Tactical Analysis: FC Rostov 3-2 Bayern Munich

FC Bayern and FC Rostov ‘s first Champions League encounter was widely anticipated, as everybody wanted to see how “Russia’s Leicester City” would fare against the German giants at the Allianz Arena. In the end, the outcome was disappointing, as Rostov’s passive defense was easily demolished, and Bayern won 5-0.

Fast-forward to the second meeting between these sides last week when the Bavarians traveled to Russia for match day 5 of the Champions League. This time, however, the German giants were felled. Rostov won 3-2, which also confirmed Atletico Madrid as the Group D winner.

Rostov’s win had some unusual simularities to Leverkusen’s defeat to RB Leipzig last weekend, particularly because Rostov’s first two goals emerged from weird situations in which luck played a major part. First, an easy interception by Dimitry Poloz of a Douglas Costa pass, led to a quick counter and equalizing goal from Serdar Azmoun. Rostov’s second goal came thanks to another Bayern blunder and a debatable penalty decision. Rostov’s third and final goal came through a free-kick by Christian Noboa.

It would be absolutely unfair to rate Rostov only by examining the three goals put into Sven Ulreich’s goal. Rostov displayed some praiseworthy resilient defending based on their 5-3-2 low-block. Moreover, Rostov used interesting defensive tactics, developing pressing access from a relatively passive defensive block.

Rostov’s Uncoordinated High-Block Press

Despite featuring a relatively passive low-block, Ivan Daniliant’s boys went higher-up at times, pressing Bayern from a high-block instead. This defensive strategy was situationally applied, depending on on-pitch specifics. Rostov pushed higher in long-ball situations or during Bayern goal kicks.

During the high-block press, two Rostov forwards in the first-line marked Bayern’s central defenders. To overcome this press, Bayern’s Thiago Alcantara, nominally a 6, dropped deep to create a passing lane for Bayern’s attacking progression. During these moments, Rostov applied a man-oriented pressing variant: Aleksandr Gatskan press Thiago along with the two wide 8s, while Rostov’s wing-backs defended their own half-space and flanks.

Rostov didn’t seem ready for high press play, however; the club had unclean pressing movement up front. For instance, when the near forward pressed Bayern’s keeper, Ulreich, the Russian presser didn’t “arch” his run effectively enough and had to press both the keeper and block the passing-lane to the free center-back. This overload had made it easier for Bayern to bypass Rostov’s press. Additionally, the space between the back and the upper line was also an issue in Rostov’s press.

Bayern progressed through the wings via their fullbacks. When progressing through the central area, Bayern played the ball to either the 6 or the 8, who had dropped deep. During this first phase of attack, Bayern focused on creating attacking access through the near flank or overloaded the ball-side flank, then switched the opposite flank. In general, Bayern tried to exploit the potency of its right side by overloading the left side, then switching the ball to the right side, since the club’s prime target was Douglas Costa — on whose individual excellence Bayern relied heavily.

Die Roten took the lead through an overload-then switch-moment, after the Brazilian tapped in the loose ball from inside the box. Moreover, this goal was evidence that Rostov’s uncoordinated high press got it into trouble as Bayern managed to exploit the poor compactness through its switch-play scheme.

Bayern’s first goal. Bayern made use the space between the lines, as Rafinha, Lahm, and Thiago displayed a quick passing-combination before the Spaniard switched to Juan Bernat on the left flank. A one touch-pass between Bernat, Ribery, and Sanches had created the space for Bayern to get into. The ex-Benfica took on Mevlja and released a ground-cross that lead to the first goal of Costa.
Bayern used the space between the lines. Here, Rafinha, Lahm, and Thiago used quick passing combinations before the Spaniard switched the ball to Juan Bernat on the left flank. Moreover, passing between Bernat, Ribery, and Sanches created space for Bayern. The ex-Benfica player took on Mevlja and released a ground-cross that led to the Costa’s goal.

Rostov’s low-block strategy negatively impacted the club’s vertical compactness, particularly in its defensive transition. Rostov hardly generated optimal spacing, as a result of its game plan and individual players failing positionally. Moreover, the club’s horizontal and vertical connections between players were weak, which negatively impacted Rostov’s transitional play – which, incidentally,  was also the root cause of Bernat’s (then) 2nd half equalizer.

Bayern’s Shifting and Rostov’s Response

Bayern’s positional shifting and ball circulation was well-supported by its midfielder trio. In the consolidation phase of build up (i.e. the 2nd phase of attack), all the near wide men and the near central midfielders narrowed the gap between themselves and the ball carrier, then created overloads on the ball-side flank and half-space. Furthermore, Thiago dropped slightly deeper to provide depth for this mini-diamond.

However, sometimes Bayern’s interchanging was not well-coordinated, resulting in somewhat poor spacing, which not only weakened connections between players, but also resulted in turnovers and counter opportunities for the host side. Moreover, thanks to a combination of Bayern’s own compactness and Rostov’s defensive plan, Bayern failed to cope with many of Rostov’s counter chances.

