Manchester City 1-3 Bayern Munich: Bayern dominate midfield through numbers & pressing
Bayern Munich completely outplayed Manchester City for the vast majority of this contest.
Manuel Pellegrini somewhat surprisingly decided to use Micah Richards rather than Pablo Zabaleta at right-back, while Gael Clichy returned at left-back. David Silva was only considered fit enough for the bench – so it was Pellegrini’s usual midfield and attack.
Pep Guardiola named Thomas Muller as his main striker, with Mario Mandzukic only on the bench.
Bayern were superior to a staggering extent here, only force to withstand heavy pressure in the final 15 minutes.
It’s rare that the simple formation battle plays such a key part in a top-level European contest, but the blindingly obvious main feature of this game was Bayern’s advantage over City in the centre of the pitch.
The 4-4-2 has enjoyed something of a return to prominence so far this season, with both the Manchester derby and Madrid derby in the last ten days being 4-4-2 against 4-4-2, but in a match Pellegrini had acknowledged would see both sides trying to dominate possession, it was a huge surprise to see him use two forwards with no specific instructions for either to contribute defensively.
The relationship between City’s strikers has always been slightly confusing, even in the Roberto Mancini days. Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero is a slightly uneasy partnership, because it’s never entirely certain what Aguero’s role in the side is. Clearly a hugely talented individual, sometimes you wonder whether he’s happier playing just behind a main striker, or playing higher up and sprinting in behind. When he manages to combine the two roles in the same performance he can be unstoppable, but when things are going against his side, he can cause tactical problems.
This was a good example. If City were attempting to play two strikers against Bayern, there were two ways it could have proven a success. First, it could have worked if they managed to turn this into a high-tempo, fast and furious ‘English’ contest based around getting the ball forward quickly and taking advantage of Bayern’s lack of a spare man at the back. If this was going to be a possession battle, however, they needed to get an extra man into the centre of the pitch, which meant Aguero dropping onto Lahm and helping out in midfield.
But that didn’t remotely happen in the first half, with Aguero staying high up, and Lahm completely free between the lines. Again, the problem with Aguero was that his pace behind Bayern’s extremely high defensive line was City’s only real hope of creating a chance in the first half, so if anything moving Dzeko wide (and Nasri inside) would have been the logical solution – but playing a tall centre-forward out on the left is hardly ideal.
With a three-against-two in the centre of the pitch, Bayern inevitably dominated the ball. Lahm was constantly the free player sitting in front of the defence in an extremely deep holding midfield position, and a measure of Bayern’s intelligence was how he seemed like a centre-back rather than a central midfielder on the rare occasions Bayern came under pressure, helping form a 3 v 2 in the centre of defence. It’s the obvious comparison, but he really was playing the Sergio Busquets role.
Bayern full-backs forward
Whether by design or necessity, Samir Nasri was dragged inside from the left flank to help Yaya Toure and Fernandinho in the centre of the pitch. This almost caused more problems, however – he wasn’t able to significantly help in the middle, and his narrowness meant Rafinha had space to get forward. Bayern’s out-ball in the first 25 minutes was always a switch across to the Brazilian right-back, who overlapped when Arjen Robben was in a narrow position, and moved more centrally when the Dutchman was wide.
On the other flank, Bayern’s possession dominance meant David Alaba caused more problems for Jesus Navas than vice-versa, putting in a dangerous cross for Robben after three minutes. Navas was often unable to halt Alaba’s forward runs, and the Austrian’s constant presence high up the pitch allowed Franck Ribery to collect the ball in inside-left positions, including for the opening goal. The two wingers did their usual thing – cut inside and shoot.
Another key part of the away side’s performance was their intense pressing. Right from the Manchester City kick-off, Thomas Muller closed down the centre-backs, with Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger backing up in the midfield zone. Kroos won possession almost as effectively as he retained it.
The pressing resulted in Bayern playing a very aggressive defensive line, and after only 25 seconds City managed to force Manuel Neuer to sweep off his line and thump a clearance into the stands, following a simple ball over the Bayern defence.
However, City weren’t able to cause problems consistently in this respect, and Bayern’s pressing was extremely successful – they forced the game to be played in the opposition half. Muller’s energy was vital, leading the closing down from the front, but Kroos was also excellent at getting into tackles in advanced positions – notable throughout the first half, but most decisive for the third goal, scored by Robben after City won the ball quickly.
