With the most important game of the Barça season approaching its beginning, Bayern Munich looks stronger than ever this year and is set to have the favoritisms on its side. Despite Barcelona’s struggles, we analyse the ways in which the Spanish giants could overturn the predictions into beating Bayern for a place in the next Champions League semi-final.
Are you excited? Oh, you are afraid? Do not be. This is not the time to be fearful, but rather excited. Really excited. The only reason we, as football enthusiasts, watch the Champions League is to live something extraordinary, entertaining and enjoyable. Fans should strive for nights as this one that is quickly approaching. A strange night in mid August, in a strange atmosphere, with strange predictions.
Barcelona has always been used get comfortable when witnessing an European draw, especially its fans. The Catalan team has never once been considered the weakest one amongst the two, in the last fifteen years. With the likes of Lionel Messi, Gerard Piqué, Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández, Neymar, David Villa, Carles Puyol and many more, Barça has always been the queen of Europe: beautiful, no matter the final score.
This time though, things are way different than usual. Despite having still one of the strongest roasters in the world –– and the greatest player of all time, before, NOW and tomorrow ––, what the sheets are stating is not enough anymore. In fact, it is never been enough, but considering the total superiority to the opponents, it was a good starting point to build a foundation. And with Barça’s overall problems this season in each aspect of the club, technical, tactical and environmental, things do not look so smooth as they once did.
With zero trophies this season, this could very well stay a trophyless one for Barcelona. After failing the race for the La Liga title against Real Madrid and for the Copa del Rey and Spanish Supercup also, the Champions League, the greatest club competition on the planet, is all that is left. But if things were not bad already, destiny had to make an impact to the blaugrana season too. After beating Napoli in the second leg of the round of sixteen of the competition, Barça is set to face Bayern Munich, the most solid and complete team in the world right now, in the Final Eight of the Champions League in Lisbon according to the UEFA draw.
Bayern may look scary, but Barça must find reasons for optimism ahead of the Champions League quarter-finals | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images
Bayern has never seemed as solid in the past years as they do this season. And they even had a similar journey to Barcelona, if we take in the fact that they changed manager in-season too. Hans-Dieter Flick took over the Bavarian job on the 3rd of November, 2019, as soon as the management decided that the former Croatian international, Niko Kovač, was not in control of the team anymore. And boy how they switched.
While initially being appointed as interim coach, the German board eventually granted Flick with a permanent position as the club’s manager due to his brilliant work with the team. They have already won the Bundesliga and the German Cup in style with their own goal machine, their star, Robert Lewandowski, currently sitting on 53 goals –– 13 in the Champions –– in 44 appearances this season, and they have already eyed the prize on the cup with the big years. With a bit of arrogance, cockiness and disrespect too, if you ask me. But that’s another story.
“Bayern will have to make a lot of mistakes to lose to this Barcelona, today’s Barcelona isn’t the same as it was before”
But despite the world’s –– and the Bavarians’, specifically, too –– lack of faith in Barça, despite a Bayern win in the Champions League clash being taken for granted by the majority out there, there is still hope. Multiple hopes. Barça may not be the team it once were in terms of intensity and identity, but it still has a strong roaster to showcase. And moments can happen in a sparkle. So while we analyse how can the Catalans could hurt their opponents, the world can keep throwing free motivation on them as they will eventually fead on it.
Barça beating Bayern is probably not the most common scenarios we could assume approaching the game, as we depicted previously. But there are still some key points from which Barcelona can take some reference to build that foundation that could eventually lead them to the unexpected. As much as Bayern appears to be a perfect machine, there are aspects of their game that have not yet being tested by a strong enough team to be described as flawless.
And you can already take out the first reason of hope Barcelona can think of having: Bayern has yet to face a giant this campaign. While facing the likes of Tottenham, Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea as their most challenging duels, they never felt the kind of pressure and technical difficulties they could find themselves into against a club like Barcelona.
One of the biggest problems that the German side has fallen into in the last decade has always been that of the Bundesliga finishing too early…for them. Securing the first spot of the league has always –– more or less –– been an easy job for Bayern, as the eight titles in a row demonstrates. Even more this season, as they formally finished the league before anyone else in Europe, at the end of June.
