Bayern v Chelsea – European Cup final preview

May 18, 2012

Probable starting line-ups

If Chelsea did an ‘Inter 2010′ in the semi-final against Barcelona, they need to repeat the trick here – Inter went onto beat Bayern in the final that year.

Jose Mourinho’s side played extremely defensively in the final two years ago, essentially continuing the strategy they’d used at the Nou Camp a few weeks earlier, despite the fact they were playing a much more attacking game in Serie A at the time. Will Chelsea do the same?

Broadly the same approach makes sense. No-one plays quite like Barcelona, but in terms of ball retention, Bayern are the closest thing. Barca lead the way in terms of average possession and pass completion rate across Europe’s major five leagues, but Bayern are second in both categories. Though they’ve always been a side with fine passers, they’ve become even more about retention since the final two years ago – then, they mixed possession play with direct play down the flanks from Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. Those two are still in the side, of course, but tend to find themselves trying to break down packed, deep defences more frequently.

Selection

Both sides are without key men through suspension. Jupp Heynckes is without defenders Holger Badstuber and David Alaba, plus holding midfielder Luiz Gustavo. The line-up shown above is highly probable, as when Bayern played their final league match of the season (against relegated Cologne, with the title out of reach), Heynckes went for that XI despite having Alaba and Badstuber – regular first-teamers – available. It seemed to be warm-up for this final.

That said, he does have options – two of them. The first would be to play Philipp Lahm at left-back instead of Diego Contento, bringing Rafinha into the side, though it’s difficult to predict Chelsea’s wingers to match full-backs against wingers they’d be suited to. The second potential surprise would be to play Daniel van Buyten – injured for a long spell this season – at centre-back, allowing Antoliy Tymoshchuk into his preferred position as a holding midfielder, and meaning Toni Kroos could move forward into the attacking midfield role.

Chelsea have John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Ramires and Raul Meireles all suspended. Assuming David Luiz and Gary Cahill are fit to start in the centre of defence, Roberto Di Matteo essentially has to pick between Michael Essien and Florent Malouda – albeit not as a straight choice in the same position. The thinking is this – in the league he’s generally played a 4-2-3-1, with Frank Lampard deep alongside John Obi Mikel, and Juan Mata as the number ten. Malouda and Salomon Kalou would be the wingers.

Chelsea's 4-5-1 against Barcelona was interesting when you look at their average positions - note both (a) the tightness of the three central midfielders and (b) the fact that Drogba's touches came in a deeper position than the two wingers, as his game involved linking play before the ball was played out wide

But against Barcelona Chelsea were more like a 4-3-3 (or 4-5-1, really) with three holding midfielders. That would mean Essien playing the Raul Meireles role as one of the three central midfielders, with Lampard possibly becoming the most advanced of the triangle. This would push Mata wide, where he played against Barcelona, probably in place of Malouda – who is a fitness doubt anyway. Fernando Torres and Daniel Sturridge are highly unlikely to start – Torres and Didier Drogba never start together, while the increased defensive awareness needed in Di Matteo’s system (compared to that of Andre Villas-Boas) means Sturridge has fallen out of favour dramatically.

General gameplans

There isn’t too much to say here. This is highly unlikely to be a possession battle – Bayern will dominate the ball, while Chelsea will focus upon organisation and counter-attacking quickly down the flanks. It’s difficult to see that Chelsea would be any better off by attempting to dominate the play. Around 60-65% Bayern possession is probable while the game is 0-0.

Battlegrounds

1. Schweinsteiger and Kroos

In Heynckes’ ideal world, he wouldn’t be fielding these two together – he’d have Gustavo anchoring the midfield, leaving Schweinsteiger to venture forward. This combination has only started together three times this season (once was that ‘test’ game with Cologne), and on paper it’s not quite a natural partnership. These are both playmakers, both passers, and while both are intelligent enough to make this work, there are questions.

First, which one will sit deeper? Or will they play as a true double pivot, like Schweinsteiger did with Sami Khedira at the World Cup, allowing each to go forward at different times? It will also be interesting to see how much they look to get beyond Muller.

The potential spanner in the works is Juan Mata – who might play as the number ten, or might play out wide and drift into central positions. Then there’s the further question of whether he drops back goalside of these two players if he’s the number ten, or whether he stays higher up and, like Wesley Sneijder two years ago, combines with the primary forward on the break.