As mentioned earlier, Douglas Costa became a prime weapon in Bayern’s final 3rd attack. Bayern shifted the ball between the flanks to the half-space or between the two half-spaces. Initially, the guest built up through the left side, then switched to the right side with smart passing. At other times, they opted to get into the final third through the ball-side wing.

These two strategies had the same effect on Bayern’s 18 yard box penetration. For example, a pass to the flank followed by intense vertical movement to the ball-side area and a quick overload on the half-space near the penalty box generated several promising attacks for Bayern, enabling the club to float in crosses or play effective cut-back passes.

Rostov’s Defensive Strategy

Rostov played in a low-block 5-3-2 shape. One of the two 9s from the first line would mark Thiago, trying to isolate him in Bayern’s circulation, though not strictly speaking, since one of the two 9s would stay central or higher, while the other dropped deep and acted as a secondary 10 and/or 8. When this duo moved higher to take on Bayern’s central defenders, the closest midfielder to Thiago would maintain a press on him.

Overall, this particular press didn’t harm Bayern’s ball circulation, because the host’s progression forward didn’t rely too much on the presence of its nominal 6 (i.e. Thiago), as mentioned earlier in this article.

The disadvantages of Rostov’s 5-3-2 shape were seen in its 2nd line and 1st line. The “lower” locations of these lines meant that Bayern had many chances to exploit the gap on the side of each Rostov’s wide 8s:

The rough scheme of Bayern’s switch play.
The rough scheme of Bayern’s switch play.

To overcome this disadvantage, a team must incorporate a ball-oriented shift with proper intensity. So within its horizontal-shifting, Rostov used a “swinging” back four. Initially, one of the original five backline players moved up to the next line, out of the initial chain of five at the back. Rostov did this when Bayern occupied the wide areas. Thus, Rostov’s defensive line looked like a “swinging” four than a three-chain or five-chain.

Furthermore, Rostov’s ball-side wingback pressed man-to-man. Rostov applied this particular press a great deal in the wide-area, compared to the pressing orientation it applied in the central area. The remaining back-liners didn’t have to follow the wingback’s movement, since the remaining defenders had to keep the backline stable by maintaining their defensive chain.

But, at times, Rostov’s near center back would push wide and get closer to his fellow ball-side wingback, since this wingback needed adequate cover from behind to complete this press. This scheme was how Rostov developed its press and kept its vertical/horizontal compactness stable.

The pressing-movement of Rostov’s ball-side wingback meant his press came with intensity on the. Meanwhile, Rostov’s far side wingback supported the central-defender three, providing width as Rostov dealt with Bayern’s flank switch play.

The swinging four from a five defender basic shape.
Rostov’s “swinging four” backline from the club’s initial five defender basic shape.

In the central area (the midfielder-three), Rostov applied a position-oriented pressing variant, mixed with man-oriented pressing. Rostov’s midfielder trio preferred kept their shape stable by coordinating their movements with each other, while still maintaining their individual zones – the zone from where each could apply immediate pressing pressure to Bayern players.

Additionally, the “backward” pressing of Rostov’s forwards is also worth mentioning. As Rostov’s wingback press was applied with intensity by its second-line, and the deeper-wide areas were still covered thanks to Rostov’s “swinging” back four, the 9s backward press helped Rostov’s second-line eliminate the dangerous “diagonality” of Bayern’s offense. This backward-press helped Rostov establish a barrier from the upper-line, which in turn allowed its deeper lines to maintain their desired-shape.

Bayern's backward press.
The “backward” press of Rostov’s 9s.

Rostov managed to apply its pressing with good rhythm and intensity, both its the back and forward pressing lines. This good rhythm and intensity meant that Rostov generated positive play from its compactness.

Rostov’s the position-oriented press and ball-oriented defending by its central midfielder trio often resulted in less pressure in the second-line itself. Why? Because the position-oriented press means that each player oriented himself toward his teammates’ positions with the ultimate intention of keeping the shape stable.

Since Rostov’s middle-line didn’t rely on strict man-to-man defending and instead defended in a position-oriented way, it’s clear why obtaining and maintaining the pressing intensity was difficult. For example, there are complex communications between players to be handled and, while working as a unit is powerful, when it’s poorly-applied (bad communication, bad understanding, no harmony between players’ movement, etc.) the effect psychologically drains the defender. This is why, in Rostov relatively passive block, the rhythm and harmony of shifting the line(s) up or down was very important.

To achieve this, Rostov played something like a forward and backward press. How is this possible, you might ask?

The answer lies in how Rostov “staggered” its defensive lines.

What is staggering in relation to pressing? Glad you asked. Staggering is when certain defensive actions don’t occur at the same time and is opposite of linear pressing. For example, take the 4-5-1 and 4-1-4-1 shapes. In the 4-5-1 shape, there is 3 lines, but in the 4-1-4-1 shape there is 4 lines.