Even though a month without football, during summer, could have had serious impact on the club’s routine, this has proven not to be the case, as the latest Chelsea game showed: a fresh, cohesive and attacking-minded Bayern side stepped on the pitch. However, playing a demotivated team it is not the perfect scenario to test your team after a long and warm month. Having Bayern pressed up on his own arrogance since the first minute could make them less confident than they actually are on the long term, during the game. Starting the game at a 100%, they could eventually lower their pace in order to contain Barça’s unpredicted determination.
Apart from the fitness and rhythm related aspects of this Bayern Munich side, it is interesting to find a way Barça could cope tactically and technically during the upcoming Champions League game. This is where the Germans proved to be the best in the world, as of this moment. Intensity of movements with the ball, diagonal and vertical passing, winger and broad game and midfield dynamism are just few of the main factors that Bayern brings to the table. Plus, the unstoppable Lewandowski upfront, of course: currently, the best striker in the world –– “There is a great difference from being a great goalscorer, and a great player”, someone once said…
Full-backs are one of Bayern’s main threats | Photo by Christian Kaspar-Bartke / Bongarts via Getty Images
Bayern Munich’s usual line-up consists in playing with a 4–2–3–1, with a really offensive and aggressive mindset on the wings as their key feature. While David Alaba has become one fine qualitative centre-back, Alphonso Davies’ speed and Joshua Kimmich‘s intelligence make them the main issues Barcelona is going to face in Friday’s game regarding Die Roten full-backs.
In the midfield line it can be found a triangle-shaped composition with Leon Goretzka and Barça’s former player Thiago Alcântara at the base, and Thomas Müller as the most offensive-minded players of the three. The same Müller was able to set the newest record for most assists provided in a single league season, before Messi caught him. In the final third of the pitch, Lewandowski is supported by Serge Gnabry and Ivan Perišič at both ends, with the Frenchman Kingsley Coman set to return from injury. And while it could all seem a normal set-up, the way the team performs depicts a much broader picture.
And here is where Barcelona needs to be creatively intelligent. While playing offensively and keeping the two fullbacks really high on the pitch, Davies, on the left side, is the one who makes the most runs up and down the pitch during the game, while Kimmich tends to get into the field to act as a midfielder, to give Bayern more solutions to their game in the central zone of the pitch. While Messi will not be certainly able to to follow Davies in his offensive adventures, having him on that side would make the young Canadian much more reluctant to keep his centre of gravity higher than the midfield line.
On the other side, the difference between having an Antoine Griezmann or an Ansu Fati would be huge. While Griezmann’s performance against Napoli was fairly organised and composed, his lack of wide positioning skills may be the disadvantage which may favour the young Spanish player to play from the beginning.
With the verticality and diagonal runs from Bayern towards the opponent’s penalty area, the return of Sergio Busquets alone as the perfect Barça single pivot may not be sufficient to cover for the Bavarians attacks, as the Germans have proved to conduct offensive plans with eight of their eleven players onto the pitch in their last Champions League match. In fact, as shown against Chelsea, only the two centre-backs were the only ones to stay back during the wide and inner attacks, despite both being fairly high up on the pitch.
To close the open spaces surrounding Busquets, the Catalans will have to regroup density and volume inside the centre of the pitch while making the team short more difficult to break. In this way, Barcelona will be able to compactly face Bayern without having to gift precious open spaces.
Lastly, seeing Ousmane Dembélé as one of the players called up for the game should not excite Barça’s fans too much. At least, for now. Despite the medical green light from the staff, the Frenchman has not been able to play since late November and we don’t know what to expect really. Even so, he could end up being really useful in the second half, with both teams feeling the fatigue up their legs and lungs. A positive news for Barcelona, a positive news for Ousmane.
That is if Barça even goes for its vintage 4–3–3. But the reality Friday night could be very different. Quique Setién has shown many times this season how he never depreciated the classic 4–4–2. Despite being something almost never heard of at the Barça headquarters, it could very much prove to be the culés‘ main hope of survival against Bayern on the upcoming Champions League match-up.
