Bayern Munich 0-4 Real Madrid: Real go ahead through set-pieces, ensure thrashing with counter-attacks

April 30, 2014

The starting line-ups

Real Madrid produced a remarkable performance at the home of the European Champions to progress to the final.

Pep Guardiola named a more adventurous team than in the first leg, playing Thomas Muller at the top of the midfield, with the knock-on effect that Philipp Lahm was moved to right-back.

Carlo Ancelotti made only one change – Gareth Bale was fit to start on the right, so Angel Di Maria swapped sides and Isco dropped out.

This game was over before half-time, with Real’s gameplan working brilliantly.

Clash of styles

Possession play against counter-attack, then, although a slightly confusing game in terms of identity – because it’s the German side playing pure possession football, and the Spanish side showcasing reactive play.

The style was similar to the first leg, albeit more extreme. That isn’t to say that Bayern were more concentrated on possession play – indeed, they started this match by moving the ball forward quicker, and the use of Muller (rather than a third midfielder in that role) meant they had more players high up the pitch, in goalscoring positions.

But, in a way, that was what made it more extreme – Bayern had another player higher up the pitch, and this allowed Real opportunities to counter-attack through Bayern’s side easily. And while the possession play was less cautious, this meant Bayern’s moves broke down more, they conceded possession more, and Real could break more.

With Bale in the side, Real had an extra counter-attacking weapon – and never before has their counter-attacking play been so devastating against a top side.

Bayern possession play

Bayern’s passing started very quick, with Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben fed whenever possible, and both were allowed to carry the ball forward at speed – something that rarely happened in the first leg. Muller offered another option upfront – he made some good runs into the channels while Mario Mandzukic stayed in central positions, and overall there was certainly more variety to Bayern’s attacks.

The lack of penetration remained, however, but the greater problem was that Bayern were very poor at defensive transitions. At Barcelona, Guardiola’s players were excellent at pressing as soon as they lost possession, partly because they covered space so evenly, and therefore prevented the opposition from bursting into an obvious gap on the break.

These concepts are much less obvious in this Bayern side – here, Real had time to knock an intelligent first ball out of defence, and their attacking players were allowed to receive the ball in pockets of space, free from any opposition pressure.

Real defensive work

Rather than excessively criticise Bayern’s bluntness, though, it’s worth outlining what an extraordinary defensive effort this has been from Real Madrid – keeping two clean sheets against a Bayern side packed with genuine attacking superstars.

Real’s main weakness in recent seasons, especially against ball players, has been the tendency of Sergio Ramos and Pepe to be drawn out of the backline, leaving gaps in the defence and diving into rash tackles. Ramos made one rather risky challenge near the corner flag considering he was a booking away from missing the final, but neither player was ever tempted up the pitch to close down Muller or Mandzukic between the lines.


That was primarily because Real minimised the space there so well, which is remarkable considering they’re using two pure technicians in the midfield zone, combined with two wide players who naturally want to attack. On paper, Luka Modric and Xabi Alonso can surely only work together with a holding midfielder behind, or perhaps an energetic, powerful shuttler alongside.

No – instead Ancelotti has managed to make them extremely disciplined, and the midfield quartet as a whole played extremely deep throughout this game, conceding space in front, but denying any between the lines. Neither Modric nor Alonso are natural tacklers – the latter would have been better off remembering that, considering he’ll now miss the final after collecting an unnecessary booking – but their positional play is excellent, and obvious bonus is that when they win the ball, they distribute it brilliantly into attack.


Real didn’t go ahead through counter-attacking, though, they went ahead through two set-pieces – both headed in by Ramos. The value of going ahead early when playing a counter-attacking gameplan has been outlined repeatedly by Liverpool this season – most obviously against Everton and Arsenal – because it draws the opposition onto you in a bid to fight back, and leaves space to attack into. If the opposition are reluctant to concede space for you to break into (which wasn’t necessarily the case here) being excellent at set-pieces is very useful.

The goals themselves, though, were just about good delivery and poor marking. In fact, it’s interesting that Bayern lost this game 4-0 in the exact way they won last year’s semi-final against Barcelona 4-0 – where set-piece power proved crucial.


Then, of course, there were the counter-attacks. Bayern’s main problem was that Real were leaving two men up the pitch, something Bayern have struggled against throughout the knockout stage – from Mesut Ozil moving forward to  join Yaya Sanogo and break through the defence in the opening stages at the Emirates, to Danny Welbeck moving upfront ahead of Wayne Rooney in the quarter-final.

But Real boast players of a better quality, and in particular the world’s best counter-attacker. This was reminiscent of Ronaldo’s performance for Portugal against Sweden late last year – able to stay high up the pitch, break two-on-two along with a selfless central striker, and put the game beyond the opposition.

He was joined by both Di Maria and Bale on the break, too, with Di Maria overlapping well in the early stages (reminiscent of Fabio Coentrao’s movement for the only goal of the first leg) and Bale providing similar qualities to Ronaldo from the opposite side, from a deeper role.

The Bayern centre-backs played high up the pitch, forcing Manuel Neuer to continually sweep up behind – and he was tempted into two mistakes when a long way out of his box, presenting both Bale and Ronaldo with an open goal from long-range, although neither found the target.

Real’s interplay for their third goal – Benzema, to Bale, to Ronaldo – was brilliantly selfless, and a perfect example of counter-attacking ruthlessness. It was now 0-3, which ended the contest – Bayern now needed five goals.

Guardiola made changes to get back into the game, although his half-time change was removing his centre-forward for holding midfielder Javi Martinez – a sign the defence needed protection, and a rare example of damage limitation from a proudly attack-minded manager.


This is one of the most shocking results in recent European Cup history – the reigning champions being battered 4-0 on their own ground. The manner of the victory was plainly obvious – Real went ahead through set-pieces, then counter-attacked, overcoming Bayern’s technical quality with physical power and pace. It’s something this Bayern side was never vulnerable to last season, however.

It arguably qualifies as the most impressive victory of Ancelotti’s distinguished career. Bale and Ronaldo will get the praise, but there’s no great managerial skill in getting those players to counter-attack speedily – Ancelotti’s greater achievement is making the Alonso-Modric combination work defensively.

Guardiola’s philosophy doesn’t require a complete re-think, but he probably needs to put his stamp upon the side in terms of personnel. With Thiago injured and Mario Gotze only on the bench, this XI was basically Jupp Heynckes’ side playing football that doesn’t entirely suit their strengths – last season they mixed possession football with more direct attacking when required. Aside from a promising opening here, Bayern were simply too slow with their passing and lack the individual magic or the cohesive passing and movement to unlock defences.

This individual result doesn’t signify the death of tiki-taka, but as part of a wider picture it’s clear that possession football has become less celebrated, less widespread, and less dominant. But not necessarily less effective – as ever, that depends upon the implementation of the approach, rather than whether it’s being used.

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