For two hours on Wednesday, the internet lost its collective mind over the tactical battle between Barcelona and Bayern Munich during the first leg of the Champions League semi-finals at the Camp Nou. Social media was flooded with comments about Pep’s bold plan in the opening minutes and subsequent tactical adjustments.
Pep Guardiola opted to play with 3 men back. Boateng in the middle, flanked by Rainha on the left and Benatia on the right. Bernat occupied the left wingback slot and Thiago Alcantara played as a “false” wingback, who occupied a more central area contrasted with a traditional wingback. Xabi Alonso played as the Number 6, that is, the defensive pocket player. Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller up front.
Barcelona lined up with their strongest team. Four flat defenders – Daniel Alves, Gerard Pique, Javier Mascherano, and Jordi Alba – two of whom were the two wing backs (Alves and Alba), whose duty was making sure they got forward when Barcelona were attacking, helping to cover the wide area or “half spaces.”
Further up the pitch, in Barça’s middle line of Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, and Andres Iniesta formed a midfielder trio. These three played supporting roles by balancing Barça’s shape when Lionel Messi or Neymar vacated initial flank positions to occupy central areas.
Specifically, Rakitic occupied the right central midfield (RCM) and Iniesta the left central midfield (LCM). When Messi moved to the central area, for example, Rakitic or Alves would swap with him, filling the space left by Messi. These switches ensured that the wide area or “half space” remained covered for the home side. A similar combination happened on the left side when Neymar cut inside, Iniesta moved over to cover the abandoned space. Finally, Jordi Alba joined in by running forward and stretching Bayern’s defence from left wide area.
Up front, Messi had a free role. He would start from his move his position on the right wing, then move inside. Sometimes, he dropped off to the Number 8 post or moved to the central area and acted like a trequartista, or Number 10, as Barça’s advanced playmaker. Meanwhile, Suarez was the central striker with Neymar starting from the left flank.
As ever, Luis Enrique asked his team to press high up the pitch into Bayern’s back line and into Bayern’s middle line, which got compressed. Enrique’s plan was clear: Barcelona tried to force mistakes in the final third or force Bayern to play long balls.
Bayern responded to the intense high up pressing by playing diagonal long balls. From defensive third or middle third, Xabi Alonso or Jerome Boateng tried to reach their left wing (Bernat’s area of play) through such passes, relying on Bernat’s fast pace. This strategy emerged as Alves happily moved forward, playing attacking combinations with Rakitic and Messi, which sometimes left vulnerable space for Bayern to exploit.
However, this plan didn’t mean that Bayern easily broke through Barcelona’s defence. For Bayern, the problem was clear: die Roten missed their usual creative power with the absences of “Robbéry” and David Alaba. Indeed, Bayern created only 4 chances from open play during the whole match, contrasted with Barcelona’s 12 (three of them being goal assists). Thus, the majority of Bayern’s wide area play ended up with wasted crosses.
In defense, Bayern were clearly playing man-to-man system. A bold and surprising decision from Pep, given the skill of Barcelona’s attacking trio, who were man-marked with only Bayern’s back three as the defensive reserve. It was a risky decision. Even more troubling, however, Bayern seemingly had discipline issue in applying this system, illustrated perfectly in a moment from minute 12:
In the above image, after Xabi’s tackle and ball recovery, Bayern restarted their attack by trying to hit Barcelona through the left flank. Yet once again, this effort ended up with a wasted header by Lewandowski, as Bastian Schweinsteiger released a floating cross to the Pole.
In moments like this, the contours of the match’s dual-high defensive line pressing systems was mostly clearly seen. Both Barcelona and Bayern pestered each other with these systems. For example, the visitors used their man-to-man marking scheme to press Barcelona high up the pitch. The home side responded by utilizing keeper Marc Andre ter Stegen as the “free-man “ to escape from this pressing system by using the keeper as a passing outlet. Ter Stegen demonstrated his ability to play this role in a moment at 11′:
Two important observation can be made about this this moment. First, using a central defender trio against Barcelona’s world-best attacking trio creates vulnerability. For instance, there was no free-man to cover Barça’s attackers. Guardiola seemed to oppose his own belief in positional play. Second, Barcelona outsmarted Bayern’s pressing through smart vertical movement in playing between two lines.