With a double cover on both sides of the pitch, the duo Sergi Roberto / Nélson Semedo could try to stop the pace of Alphonso Davies and Perišič, while Jordi Alba and a either Riqui Puig or Frenkie de Jong could adapt to the circumstances in changing Kimmich and Gnabry’s rhythm. And since Quique has shown a certain lack of personality for his entire spell at the club, it is reasonable to expect nothing less than the Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez combo upfront.
The two lines of four composing that last option for Barça is certainly the most rational one according the conditions. Humbleness and patience are going to be the virtues needed to keep the lines tight and still. Bayern’s vertical plan, captained by the quality of Thiago in the midfield, should stumble upon Sergio Busquets and either Arturo Vidal or Iván Rakitić through the heart of the pitch and in front of Barcelona’s final third.
Quique Setién may opt for a more reserved approach in order to keep the lines compact | Photo by José Jordan / AFP via Getty Images
To Clément Lenglet and Gerard Piqué the strenuous homework of keeping Lewandowski nowhere near the goal. With the work of the two midfield lines, Barça may be able to keep the Bavarians’ full-backs grounded from internal breakthrough. But the crosses will keep coming as, if blaugranas‘ plan ends up being successful, the centre spaces will be closed and the sides covered, leaving the crosses as Bayern’s last option to provide Lewandowski. Focus and determination will do the rest, but both Lenglet and Gerard have proved to be solid even against the lack of a solid defensive system.
While defending will be Barcelona’s main concern, the attacking solution is a direct derivate from the positional tactics Setién will display on the pitch. With a thigh and squeezed line-up and given the high pressing from Bayern with each player but the two centre-backs, Barça will find its chances towards Champions League glory on quick counter-attacks and long balls.
As the numbers against Chelsea show, despite being the most solid team on the planet right now, Bayern has still lost 106 possessions against the English side. This impressive negative number is due to the German’s side common lack of rationality during the ninety minutes, which leave them often unprepared tactically after a ball is lost. Long balls will so be an important key to Barça’s success, despite being counterintuitive to its style, as it could wake up mainly Bayern’s defensive line-up amnesias, often positioned way too high up the field.
Plus, having Leo playing behind the main striker will give him the freedom to provide precise passing once the ball is recovered from the opponent’s feet, as well as giving him the creativity he usually has to create chances on both ends of the pitch or even to try the shot on goal. But do not be mistaken, Barcelona’s way of attacking the opponents will not change. Not today, not tomorrow. Once the ball is at the azulgranas‘ feet, Bayern and their Champions League hopes will have no other option than to sit deep and wait for the Barça move.
We can talk about any countermeasures we like for Barcelona to stand a chance against the Bavarian giants, but this just shows how the times have changed. The times where the Catalans were not worried about the opponents’ game plans, where they did not give a damn about who the opponents were, but just to play their game, are long due. Nowadays Barça is focusing solemnly on how the rivals are playing, then they adapt their strategy to it. It is sad, but it is what it is. That’s why Quique Setién may end up choosing the 4–4–2. A classic system for a classic game. Game on, see you at work.
Using data to construct alternative Barcelona lineups
If you had to build a team that matched the style of Barça’s first eleven, what would it look like? Who are the Lionel Messi’s and Sergio Busquets’s of other clubs around the world? Let us dive into these questions using statistics.
The ability to identify similar players can be very beneficial in football. That knowledge can be applied to pinpoint transfer targets as potential replacements for an outgoing star, to gain a deeper understanding of how an unfamiliar opposition plays and who their main threats are, and more.
In the modern age, data plays a massive role in this. Here, the concept will not be as serious as crunching numbers to analyze an opponent or maximize efficiency in the transfer market, rather it will be more of a fun look at the Barça squad.
Essentially, we will be using player statistics to answer the question: What if you had to replace each member of the Barcelona lineup with another player from world football? Not in a fantasy way of building a dream eleven, but identifying players who best match the tendencies of the current team.
Background and methodology
To find the next best thing to Lionel Messi, Frenkie de Jong, and company, data from Wyscout for the 2019/20 league season will be used. Each position group – centre backs, full backs, centre midfielders, and attackers – starts off with a sizeable group of metrics relating to their style of play, before a factor analysis is performed.
The factor analysis looks at how all the players in the position group performed across the variety of individual metrics, before attempting to reduce the number of data points by creating factors that reflect relationships between those metrics.
