerns are very real not only because some of the squad’s best players are affected, but also because it limits one of Pep’s best attributes, his lineup flexibility.
So while we sit here and analyze why Bayern could lose, are we forgetting Barca’s flaws? Barca’s two losses this calendar year, as well as their draw with Sevilla and sloppy win over Valencia, have also shown certain weaknesses. For the most part, we’ve lost when it appears we show a lack of urgency. It’s not as easy to say, Barcelona wins when they try, but in losses to Malaga and Real Sociedad it looked like the club lacked impetus. However, they do lose in similar ways, showing how they can be beat. This mostly involves out muscling the midfield and choking off the forwards, and scoring with quick counters while Barca has men committed forward. In general, Messi should be dropping back to link attack, but even more so will it become necessary in this match. Another concern will be defending the flanks. Messi or Neymar will not be expected to defend, but a deeper presence may help in general. Bayern will likely concede the flanks and look for openings, as Messi is unlikely to track back too far and the fullbacks are typically bombing forward. Busquets cannot deputize both sides of the field while also staying close to Thiago, etc. Rakitic will need to be physical in the midfield and track back, as well. Alba and Mathieu may both miss this match, in which case it is likely that Adriano will play leftback. He should stay further back, watch out for Lahm making runs to the touchline when possession changes. His lack of offensive ability means he should be stationed to stop who is now Bayern’s best wide player. Alves can’t neglect his defensive duties, either. The wings will be open, but if we get too greedy Bayern will definitely fill the space we leave behind.
Bayern are a world class team, and when fully healthy sit along Real Madrid and Barcelona as true giants of the sport. Even when injured, they have a deep player pool and one of the strongest managers in the world. The injuries will help greatly, but Barcelona still have roughly a 50/50 chance of emerging victorious through the tie. Pep will manage very carefully and always remember he gets another match in Munich. It is hard to say what tactics Lucho should use because Pep could theoretically do something no one expects like have Bayern park the proverbial bus. Regardless, Barcelona has the clear advantage in the first leg. They have shown the flexibility necessary to play a team like Bayern, and when they seem determined there is very little that can stop them. Both of these teams are attack minded, but in the end Barcelona’s forwards are far superior to Bayern’s defense , while Barcelona’s defense should be able to slow down the injured Bayern attack. However, this club cannot be underestimated in any way shape or form. They may have lost 3-1 to Porto, but they also won the tie 7-4, and not only can Barcelona not afford to allow easy openings in the first leg, they have to be ready to strategize over two matches. We’ve waited all year for these matches, now lets hope the team claims the titles they deserve.
Visca El Barca! Visca L’Espectacle!