A staggered configuration with wood blocks.
A staggered configuration with wood blocks.

The “1” between back and middle lines (4-1-4-1) creates the staggering effect. In Rostov’s 5-3-2 shape, sometimes a central midfielder pushed forward to press the opponent, which meant that a player from the last-line (a wingback or maybe a halfback) moved up to offer the cover.

By staggering its press, when Bayern won back balls (e.g. by Rostov’s 2nd line), Rostov was able to press forward with its 2nd line by shifting shapes (to a 4-3-3 for example). This shape shifting is how Rostov developed a staggered press. Furthermore, by pushing its pressing block up, Rostov could push Bayern back deeper, eliminating the Germans’ vertical options in attack, which creates dynamic movement of fast intensity.

Finally, thanks to its staggering, Rostov’s forward press from deeper line players (like a wingback, for instance) into the half-space of the 8, enabled Rostov’s nearside 8 to move up higher, blocking the progression options of for Bayern’s ball carrier. This wingback forward pressing shifted Rostov into an 4-3-3 aymmetrical shape, which not only eliminated Bayern’s “diagonality,” but also dampened down dynamic possibilities for the visitors. By moving its wingback up into the middle-line and pushing the 8 higher, Rostov created pressing access to higher zones. And by pushing forward higher up the pitch, Rostov could pin Bayern back, thus indirectly reducing the visitor’s vertical attacking options.

Bayern’s Offensive Issues

On the other side of the ball, Bayern made life difficult for itself by being too static in its offensive-overload attempts. For example, off the ball movement from the half-space to the wide area dragged Rostov’s defender out of position, but, since that movement wasn’t followed by a coordinated interchanging, no Bayern players found newly the vacated space. This same problem was evident in Bayern’s final 3rd play in the wide areas.

Additionally, Bayern also lost its “immediate connections” against Rostov’s defending. An “immediate connection” can be achieved through ideal spacing that enables the attacking team to establish many passing options around each players; we are really talking about “diagonality” here.

No diagonal presence in Bayern’s attack. The maroon-reds are the original positions. The light reds are the alternative positioning. The alternative provides not only stronger connection but it also offers the more stable gegenpressing should the ball lost in the ellipse zone.
No diagonal presence in Bayern’s attack. Here, the dark red circles indicate the original positions of Bayern’s players, while the light red circles indicate their alternative positioning, which provided not only stronger connections, but also more effective positioning for gegen-pressing should the ball lost in the ellipsed zone.

You can argue that Rostov made life hard for Bayern since its defensive set-up pushed Bayern wide, minimizing diagonal possibilities within the guest’s attacks. However, this problem has been a broader issue for Ancelotti’s Bayern. For example, Bayern’s play against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League was the clearest example of this problem. Diego Simeone’s boys played in a highly compact defensive scheme – both horizontally and vertically – and, from time to time, forced Bayern to play the ball back or horizontally, eliminating vertical and diagonal options.

At other times, Bayern’s deeper players, acting as cover during ball circulation and overloads, fell backward too far, removing their presence in Bayern’s overload tactics in the higher areas. Thus, Bayern’s attack was nominally mobile, but without stable connections between attacking units. This disconnection, in turn, killed possible dynamic attacking play.

Had Rostov managed to force back-passes from Bayern to the visitor’s deeper zone, Bayern’s cover-line was too deep, creating unnecessary travel time for passing. So when the ball would have reached its target, Bayern would have to restart its attack.

In the second-half, Ancelotti brought Thomas Müller in, to add a vertical option in Bayern’s attack, which was a good idea. However, Ancelotti had to take Sanches out to do this, despite the Portuguese having a good performance. Sanches didn’t just get involved in Bayern’s goal, but he showed remarkable skill in shielding the ball, taking it to higher zones. Finally, his combative personality played a huge part in Bayern’s ball distribution, forward progression, and pressing.

Bayern did not gain any significant effect from the increased attacking presence of Müller. Yes, his presence strengthened Bayern’s overloads in the final-third, but it didn’t help create any highly promising chances.

Rostov’s Direct Approach

The Russians’ attack was really quite simple. Rostov’s forward line strove to generate a direct option — i.e. a vertical option — for the ball-holder. The vertical options targets, of course, were Rostov’s forward duo, who tried to stretch Bayern’s defense by also providing passing outlets from wide areas.

This direct approach certainly contributed directly to Rostov’s goals. The strikers positioned themselves wide to receive a pass before making a direct and penetrating movement into the box.

From their direct attack, it was clear that Rostov would have only pushed the block as high as possible in a passive situation, such as a free kick, for example. In a indirect free kick, particularly one taken in Bayern’s half, both wingbacks pushed high up the pitch, into the same line as Rostov’s forward duo. Rostov’s free kicks purposely sought to create flick-on or second-ball recovery chances.

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Ryan Tank is crazy about football tactics and crazy insightful when writing about them. Check out Ryan's site, ryantank100.wordpress.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ryantank100.

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