For example, it picks up on the fact that attackers like Messi, Neymar, and Bernardo Silva tend to drop deep and be very active in buildup. This is reflected by their high tallies of actions like passes and passes into the attacking third.
So, it can use those trends to create one factor representative of that style, allowing the 25-30 metrics for each position group to be reduced to five or six numbers, which is much easier to interpret. After that, cosine similarity can be used to find a player’s closest match.
In terms of the players involved, this is the Barça eleven that will be used based on a mix of who has played the most over the course of the season and Ronald Koeman’s recent choices.
Because of his injury issues, Ousmane Dembélé did not play enough in the 2019/20 season to generate even a decent sample size, so his 2018/19 statistics were used instead.
Finally, for Marc-André ter Stegen in goal, factor analysis will not be used. There are not enough useful metrics available for the goalkeeper position, so a more simple search will be performed. His matches will be found by looking for players who are similarly active in possession, accurate passers, and possibly have a similar physical build. With that in mind, time to get into the results.
To present the outcomes of this analysis, we will have multiple alternative lineups based on certain criteria. First up are players with a Transfermarkt market value of €25 million or higher. Here is each Barça player’s closest match:
- Marc-André ter Stegen: Ederson (Manchester City)
- Jordi Alba: Andrew Robertson (Liverpool)
- Clément Lenglet: Dan-Axel Zagadou (Borussia Dortmund)
- Gerard Piqué: Edmond Tapsoba (Bayer Leverkusen)
- Sergiño Dest: Héctor Bellerín (Arsenal)
- Sergio Busquets: Jorginho (Chelsea)
- Pedri: Florian Neuhaus (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
- Frenkie de Jong: Arthur (Barcelona, now at Juventus)
- Antoine Griezmann: Mason Mount (Chelsea)
- Lionel Messi: Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain)
- Ousmane Dembélé: Eden Hazard (Real Madrid)
Two young Bundesliga centre backs anchor the backline. At left-back, Robertson’s delivery style may differ from Alba’s, but the Scotsman offers a similar end to end stamina. On the right, Bellerín slots in as a La Masia product himself.
This midfield sees Jorginho take the reigns from Busquets as the metronome, while Pedri is replaced by a fellow wonderkid in the emerging Neuhaus. Seeing Frenkie de Jong matched with Arthur may be a bit surprising. The Dutchman has certainly improved this season and contributed in a wider variety of areas, but this goes to show that he needed time to gain confidence, just like Arthur was.
The wings are occupied by big names who have commanded massive transfer fees. Dembélé matching with 2019/20 Hazard can also be seen as a bit eerie given both of their injury struggles. Neymar, the former protégé, slots in for Messi, giving the side another former Barcelona connection.
Probably the biggest surprise comes with Mason Mount taking over for Griezmann. The Chelsea midfielder’s place here is certainly reflective of the unique, often unsuitable role the Frenchman played in 2019/20, where he had to perform quite a bit of “midfielder” work and was not as involved in the goals as he would have liked.
Now, let us move to the next market value range – between €15 and €25 million.
- ter Stegen: Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich)
- Alba: Oleksandr Zinchenko (Manchester City)
- Lenglet: Jonathan Tah (Bayer Leverkusen)
- Piqué: Nikola Maksimović (Napoli)
- Dest: Dodô (Shakhtar Donetsk)
- Busquets: Leandro Paredes (Paris Saint-Germain)
- Pedri: Todd Cantwell (Norwich City)
- de Jong: Boubakary Soumaré (Lille)
- Griezmann: Federico Bernardeschi (Juventus)
- Messi: Mohammed Ihattaren (PSV)
- Dembélé: Manor Solomon (Shakhtar Donetsk)
Jonathan Tah joins Edmond Tapsoba from that first lineup as Bayer Leverkusen centre-backs highlighted here. At right-back, Dest is replaced by another one of the position’s brightest young talents in the Brazilian Dodô.
Manor Solomon, another Shakhtar Donetsk youngster, comes up on the right-wing. Given the Ukrainian club’s history of smart recruitment and the number of talented players they have who seem to fit Barça moulds (attacking full-backs, possession-based midfielders, inverted wingers), it definitely looks like a good place to scout.
