Champions League Roundup: the Bundesliga in the Round of 16, Leg 1

Our favorite football league came out at .500 during the first leg of the Champion League’s round of 16. Two wins, thanks to Bayern and Dortmund. And two (UGLY!) losses, curses be upon Leverkusen and Schalke. However, it wasn’t like we were expecting Leverkusen (losing 0-4 against Paris Saint-Germain) and Schalke (losing 1-6 against Real Madrid) to win their matches, yet we weren’t expecting two utter debacles in these matches. Bayern’s win (against Arsenal) was mostly expected, while Dortmund surprised a bit – although favored – with a convincing win at Zenit St. Petersburg.

Whether deserved or not, Leverkusen and Schalke’s losses became collateral damage as the rest of Europe whispering about how wimpy the Bundesliga is after all, and – gasp! – that perhaps Bayern’s impressive run is really not impressive in a league of cream puffs. Considering where matters stood during the all-Deutsch Champions League final a year ago (as Europe quaked in fear of German fußball clubs and its vaunted youth system!), it’s remarkable to observe the how resoundingly the narrative  flips around. Because, you know, my gawd imagine if Man City or Arsenal played in the Bundesliga? I mean, geez, they’d clean up and run up records as impressive as Bayern, right? Right. Sure.

I’m not not one to toss the baby out with the “small sample size” bath water, as we are so often tempted to do in a sport as chaotic as football. However, I can’t deny that Leverkusen and Schalke looked totally out-classed and utterly out of their depth during this disastrous first leg.  But – I maintain – it’s only a single match for either side, and while I don’t expect either Leverkusen or Schalke to crash miraculously into the round of 8, I am certainly not willing to lament about the Bundesliga being a big bag of Bayern, Dortmund, and 16 cream puffs. So let’s be smarter than embracing hasty generalizations. Leverkusen and Schalke aren’t suddenly rubbish.

Bayer 04 Leverkusen 0 – 4 Paris Saint-Germain

We already know that PSG’s Matuidi scored the opener at 3′. Leverkusen never really recovered, and PSG sealed the deal with a couple more goals before halftime; the first was a Zlatan penalty after a foul in the box, while the 2nd was a hallmark Zlatan shot from Mt. Olympus, built on a lovely 7-pass sequence:

Zlatan Ibrahimovic 2nd goal against Leverkusen passing sequence
PSG string together a lovely 7-pass sequence, capped off by a Zlatan piece of art. (Courtesy of Squawka.com)

After Matuidi’s opening goal, Leverkusen seemed – briefly – to still be in the game, yet couldn’t generate meaningful scoring chances. The penalty given at 39′ seemed to break die Werkself, as the rest of the match became a mere formality until the final whistle with Leverkusen passively accepting their fate.

While Leverkusen looked horrible according to the “eyeball test,” it’s difficult to locate hard evidence about what exactly went wrong. For example, it wasn’t as if Leverkusen couldn’t move the ball into the final 3rd or even create shots. They did in a rate similar to PSG. However, Leverkusen rarely seemed dangerous during these attempts, which leads me to wonder how much Leverkusen’s play was hampered by PSG’s ability to dictate the direction and pacing of play through the midfield – a part of the pitch in which Thiago Motta was especially effective; e.g. take a look at his most frequently passing combination to Verratti, a combo that thatches across the midfield:

Thiaho Motta passes to Veratti (PSG)
Motta and Veratti play keep away in the midfield. (Courtesy of FourFourTwo.com)

Reciprocally, Veratti was nearly equally as controlling in the midfield with his passing to Motta. All match, Leverkusen were unable to play through the middle, which could have hampered the quality of their attacking chances, thanks to a space restriction.

Finally, I can’t help but wonder if Leverkusen was also just a bit unlucky during this forgettable match. For example, usually dominate in aerial challenges, especially in the box thanks to Kießling’s height, Leverkusen were flat against PSG (look for the red oval):

Bayer Leverkusen fail with aerial challenges in the box against PSG

A 35% success rate on aerial challenges certainly won’t cut it for Leverkusen, given how much they rely physicality to create chances.

In all, a humiliatingly meek performance from Leverkusen in front their home supporters. If you see Kießling, give the lad a cuddle. He needs one.

Arsenal FC 0 – 2 Bayern Munich

My “picture-is-a-thousand-words, blah blah blah” moment for this article:

Bayern Munich dominant passing vs Arsenal in Champions League play
For Bayern, the pitch is all a canvas of passing triangles, vectors, and cross-hatching. (Courtesy of FourFourTwo.com)

It’s no secret that Pep’s Bayern are currently Europe’s premier passing side, but holy hell! Bayern’s passing density in Arsenal’s half of the pitch is absolutely staggering. Here’s the thing: even on a flat day, Bayern will still get their goals with this kind of passing activity  – it’s a sort of insurance policy. In particular Thiago, but especially Toni Kroos, were magnificent; the latter being the passing fulcrum in Arsenal’s half:

Toni Kroos passing chalkboard against Arsenal
Kroos runs the show. (Courtest of FourFourTwo.com)

