Bayern Munich v Barcelona: tactical preview
The draw for the Champions League semi-finals produced two fascinating ties.
Germany and Spain are the leading two nations in European football at the moment – Italian football is going through a transition period, while the Premier League has declined suddenly, but not irreversibly, from the latter part of the last decade.
The ties are perfectly set up – one based around transitions, the other based around possession. 2011/12 champions against each other, and 2012/13 champions against each other.
This is the latter. Barcelona may not be European champions, but they remain the side to beat. Their performance in European competition over the past four years has been highly impressive – two European Cups interspersed with two semi-final defeats.
Barca’s two aggregate defeats – to Inter and Chelsea – came when Pep Guardiola’s side were unable to break down parked buses (both reduced to ten men) at the Camp Nou in the second leg. Inter coach Jose Mourinho famously claimed he didn’t want his side to have the ball, for fear it would drag his players up the pitch and concede space in behind. “We gave the ball away,” he said.
It’s hard to imagine Bayern will replicate that defensive approach throughout this tie. Because of the passing quality of Jupp Heynckes’ side, more than at any time in the previous five years, there’s a decent chance Barcelona will be outplayed at their own game in the European Cup.
It barely needs outlining precisely what ‘Barcelona’s game’ is after five years of dominance, but few other sides have been so determined to emphasise the importance of their philosophy. Recently the club posted a short article on their website boasting that they’ve now gone 300 consecutive games of possession dominance, a run stretching back to before Pep Guardiola took charge. They’ve helped popularise the concept of ‘possession battle’, while simultaneously ensuring that no proper battle actually occurs – they’re just too good at keeping the ball.
The article notes that Bayern are the closest challengers in this regard. In Europe’s major five leagues, Barcelona average 69.6% of possession, Bayern are next best on 63.6%. No-one else is on more than 58.9%.
Similarly, Barcelona’s pass completion rate is 89.7%, Bayern’s 87.4%, and no-one else above 86.1%.
Even before Pep Guardiola announced he was moving to Munich in the summer, Bayern had increasingly become based around ball retention. Their 2009/10 side, which reached the final and is still similar to the current starting XI, mixed good ball retention with a counter-attacking threat, but their progress to the final that season was more based around the latter. From the first game of the following season, the 1-0 win over Wolfsburg, their possession play was much more pronounced – it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Germany’s 1-0 defeat to Spain that summer in South Africa, a clear demonstration of proactive football getting the better of reactive football, contributed, considering how many Bayern players played for Germany, and how many Barcelona players played for Spain. Louis van Gaal was also clearly a major factor.
A common feature of matches between two passing sides is that the game doesn’t actually become about passing – it becomes about pressing. Passing sides understand the value of possession football, so as well as keeping the ball for long periods themselves, they try to disrupt the opposition’s play. When Barcelona have faced sides with comparable (if not equal) ball-playing ability – particularly Arsenal (the second time around once Arsenal had been stunned by Barcelona’s pressing in the initial meeting) and Villarreal (one of the best matches Barcelona have been involved in during the Guardiola/Vilanova reign) – pressing has been a major feature.
Barcelona have pressed less energetically under Vilanova than under Guardiola – they don’t win the ball back as quickly, which means their defence has come under more pressure this season. Absences at centre-back have been a constant issue, but Barcelona’s major problem – the lack of clean sheets – is partly because of their relative lack of proactive defensive work at the other end of the pitch. Whereas Barcelona’s front three used to press constantly until the 90th minute, now they stand off more. The advantage, of course, is that it’s less draining – and Barca haven’t suffered the dip in fitness levels that was evident in Guardiola’s final two seasons.
They’ll surely press more frantically in this match, and Vilanova will have been encouraged by how badly Bayern started in their second leg against Juventus, when Bastian Schweinsteiger became flustered by the surprisingly high tempo, and had a shocking first 30 minutes before gradually dominating once the tempo had calmed.
That was particularly odd given that Bayern pressed Juve so effectively in the first leg. However, the absence of both Mario Mandzukic (for two astonishingly small transgressions against Juve) and Toni Kroos (through injury) is a blow – they both press very well, and Bayern’s replacement forward – Mario Gomez or Claudio Pizarro – won’t bring Mandzukic’s energy. Bayern might have to sit deeper.
Either way, this is a crucial part of the game. From a starting point of passing, the game becomes about pressing, and then back to passing – which side can pass out of defence more comfortably, and get the ball into midfield.
That’s effectively the build-up to the main part of the game – the central midfield zone. Ideally, Heynckes would have got numbers into the centre of the pitch with Kroos dropping deep from the number ten position, as he did brilliantly against Real Madrid last year, and Thomas Muller moving inside from the right. That’s not possible, so instead, Muller will play at the top of the midfield, presumably with Arjen Robben playing on the right.
The only alternative is a midfield trio of Javi Martinez, Luis Gustavo and Bastian Schweinsteiger – that remains unlikely.
Muller doesn’t share Kroos’ intelligence in a positional sense, but he is tactically disciplined and hard-working. He might not contribute significantly to possession play, but he could prove very useful by replicating the role Ezequiel Lavezzi played against Sergio Busquets in the quarter-final – occupy Busquets when Barcelona have the ball, sprint in behind when possession is won.
That would leave Javi Martinez against Andres Iniesta, and Bastian Schweinsteiger against Xavi Hernandez. The latter duel is most important in deciding who gets the upper hand in terms of possession, but Martinez’s role is also very important against the side who tried to buy him last summer. It will be interesting to see how often Martinez and Busquets drop into the defence, allowing their sides to play out more easily through the opposition press.
Although Guardiola often used Iniesta in the forward three for big matches like this, trying to bring more ball retention ability to the side, it’s difficult to see Vilanova doing the same here because of the problems between Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta against Milan. Instead – assuming Lionel Messi is fit – he’ll probably play deeper than usual, almost as a number ten, to help overload Bayern.
Bayern front two v Barcelona defenders
This is about who copes better with unavailable players. Mandzukic and Kroos’ unavailability is a real shame for the tie as a whole, but Barcelona have a problem at centre-back with Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano out. Eric Abidal might not be risked considering his lack of playing time recently (although he’s often been thrown into matches without any problems since his health problems first emerged), and Marc Bartra seems the obvious option.
Bartra’s a decent young player, but Bayern will look to test him. Pizarro’s all-round game is better than Gomez’s, so he seems the best bet – although both scored twice at the weekend.
Barcelona front three v Bayern defenders
Messi’s position will cause Bayern’s centre-backs problems – in all probability, they’ll stand off and let Messi wander into deeper zones.
Vilanova’s selection of wide players will be interesting. Pedro, for his discipline and energy, is a sure starter – him up against Philipp Lahm makes sense, although David Alaba also needs to be tracked. The identity of Barca’s third forward is unknown – it could be Cristian Tello, Alexis Sanchez or David Villa. Sanchez seems the best option because of his pace in behind – he (or Villa) could take up a reasonably central role to occupy the centre-backs, although if Vilanova is being cautious and wants the Bayern full-backs pinned back, he might use Tello.
Despite attempting to compete in the centre of the pitch, Bayern might have some joy in wide positions. Assuming Franck Ribery and Robben start, they’ll look to exploit the space in behind Daniel Alves and Jordi Alba – although they must, of course, track them defensively.
It’s important to remember that despite their clever passers, Bayern still have pace and trickery on the flanks. Heynckes may decide a Kroos-less Bayern can’t quite win the midfield battle, and would be better with a more reactive approach than usual.
Bayern Munich v Barcelona: tactical preview