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Barcelona - Bayern Munich: Tactical Preview (UEFA Champions League)

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Can Quique Setién spring the surprise?

FC Barcelona v SSC Napoli - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

FC Barcelona go in as second favorites in their UEFA Champions League quarterfinals match against one of the big favorites in the tournament, Bayern Munich.

Based on betting odds, Bayern have a 59% chance to progress, while Barcelona have a 41% chance. These are not overwhelming odds, but they are pretty tilted given we are talking about a single-match elimination where anything can happen. Barcelona are roughly speaking, as much as an underdog here as Atalanta against Paris Saint-Germain.

Quique Setién led a successful, but unconvincing, display against Napoli in a 3-1 win. Despite rumors that he would go to a 3-5-2 with Riqui Puig from the start, the manager went with a more standard 4-3-1-2 formation, and no Puig at all, even off the bench.

Now, there is a rumor coming from the same source that Barcelona could field a 4-4-2 with Sergi Roberto and Frenkie de Jong joining Sergio Busquets and Arturo Vidal in the middle. Griezmann would be dropped in this case.

Setién used a 4-4-2 both against Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid, so it’s not totally out of left field. I mean, Barcelona won neither game but it’s not as if either performance was particularly bad. Against Real, they lost thanks primarily to a deflected shot by Vinícius, while against Atléti, there was a couple of highly contentious decisions that preserved the draw.

It’s no secret that Bayern rely on the pace of their fullbacks and wingers to attack you, as they progress quickly down the flanks and look to find either Thomas Müller to assist or Robert Lewandowski to supply the finishing touch. The 4-4-2 in theory gives more protection to the flanks than the 4-3-1-2, as instead of a band of three midfielders, we could see a bank of four.

Barcelona wouldn’t have a lot of pace to get in behind Bayern’s very high line, which is a way you can hurt them. If you can get by the first wave of pressing, there is space for a fast player to exploit, but Barcelona don’t have many.

Ousmane Dembélé does have pace, and could be fit, but hasn’t played in a very, very long time. Ansu Fati is an option. I wonder if Setién is considering fielding Alba as a midfielder, with Junior Firpo as a left-back. He did that for about two minutes against Napoli.

Barcelona got away with the win against the Italians because Messi was extraordinary in more or less single-handedly winning a penalty and scoring a goal, and then scoring off a set piece. The Catalans rode their luck defending, and Napoli came close to getting at least one goal on several occasions.

Bayern won’t be so forgiving, but perhaps Setién feels his only real shot is to protect his back four as much as possible and hope for more miracles from Messi, or perhaps a set piece goal, or perhaps a timely contribution from elsewhere.

Setién needs to be able to make more substitutions, as I feel only using his first on 84 minutes, and then the second only in stoppage time, and letting three go unused is just not proactive enough. Napoli switched around half its outfield players before Barcelona made a single change. With Ansu Fati, Riqui Puig, Griezmann, Firpo, Monchu, and Rakitić on the bench, there are enough players to make at least a few more switches to refresh the side. He can also vary the strategy or even the formation by putting in someone like Griezmann comes in.

You can try to nullify Bayern’s speed in attack by defending deeper, and Barcelona in a 4-4-2 wouldn’t be overwhelmed numerically on the flanks. With the ball though, there may be a lack of creativity to get a goal. There’s also every chance that you keep allowing Bayern chances to attack, and they can score via the super in-form Lewandowski or another route, even if it’s not a goal that’s created through sheer speed.

I can see Barcelona trying to keep it tight in the first half, hoping for an odd goal from a set piece or invention by Messi, and then play the second half either to preserve the score or, if they need to chase the game, throwing on Griezmann and maybe even Puig or Fati.

The 4-3-1-2 could overload the middle of the pitch, in theory, but it seems to leave the flanks open. Barcelona could also use a more straightforward 4-3-3, with two wingers giving protection to the fullbacks. But in practice, Barcelona really only have Fati who is a true winger. Messi doesn’t offer the team a lot of protection on the right. Griezmann isn’t really the right fit either.

Ultimately Barcelona’s approach to this game might not be a million miles away to how a top six team would go up against a league leader, which says a lot about where the two European giants are right now. These kinds of tactics aren’t always successful, and they might seem a bit antithetical to Barcelona’s style, but they do have their uses. It’s just strange that it’s Setién, of all people, who would be implementing this. This lineup, formation, and strategy, seems straight out of Ernesto Valverde’s book.