However, the clear positive of the partnership is the increased passing ability. Retention will be better, but more crucially Bayern will possess two players able to slide intricate through balls into the attackers. Chelsea might need to instruct Lampard to press them, though this would obviously leave more space between the lines.

2. Muller positioning

The knock-on effect is that Thomas Muller is highly likely to start in the number ten position. Heynckes has gradually moved away from using him there in the past couple of months, using Kroos instead – he plays deeper and acts as a link player, whereas Muller is more of a forward. There’s a danger Bayern can become a broken team when Muller plays.

However, the last time Muller played high up in the Champions League, away at Marseille, he spent long periods of time drifting to the right of the pitch, where Arjen Robben was positioning. That could happen here, and just by the probable positions of Lampard and Mikel, he’s likely to get more space to the right of the pitch anyway. A trio of Muller, Robben and Lahm could be extremely dangerous.

On a less tactical note, Muller missed two golden chances in the 2010 final before Milito’s second goal, and will be desperate to have an impact here.

3. Chelsea defensive line

This is where Chelsea have to be careful. They could defend deep and narrow against Barcelona because Barcelona don’t have a natural number nine, nor do they like putting crosses into the box from wide positions. But this situation is different – first, Bayern do have a number nine in Mario Gomez. In combination with Chelsea missing both Terry and Ivanovic, his aerial power could be crucial and therefore Chelsea can’t drop too deep.

Second, Bayern have proper wingers on either side who will take advantage of being able to get up to full speed before taking on the full-backs. The caveat, of course, is that both Ribery and Robben play as inverted wingers and naturally want to come inside onto their stronger foot. Therefore, Chelsea will want to show them down the line, but not so much that they have time to cross – as both can do so, even with their weaker foot. It’s a complex equation for what should be a very simple problem – the basic conclusion is that Chelsea’s full-backs need to play well.

4. Drogba

Drogba is made for this game – as a cup final specialist, in a side defending deep and likely to play direct, and probably up against Tymoshchuk, not a natural centre-back. There’s something brilliantly unsubtle about Drogba’s game – whereas Chelsea spent months trying to supply Torres with the intricate, clever through-balls, now they can just lump the ball in Drogba’s general direction. That’s an exaggeration, and they won’t be hoofing it, but Drogba’s superb first-half strike against Tottenham in the FA Cup semi-final showed that this approach can work. Against Barcelona in the Nou Camp, Chelsea’s most frequent passing combination was Petr Cech to Drogba.

How can Bayern be more secure? Maybe Heynckes will want his full-backs being more cautious, only going forward one at a time in order to keep a 3 v 1 at the back, but ultra-direct play will probably take them out of the equation anyway. The probable solution is for Bayern to play with a high line – they’ll be slightly more confident about coping with Drogba’s pace than his aerial power, so will look to push him up away from goal.

5. Chelsea transitions

This is absolutely key. Di Matteo will have studied Dortmund’s 5-2 German Cup final victory over Bayern last weekend, and noted how efficient and dangerous they were on the break. The formula was simple – Dortmund’s attacking midfielder Shinji Kagawa make himself available for the out-ball, then the Dortmund wingers Kevin Grosskreutz and Jakub Blaszczykowski immediately sped past the Bayern full-backs, taking advantage of a moment’s hesistation from Lahm and Alaba when Bayern lost the ball. Quickly, 3 v 2 and 4 v 3 situations emerged on the break.

The absence of Ramires is a huge blow in this respect, but Malouda and Kalou have the discipline and energy required to form a second bank of four, then burst towards goal. But it’s important that Chelsea have a clear line of service to them – Lampard has been brilliant playing balls out to Ramires from deep in recent weeks and will need to do the same here, and if Mata plays as the number ten, he has to be intelligent with his movement like Kagawa was, moving deep into the channels and finding space, then laying the ball off quickly for the wingers speeding past him.

Perhaps there’s a wider context here. Real Madrid beat Barcelona to La Liga, with transition-based play overcoming tiki-taka. Dortmund’s victory over Bayern was something similar, as was Atletico’s win over Athletic in the Europa League final. Such results are hardly indicative of a seismic shift, but a win for Chelsea would be yet another victory for reactive football.


Bayern v Chelsea – European Cup final preview

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