The Camp Nou was recently home to a great performance from Leandro Paredes, albeit for the opposition. Fellow Ligue 1 midfielder Soumaré has been attracting lots of interest from the big Premier League sides for his recent play.
Filling Messi’s spot here is PSV’s Mohammed Ihattaren. He may be unknown to some, but the teenager’s top-flight experience at a big club and callups to the Dutch national team back his ability.
Onto the next squad, which brings up some under the radar players, with the market value ranging between €5 to €15 million.
- ter Stegen: Yann Sommer (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
- Alba: Marcelo (Real Madrid)
- Lenglet: Aleksandar Dragović (Bayer Leverkusen)
- Piqué: Rick van Drongelen (Hamburger)
- Dest: Youssouf Sabaly (Bordeaux)
- Busquets: Nikola Moro (Dinamo Zagreb, now at Dynamo Moscow)
- Pedri: Maximiliano Meza (Monterrey)
- de Jong: Wendel (Zenit)
- Griezmann: Lars Stindl (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
- Messi: Josip Iličić (Atalanta)
- Dembélé: Ryan Kent (Rangers)
In goal, Yann Sommer played a big role in getting Borussia Mönchengladbach, ter Stegen’s former club, to Champions League football. On the attacking side, he is joined by his teammate, the well-rounded Lars Stindl.
Dragović becomes the third Bayer Leverkusen centre back to feature here. To his left, another big club alternative comes in for Alba and this time from Barça’s arch-rivals.
Moro (22), Wendel (23), and Kent (24) bring some younger legs to the side. Kent, in particular, has looked very impressive under the management of Steven Gerrard and is now looking to secure a league title while advancing in the Europa League.
Covering for Messi this time is another one of football’s ageing stars. While he may not have reached his peak until later in his career, Josip Iličić is making the most of it. He has put up excellent numbers across the board over the last few seasons, propelling Atalanta into Italy’s top three and the knockout stages of the Champions League.
To finish off, how about we look at a lineup of only young players? Here is the U-23 alternative eleven:
- ter Stegen: Florian Müller (Freiburg)
- Alba: Emir Karic (Rheindorf Altach)
- Lenglet: Dan-Axel Zagadou (Borussia Dortmund)
- Piqué: Flavius Daniliuc (Bayern Munich II, now at OGC Nice)
- Dest: Henry Uzochokwu (FC Midtjylland)
- Busquets: Nikola Moro (Dinamo Zagreb, now at Dynamo Moscow)
- Pedri: Delio Ramírez (Deportivo Pereira)
- de Jong: Claudio Gomes (Jong PSV, now at Manchester City U-23)
- Griezmann: Michel Vlap (Anderlecht, now at Bielefeld)
- Messi: Mohammed Ihattaren (PSV)
- Dembélé: Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund)
Some familiar names present, but with no market value range, there are a few relatively unknown footballers here. Sancho, the new star on the wings at Dembélé’s former club, would undoubtedly have to shoulder a lot of responsibility if this were a serious side. However, there is some real talent here.
Flavius Daniliuc is certainly one to watch for the future. A former member of both Real Madrid and Bayern Munich’s academies, the Austrian teenager, is now getting his first taste of top-flight football with Nice.
Frenchman in midfield Claudio Gomes is another solid prospect. He came through the Paris Saint-Germain academy and has represented France at each youth age group from U-16 to U-20. Gomes has made a short appearance for the Manchester City first team in the FA Cup this season, but at 20 years old, he could be on the move soon in search of first-team football.
The potential for forward Michel Vlap to become world-class may have run out, but he is definitely a serviceable player. After reaching double figures for goals in the Eredivisie in 2018/19, then the Belgian first division in 2019/20, the Dutchman earned his move to the big five leagues.
Of course, not much deeper insight can be drawn from this. The analysis here is done almost purely on a hypothetical level, as opposed to trying to prove anything. It does reveal some interesting trends, though.
We were able to highlight how Neymar has evolved to become more Messi-like, how Bayer Leverkusen use ball-playing centre backs similar to Barça, how Shakhtar Donetsk has some intriguing talents that Barça could monitor (several others were not mentioned), and more.
It does also make fans think about having to actually replace the likes of Messi and Busquets when they move on. Who will slot in for them for real when it is time?