During Tuesday’s Champions League semi-final (leg 2) in Munich, Bayern Munich played in roughly a 4-4-2 / 4-4-1-1 shape, which focused on congesting their right half of the field. To achieve this goal, Rafinha covered the touchline, while Philipp Lahm and Thomas Müller alternately occupied the right side “half space” and made diagonal runs down this channel into Barcelona’s defense. Bastian Schweinsteiger started his movement mostly from Bayern’s left side, but acted like a Number 8 and occupied the “8 area” along with Thiago Alcantara.
As aforementioned, the basic shape opted by Pep was 4-4-2-ish. Defensively, this was an appropriate shape to play against Barcelona, since Bayern needed to make sure they defended the flank properly. A 4-4-2 provided the stability they needed, given its two layers of defenders on each flanks.
On the other side of the pitch, Barcelona lined up in their customary 4-3-3 shape. No changes were made by Luis Enrique from leg 1. On each side of the pitch, Barcelona had their set combinations of play. On their left flank, Barcelona created combinations between Jordi Alba, Andrés Iniesta, and Neymar. On their right side, they had Dani Alves, Ivan Rakitic, and Lionel Messi. The same numbers on each side, but with different characteristics in the movement.
In Enrique’s era, Iniesta’s role has changed. The famed midfielder no longer focuses on vertical dribbling and moving between the opponent’s middle and defensive lines. Instead, Iniesta now more frequently covers for Neymar and Alaba in Barça’s left side attacking combinations.
Back on Barça’s right side, in the match Lionel Messi didn’t play as wide as Neymar; rather he occupied the more central area of a Numer 10. By contrast, Ivan Rakitic made the vertical movements into the opponent’s defense and out to the left flank to cover for Messi and Alves’ attacking movements.
In their defensive phase, Barcelona played in 4-4-2 / 4-4-1-1-ish shape. Neymar dropped back to the left flank and Rakitic moved slightly wide to the right. Suarez swapped positions with Messi, who stayed higher up the pitch, to create a compact shape so that Barcelona could press the Bayern’s middle line.
As usual, Barcelona tried to press pretty high up the pitch when Bayern gained possession deep in their own territory. Bayern knew this would happen. So in the first half, as Bayern responded to Suarez’s pressing of Xabi Alonso, the latter occupied a higher area and allowed the two central defender to pick up the ball. Occasionally, Thiago dropped deep, while Xabi stayed high. If possible, the ball was passed directly to Bayern’s front line or to their right flank where Bayern overloaded.
Given his role and habits as a deep-lying creator, Xabi Alonso always tried to pick up the ball from the back. In this phase, Suarez, who excels at pressing, marked Xabi to prevent the Spaniard from building up play through the back.
Another example of Bayern overloading their right side in build up play looked like this:
In this complex example, (#1) Xabi occupied a higher position than Bayern’s two central defenders (CDs, Boateng and Benatia), allowing them picking up the pass. In this phase, the two Bayern wing backs also moved higher up to drag Messi and Neymar away from Bayern’s own defensive third. This strategy helped Bayern loosen Barcelona’s pressing.
Next, (#2) Neuer passed to Boateng, starting the build up. Because Xabi was marked tightly by Suarez, Schweinsteiger dropped off (#3) to the Number 6 area and picked up the pass. Basti’s movement immediately dragged Barcelona’s midfield after him, as Busquets and Rakitic moved to prevent Bayern’s build up play.
The combination of passing and movement between Basti, Xabi, and Boateng (#4) managed to create space for Xabi to make a direct pass to the advanced area, Bayern’s final attacking third (#5 or #6), and shift Bayern into attack from phase I to phase II.
In the next example (see the image below), the green area marks the area Bayern overloaded. Sometimes when Bayern was in phase II (i.e. playing the ball into their final atacking third), Bayern’s players managed to occupy a channel in Barcelona’s defense. As we can see from an example at 26′, a chopped-pass from Xabi found Lahm in a promising attacking area:
Five Bayern players occupy the green-circled zone. In this example, Lahm moved forward to occupy the “half space,” trying to find a channel between Barcelona’s defenders. Consequently, a nice combination of Bayern’s movements caused confusion for Barcelona defenders, particularly Neymar (see the question mark), who was supposed to pick up Thiago. Meanwhile, Thiago dragged Alba away, widening the gap (the channel) between Alba and Mascherano.
A chopped-pass from Xabi (#1) to the channel was easily picked up by Lahm (#2). Another short-passing combination between Lahm, Müller, and Lewandowski resulted a shot on goal. This sequence was the exact same one used by Bayern when trashing Frankfurt 3-0 to create Lewandowski’s goal.
Although Bayern caused Barcelona some problem in retaining possession, Bayern mostly weren’t coordinated when defending. Even the untrained eye could discern that Barcelona was easily playing in and through Bayern’s defensive shape.
Strangely, Manuel Neuer didn’t a higher position when Bayern was in their high defensive mode, as noted in a Tweet by @SamMcGuire90. Mehdi Benatia’s poor positioning also contributed to Bayern’s defensive woes, especially in Barcelona second goal when the CD decided to move forward and press Messi, but left Suarez alone.
Right before Barcelona’s first goal, however, another inexplicable defensive situation occurred for Bayern Bastian Schweinsteiger didn’t press Messi, who had the ball and was approaching Bayern’s final defensive third. With so much space and time to make a decision, Messi released a perfect throughball to Suarez.
In the second half, Pedro replaced Suarez and, in Barcelona’s middle line, Ivan Rakitic swapped with Busquets more than in any previous match. Rakitic was the Number 6, who sat deep and shielded the central defenders.
These two changes negatively affected Barcelona’s play. Previously, when Suarez was the central striker, Barça constantly pressured Bayern’s deep central area and back line. This pressing advantage disappeared with the departure of Suarez. In the center, Barcelona’s former compactness fell apart, as both Iniesta and Busquets were positioned too far from Rakitic. These gaps created huge spaces vertically, which helped contribute to Bayern’s 2nd goal.
After Bayern’s 2nd and 3rd goals, the home side’s midfield seemed to be injected with new energy, winning many midfield battles by creating numerical superiority and overloading different areas. For instance, Bayern created 3-on-2, 4-on-2, or even a 4-on-1 situation. In other instances, Bayern regained possession through pressing traps:
During the match’s 1st half, defensive issues cost Bayern dearly. Bayern’s vertical movements and connections were flawed, giving Barcelona space for creating attacks. During the 2nd half, Bayern adjusted and Barcelona opted to sit deeper, as Bayern created a higher number of chances in Barcelona’s own half.
In short, Bayern deserved this win. Despite the aggregate 5-3 victory for Barcelona, we were served two world-class tactical battles worth learning from.
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