As for Muller, his role wasn’t necessarily that of a false nine. He was more of a complete centre-forward – winning aerial duels, helping with link-up play in deeper zones, and scoring Bayern’s second with a run from a right-sided position, easing past the ball-watching Clichy. Guardiola has put his stamp on this side, but Muller was more like a 2012/13 Mandzukic than a 2010/11 Messi.
At half-time Pellegrini chose not to use any substitutes, and instead simply asked Aguero to watch Lahm more frequently, with City also pressing high up the pitch more. With such a minor (and logical) alteration in tactics, however, one wonders why Pellegrini couldn’t have shouted across instructions midway through the first half, rather than played on with such a flat 4-4-2 for such a long period.
But the key to Bayern’s dominance in Europe last year was their flexibility – they could be ball hoarders when needed, counter-attackers when needed and physical bullies when needed. Here, having tiki-takaed their way around City in the first half, they scored a pair of goals that involved attacking much more directly: the second was a simple Dante lob over the top of the defence, converted by Muller beating the (terrible) offside trap. The third involved Kroos winning the ball on the halfway line and giving it to Robben, who dribbled and then finished on his right (!) foot. That was basically game over.
Arsenal v Barca comparison
In terms of the pattern – if not the result – this game was amazingly similar to previous occasion Guardiola had come to England in the Champions League, Barcelona’s 2-2 draw with Arsenal in early 2010.
On that day, Barca were supreme in the first half hour because of their brilliant pressing – they closed down with incredible energy and ensured the entire game was played in the opposition half. Arsenal didn’t know how to cope, with Cesc Fabregas unsure whether to press the opposition centre-backs or help out in midfield. Somehow, Barca didn’t take the lead by half-time.
In the second half, Arsenal got the idea and started pressing – but conceded too much space in behind their defence. Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored a couple of goals following long passes over the top from his own centre-backs. But Barca’s early pressing meat they were exhausted by 70 minutes, and Arsenal were able to dominate through the fresh legs of their subs, particularly Theo Walcott.
Almost exactly the same thing happened to Guardiola’s side here – the early dominance because of pressing, the shift to a direct form of attacking after the break for two quickfire goals…and then the late collapse.
Perhaps Bayern switched off at 3-0 up, but this is a side who were capable of dominating possession easily in the first half – there’s no reason they would have wanted to concede such pressure late on.
Pellegrini eventually moved to more of a 4-2-3-1, with James Milner on the left, David Silva as the number ten, and Alvaro Negredo upfront. All three were crucial in City’s mini-comeback late on – Milner caused Rafinha problems and had City’s first shot on target, forcing a fine Manuel Neuer save, Silva provided creativity and ball-playing ability from between the lines, while Negredo scored a fine goal on the turn, and had another chance later on.
Jerome Boateng was dismissed for cynically bringing down Yaya Toure, with Silva hitting the bar from the free-kick. Again, this was somewhat reminiscent of that Barcelona 2-2 Arsenal game, when Carles Puyol was dismissed in the final five minutes for bringing down Fabregas, who converted the subsequent penalty.
City’s late surge was a relatively minor event in the grand scheme of things, but it hinted that Bayern could be vulnerable late on, drained because of their heavy pressing.
Put simply, City and Pellegrini appeared extremely naive here, with their two strikers not contributing anything defensively in the first half. This meant Bayern had the run of the midfield, and when Nasri was sucked inside they had space to exploit down the right, too.
Bayern’s pressing was also crucial in their dominance – they won the ball high up, denying City the opportunity to put together passing moves, or knock the ball in behind the Bayern defence.
Pellegrini explained his lack of changes after the game. “I think we were trying to play in a different way – I think that they had possession of the ball and I don’t think we can make the change to [get] 5% [more] of possession – David Silva was just maximum for 20-25 minutes, when he went in, we had more possession.”
But that suggests he had no other options. Milner could have been introduced earlier with Nasri moving inside to help in the midfield battle, while Javi Garcia was another option – Toure could have been moved higher. Bayern are a fine side, but City shouldn’t have been outplayed so conclusively.
Manchester City 1-3 Bayern Munich: Bayern dominate midfield through numbers & pressing