Don’t become desensitized by this brilliance! Observe that Kroos only misplaced 5 passes. 5 PASSES. And he’s not trickling out tippy-tappy ‘lil passes either. As you can see, Kroos’ passes mostly cut large swaths across the pitch. Oh, and Kroos also scored a goal. He’s man of the match, easily. Think about it, are there any other sides in the world who can string together this many passes in/around the box, then finish the whole thing off with a howler goal? Look:

Toni Kroos passing sequence goal against Arsenal
Kroos’ opener goal is built on triangles and intricacy. (Courtesy of Squawka.com)

Despite my high praise, Bayern certainly didn’t look dominant to the naked eye during this match. For example, Arsenal was able to disrupt Bayern’s possession with heavy pressure during the opening 20 minutes. If I dare say, I wonder if Lahm returning to rightback was partially to blame for this disruption? Thiago alone in the defensive midfield seems quite vulnerable during bouts of intense defensive pressure.

However, as Arsenal lost running steam, Bayern established a smothering passing rhythm that enervated Arsenal – and the home supporters at Emirates. Kroos’ opener goal at 54′ thus seemed long overdue. Nonetheless, Arsenal rallied as the 2nd half wore on, creating attacking chances. Indeed, if Twitter was any indication during this phase, the prediction was that Arsenal was going to at least equalize, as the crowd woke up.

Nope.

Bayern steeled on. And it was the space-translator himself, Thomas Müller, who clinched the match with his 88′ goal. Bayern’s march to perfection continues unabated.

Zenit St. Petersburg 2 – 4 Borussia Dortmund

A strange match. Although Dortmund was favored, expectations for BVB’s victory were tepid, given their latest rash of injuries. Luckily for Dortmund, Zenit were stirred from the slumbers of their long winter break. And it showed. Within 5′, Dortmund was up 0-2, thanks to blitz-quick goals from Mkhitaryan (benefiting from a devilishly clever dribbling sequence from Reus into the box) and minute later Reus added the 2nd goal. Zenit, it seemed, never stood a chance in this match.

Sure, Zenit scored on a Shatov strike at 57′, but Dortmund almost immediately responded with a Lewandowski goal at 61′. Then after Hulk converted a penalty, bringing the homeside to 2-3, Dortmund again responded confidently with another Lewandowski strike at 71′.

Really, the final scoreline flattered Zenit, who benefited from two scoring opportunities, rather than consistently creating many meaningful scoring chances. Dortmund played with speed, flow, confidence, and creativity around the box. In this sense, it was a vintage BVB win – sure, sometimes a bit sloppy in transitional defense, but overall frenetic and menacing. For example, take a look at the territory across the pitch on which Dortmund made ball recoveries (contrasted with Zenit):

Borussia Dortmund ball recoveries against Zenit St. Petersburg
BVB’s key? Recovering the ball in the opponent’s half. (Courtesy of FourFourTwo.com)

A statement win from Dortmund, who are reminding the rest of Europe that they again mean business in the Champions League, injuries be damned.

FC Schalke 04 1 – 6 Real Madrid

Oh dear. If you thought Leverkusen’s loss was ugly – and it was –  then Schalke’s home loss to Real Madrid was horrifying. After a decent scoring chances inside the opening minutes, Schalke never looked even remotely capable of challenging Real Madrid in this match. Real Madrid scored goals at the breezy clip resembling a preseason friendly against a 3rd division side in the sunny fields of Spain.

CR7 (two goals) was almost unnecessary in this match, as Gareth Bale (two goals), Karim Benzema (two goals), Angel Di Maria, and the likes of Xabi Alonso repeatedly violated Schalke with dribbling, cutting, and decisive passing. Schalke’s defense looked trapped between a couple of failed plans, sprouting wide gaps, and twisting its defenders around like tops in desperate attempts to mark Real Madrid galacticos.

Santana, with his two defensive errors became the goat (see the orange triangular shapes on the image below), although other defenders like Matip and Höwedes deserve equal blame:

Felipe Santana defensive errors against Real Madrid
Santana earned curses with his two defensive errors – see the two orange triangular marker. (Courtesy of FourFourTwo.com)

Schalke were also (strangely?) totally ineffective on the offensive side of the ball. Real Madrid shut down the S04 “youth brigade” of Julian Draxler (who returned from injury), Max Meyer, and Leon Goretzka (who subbed in). These three young superstars had meek performances. You know it’s a horrific loss when Draxler’s main passing combination looked like this on the pitch:

Julian Draxler's passing activity was irrelavant against Real Madrid
Julian Draxler’s most frequently made passing combination was irrelevant during the match against Real Madrid. (Courtesy of FourFourTwo.com)

Draxler’s passes were mostly moving backward in his top passing combo. Although Huntelaar scored a consolation goal in extra time, Schalke’s attack was shockingly absent for the whole match.

Thanks to Schalke’s fecklessness on either side of the ball, Real Madrid won only its 3rd match ever in Germany during Champions League play in 20+ appearances.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website, as well as The Short Pass where he covers the USL and other topics. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and sports are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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