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.
Ronald Koeman starts to find the pieces to Barça’s jigsaw
While the whole Europe has started or is approaching to start their respective national campaigns, Ronald Koeman is trying to find the right system to display his force as soon as the La Liga season starts for Barça in about a week. But with the Nàstic and Girona friendlies already on the Dutch manager’s stomach, has he already found the right men to do the job?
As Barcelona’s start of the season finally approach, after the team had more rest days due to the late Champions League ending, it is fair to underline how its newest manager, new coach Ronald Koeman is still trying to find the right notes to complete the symphony. A symphony that is yet to be completed and to be refined, but certainly one that has been quickly asserting the right tracks under its belly.
This year’s preseason has been an unknown for all professional sports out there, with many having to occur in faster, soarer training sessions than usual. While the fitness aspect of it all will probably be the main cause of differences this season, as fitness coaches had to reduce the workloads and increase speed sessions to keep the players fresh and ready, the managers’ job will be much harder in terms of creating the right harmony and cohesion in a short period of time. There is no enough time to practice the desired movements, tactical systems and other structural aspects of a team’s in-pitch organisation.
Barça, apart from an athletic routine that hasn’t much been under scrutiny in recent history due to the club’s different values, had a few more problems to cope with. Lionel Messi‘s transfer saga, the motion of no confidence against president Josep Maria Bartomeu, a new manager, a strange signings strategy – both in and out of the club –, and more. In all the chaos that Barcelona is right now, Koeman’s job has been much harder than what it could have been under normal circumstances. Still, the Dutchman is slowly finding his rhythm with the team.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona is taking shape | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images
One of the biggest tactical unknowns of Koeman’s appointment was whether he was going to keep Barça’s vintage 4–3–3 system, or if he was going to change it in a 4–2–3–1, due to his own preferences and the team’s characteristics. After very much debating between fans and pundits, the first two friendlies of Barça’s short preseason gave the environment the answer it was looking for: 4–2–3–1.
While the tactical system is different from the culés‘ traditional one, Koeman’s mentality and footballing ideas are far from being the opposite of Barça’s. Offensive, intense and vertical football are a must for Barcelona’s expectations as much as Koeman’s interpretations. There is a perfect binomial conduction between the club and its new employee.
Football in preseason is as much a test for all the players in a team’s roaster as a training to keep the legs rolling and the lungs filling the air. So were the recent friendlies against Nàstic de Tarragona and Girona. As expected, Koeman literally played eleven different players per half in both games, with a few changes in the last one. And as the coach was varying things and changing the pieces of the puzzle, you could already see the ideas, the movements, the principles that he wanted to give to the team.
As many distressed fans have already noticed, the defence that suffered eight goals against Bayern Munich has not changed a bit. While it may seem discouraging for some, having such individual qualities at the back paired with some solid and correct defensive training may end up being the best signing Barça could do to improve its backline.
With Marc-André ter Stegen on its way back to recovery after surgery, Neto will be the only difference in Barcelona’s defence this season, with lack of competition from the bench arising. At least, as long as Manchester City keeps its firm stand on the Eric García situation and Sergiño Dest doesn’t move to the Camp Nou.
With a proven-to-be two-man midfield in Barça’s new squad, a Koeman favourite will certainly find his place game in, game out: Frenkie de Jong. As the same manager told upon his arrival, it is a shame to watch players like De Jong – and Antoine Griezmann – in unusual positions, as they will not perform at the levels they are expected to.
“The plan is to start playing Frenkie de Jong in the position that he plays with the national team as well. I remember attending a Barcelona game and I saw him play a position where I wouldn’t play him as a coach. You’ve spent a lot of money on a young player. You should then play him in his own position, where he can perform in a way you’d expect from him. He has shown at Ajax and with the Dutch national team which position suits him best and that is where he will be playing at Barcelona as well”Ronald Koeman
With De Jong‘s place not being threatened by anyone else except himself, it is expected from Riqui Puig and Carles Aleñá to provide that support quality and solutions from the bench or, in some cases, to perform in an eventual three-man midfield, with Puig being hierarchically higher than the former Real Betis loanee.
Next to De Jong is a position that is going to be fought for the whole length of the season: Sergio Busquets’ intelligence or Miralem Pjanić‘s quality? With an ageing Busquets, it will be the first time in twelve years that his place will be under severe scrutiny by the club, as years go by and fresher legs come in place. But while the Bosnian’s quality will be very much needed throughout the entire season, Busquets’ tactical awareness is going to be a solid piece of refinery yet again.
Slowly approaching Barça’s biggest guns, it is no secret that the Catalan’s team offensive overbooking is going to keep several doors open throughout the whole season. Having the freedom of two players per position is a manager’s dream, but while it may be a benefit, it is also a challenge to keep the team balanced and the moods paced.
With the signings of two youngsters such as Francisco Trincão and Pedri, both incredibly bright against Nàstic and Girona, Barcelona’s wide game takes a big jump in terms of volume, youth and creativity. But with Luis Suárez’s mysterious future under supervision, the seniority of Barça’s main man upfront will take its advantage overall. At least initially.
“I liked Trincão positionally, sometimes coming inside and sometimes going outside. He has the quality and has to adapt to the speed and rhythm. He’s a great signing”Ronald Koeman, on Francisco Trincão after the 3–1 win over Nàstic last Saturday
Apart from Ansu Fati, who is already considered a senior throughout the whole footballing world, Messi and Antoine Griezmann seem to be Koeman’s main men for the central roles up top: as much as they will both exchange their positions, the Argentinian is destined to take the playmaking role, while the French World Cup winner will move around him and try to create spaces and finish chances for the team.
Besides Barça’s business, Philippe Coutinho is another player to have returned to the blaugrana headquarters. Full of determination, he will look to prove himself once and for all where he wanted to be ever since his Liverpool days. With similar motives to the Brazilian’s, but with different sources, Ousmane Dembélé is approaching the start of a defining season for him: either he proves to be world-class or he goes home. And with the explosion of Ansu Fati and the incredible talent he brings to the field, those three may feature in most of Barça’s games in this start of the season. Ansu Fati’s injury permitting, of course. However, Trincão and Pedri’s talents may change many’s minds, Koeman’s included.
“He [Pedri] is a great talent. He’s 17 and such an important signing for our future. He has trained with us and has the quality to play, so we’ll see how much he can take part”RONALD KOEMAN, AFTER beating NÀSTIC LAST SATURDAY
Ronald Koeman is slowly finding the pieces to solve this incredibly difficult puzzle that Barça appears to be. It is going to take more than just a few friendlies and a few good performances to overturn the season’s predictions around Barcelona’s offices. That is why players are tools for a team to perform. You can have better or worse ones. But the mentality and the identity of a team’s way of playing are principles much more important for a club’s success in the pitch.
It is no surprise that, perhaps, the most positive aspect of the new Barça’s performances over the course of the first two friendlies has not been a single player, a chance created or a defensive movement. Instead, it has been the intensity of the team’s ball movement mixed with those two, maximum three, touches per player.
The path to Barcelona’s native brilliance is long and hard, but having the right mindset to attack this jigsaw is the best strategy that the Dutch manager could employ. One idea, 4–2–3–1, eleven optimal choices and the highest intensity possible. Step by step, game after game, Koeman’s Barça will surface. With patience. And, as in microeconomics when supply meets demand, in football, when principles meet practicality, the puzzle is solved.