Barcelona 0-3 Bayern: Bayern untroubled at the back & consistently dangerous down the flanks

May 1, 2013

The starting line-ups

Bayern produced another highly impressive performance to qualify for the Champions League final with ease.

Tito Vilanova decided not to risk the half-fit Lionel Messi, so Cesc Fabregas played as the false nine. David Villa replaced Alexis Sanchez, while Alex Song was in for the injured Sergio Busquets, and Adriano for the suspended Jordi Alba.

Jupp Heynckes brought back Mario Mandzukic for Mario Gomez, and Daniel van Buyten played rather than Dante.

Bayern replicated last week’s second half performance – they pressed before retreating into a solid defensive shape, then counter-attacked expertly.

Bayern press

Heynckes ordered Bayern to press high up from the start, with Mandzukic and Thomas Muller both getting tight to the Barcelona centre-backs when Victor Valdes had the ball. Bayern’s focus was surely to keep a clean sheet, but they continued to defend proactively, preventing Barcelona from getting into a steady passing rhythm from the outset.

We’re accustomed to Barcelona’s patience in possession, but once they’d got around Bayern’s press, the away side quickly became compact and got men behind the ball, slowing Barca’s attacks. Their passing lacked intensity – Song wasn’t disastrous in the holding role, but he lacks Busquets’ positional discipline and understanding of how to let the play flow naturally through him, and up towards the creative players.

In fact, Barcelona’s most frequent passing combination was Marc Bartra to Gerard Pique – a move that happened 21 times. At Barca’s peak, the 2011 Champions League final, their most frequent passing combination was Xavi Hernandez to Andres Iniesta, 33 times. The ball spent too long at the back, and Barcelona never picked up the tempo and piled on the pressure on the Bayern defence.

Barcelona attacks

There were two vaguely interesting features of Barcelona’s play. First, Fabregas moved into deep positions and was rarely tracked by Bayern’s centre-backs – this offered another midfield passing option, although when he received the ball he lacked Messi’s urgency and rarely continued the momentum with a direct forward run.

Second, Alves pushed forward even higher than usual, with Villa gradually becoming increasingly central. This meant Barta moving out towards the right flank and covering a large amount of space – and the same applied to Pique in the centre, who was often forced to sweep up when Bayern runners got through.

Bayern defensive shape

The most impressive thing about Bayern was their solid defensive shape. There wasn’t quite the same physical presence from Javi Martinez and Bastian Schweinsteiger, and much more positional discipline. Still, Andres Iniesta once again seemed scared into a deeper zone than he’d usually occupy (when he popped up the other side of Martinez, he often made the wrong decision on the ball). Schweinsteiger was one yellow card away from missing the final, and yet still made more tackles than any other player.

Like last week, the defensive efforts of both Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben were highly commendable. Both dropped back and supported their full-backs, with Ribery – playing against the more dangerous full-back – getting through more defensive work. Alves was actually given space to cross a few times, but Bayern were content to defend narrow, and happy to deal with the deliveries into the box.

Bayern counter-attacks

Then, there were Bayern’s counter-attacks. With Robben allowed to stay higher up the pitch, he was almost always the out-ball, and had the game’s best chance when running in behind Adriano, getting around Barcelona’s offside trap by starting his run inside his own half. That summed up how high Barcelona were playing – and although Pique got back to stop Robben, it was an early warning sign.

In addition to Robben, Ribery and Thomas Muller, support came from deeper positions. Schweinsteiger charged forward a couple of times, as did right-back Philipp Lahm.

But the two wingers were the counter-attacking stars – the position of their dribbles sums it up perfectly: motor down the wings from deep, then cut inside towards goal.

Barca pressing?

It’s the standard strategy to break into Barcelona’s full-back positions, but Bayern had so many opportunities to do so because of Barcelona’s disjointed pressing. One obvious change from Barcelona under Vilanova is that they’ve pressed less than under Pep Guardiola, but here they did attempt to press higher up the pitch . However, while Barcelona’s sheer stamina in their pressing was frequently praised under Guardiola, less attention was played to the actual positioning and cohesion in the pressing – the player in possession wasn’t just closed down, all his other passing options were pressured too. Here, Barcelona’s ‘pressing’ seemed simply more like frantic chasing with other opponents left free.

That meant Bayern could continually work the ball forward into attacking zones, and break quickly at Barcelona’s defence. It was no surprise that Bayern’s three goals originated from the flanks – Robben stereotypically cut inside to curl the ball into the far corner with his left foot, while Ribery created the next two goals with bursts down the left touchline.

Final stages

The tie was barely alive in the first half, and well and truly finished after Robben’s first goal. The substitutions seemed almost irrelevant, but Vilanova moved Fabregas deeper, bringing on Sanchez for Xavi.

Heynckes’ sole objective was to protect players in danger of missing the final: Lahm, Schweinsteiger and Martinez were all replaced, as Bayern coasted to a comfortable victory.


Bayern must triumph at Wembley later this month before being crowned as a truly great side, but it’s difficult to remember such a flexible team capable of playing in so many different ways. Bayern’s physicality was crucial in the first hour of the first leg, then they became defensively disciplined and ruthless on the counter-attack for the remaining 120 minutes of the two-legged tie.

It’s most remarkable, of course, because their usual gameplan is about possession football and something close to the style of play Barcelona have popularised over the past few years. That was barely obvious throughout these two legs, as Bayern instead adapted to exploit Barca’s weak spots. It will be fascinating to see how they play in the final against Dortmund – do they continue this strategy, or revert to a possession-based approach against a side unable to match them in that respect?

This was an embarrassment for Barcelona – such a heavy defeat raises a number of questions about strategy, personnel and overall management. They lacked organisation in a number of respects, but while Vilanova has returned to the bench in the last few weeks, the long-term effect of the three-month period Barcelona spent without him shouldn’t be underestimated. Management is about more than instructing players immediately before, and during, individual matches, and any side’s season would suffer without their coach emphasising important principles day in, day out for such an extended period.

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