At 14′, Pep changed Bayern’s shape from 3 defenders to 4 men at the back. Consequently, Bayern transformed their basic shape from a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2 with a narrow diamond.
During this phase, Messi occupied the Number 10 slot. Occasionally, in defensive scenarios, Suarez dropped deeper than Messi, helping to build a pressing formation with the Barça’s middle line. Meanwhile, the Rakitic/Alves/Messi partnership on the right side was quite interesting with beautiful combinational play between the three.
Bayern changed their playing shape again with a diamond shape in front of the back line this time. Schweinsteiger and Thiago alternately occupied the central attacking midfielder area. In defensive scenarios, particularly when defending wide areas, Schweinsteiger and Xabi helped Rafinh and Lahm (on the right) or Bernat and Thiago to overload each wide area.
The battle between Bayern’s narrow diamond and Barcelona’s attacking trio was quite interesting, as demonstrated by moment from 38′:
In this sequence, three Barça attackers overloaded the right half space. Bayern matched this overload by creating a four player pressing formation. However, Messi found Iniesta to escape from Bayern’s intense four player pressing. In a very short space of time, Alves took Messi’s usual position on right; Iniesta spotted this shift well with a beautiful chop-pass to Alves, which was behind Bayern’s back line. Another big chance for Barça, but again Neuer saved the shot.
In the second half’s first 10 minutes, Bayern seemed to successfully hold Barcelona.
Bayern’s middle line were pushed slightly higher. And when Barcelona built up their play from the back, Lahm and Thiago kept their eyes on Alba and Alves. Meanwhile, as Bayern’s central players and two forwards pressed the central area, Barça were forced to play some wasted long balls. When Bayern regain possession (on their own right side), Lahm occupied the “half space,” Rafinha moved forward on the wide area, and Thiago dropped back to pick up passes.
This change in strategy helped Bayern win possession in the central midfield. Yet again for Bayern, the big problem remained the same: without Alaba and “Robbéry,” Bayern lacked speed and creativity. This deficit, in turn, wasted Bayern’s middle line superiority, as Bayern managed to maximize their natural numerical superiority – 4 v 3 – as their narrow diamond faced down Barcelona’s midfield trio.
For awhile, no major changes were made by the two tacticians. Until 75′, Bayern were strong enough in the middle to fight against Barcelona’s midfield. The match looked like a draw.
Then, in an instant, everything changed.
A combination of Barcelona counter-pressing, coupled with the individual brilliance of Lionel Messi, altered the game. Alves’ pressing and tackle on Bernat put Bayern in a confusing situation, leaving both Alves and Rakitic unmarked on the left side. Xabi and Boateng decided to mark Alves and Rakitic, which, unfortunately, left a huge space for Messi to make his shot for the opening goal.
The second goal was another brilliant moment for Barcelona. Bayern failed to overload its left side and Bernat positioned himself higher than Messi. Oops. A pass from Rakitic put Messi in the one-on-one situation with Boateng that went viral. At this moment, Boateng and most viewers probably thought that Messi would take a shot on the near post with his left foot.
But he didn’t.
Instead, he trick Boateng and shot with his right foot to the far post.
Apart from their inability to score, Bayern exhibited a promising midfield performance. Before the Barça’s 2nd goal, the second half was basically an equal tactical battle. Bayern created some nice combinations and pressing to deal with Barcelona’s positional play.
In this match, however, the importance of being to able to attack in a variety of ways was clearly seen. The loss of the two wide men – Ribéry and Robben – cost Bayern dearly. Die Roten failed to score and lost the speed and creativity usually provided by “Robbéry.”
Meanwhile, Bayern’s opponents were simply briliant. Luis Suarez, with his off-the-ball movement and impressive workrate, always provided another dimension of play for Barcelona. And of couse Messi was amazing. He was the real difference in deciding the match. Finally, Luis Enrique once again showed his preference for building his game plan around his almighty attacking trio, giving Barcelona another positive result.
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