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Beating Bayern: towards Barça’s Champions League clash

Dario Poggi

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Header Image by Josep Lago / AFP via Getty Images

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.

Lionel Messi Jordi Alba Barça Bayern Champions League

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”

Lothar Matthäus
Bayern legend

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…

Alphonso Davies Bayern Barça Champions League

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 Barça Bayern Champions League

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.


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Football is art. And art is meaningless without a touch of magic. As Italian, being in love with AC Milan since childhood was pretty common: humility, elegance and hunger has always been the common grounds. Then a little guy from Argentina landed in Barcelona, a kid called Lionel Messi. I began to get the word about him, until I watched him caressing that ball for the first time during the 2009 Champions League final: I was in love. So I decided to share my thoughts about Leo's journey with others, with the goal to create a respectful community about the greatest of all time – and some more.

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Analysis

Barcelona vs Real Madrid: The Game through Numbers

Soumyajit Bose

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Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP

A detailed look into the game by numbers, statistics, and tactics as FC Barcelona fell to defeat against Real Madrid in the first El Clasico of the season.


Following a high-flying victory against Ferencvaros in the opening game of the Champions League, FC Barcelona returned to action in La Liga against Real Madrid at Camp Nou. However, the game didn’t go as Ronald Koeman planned, and Barcelona stumbled to defeat in the first El Clasico of 2020-21. This followed a draw against Sevilla and a shock loss to Getafe and left Barcelona midtable 5 games into the season.

Team Structures

Ronald Koeman sprung in several surprises ahead of this fixture. Firstly, Jordi Alba returned from injury to play as left-back, while Sergi Roberto was omitted altogether for Sergiño Dest. Philippe Coutinho played as left-wing. 17-year old Pedri got to start the Classico as a reward for his performances but was fielded on the right-wing. Lionel Messi played as the no. 10 behind Ansu Fati as the striker.

Off the ball, Barcelona defended in a 4-4-2 with Messi and Fati staying and pressing up. From touch-based heatmaps, there are two interesting features.

Firstly, while Frenkie de Jong played in a relatively advanced role, he stayed quite wide. Sergio Busquets occupied the central channels. However, tasking his old legs to guard such a big zone resulted in recurring issues.

Secondly, Pedri is not a natural winger. He loves to play centrally. Having three natural CAMs in Pedri, Coutinho and Messi on-field and forcing two of them to play as wingers was never a good idea, to begin with. Pedri kept drifting inside, as shown in the heatmaps. Both Coutinho and Pedri were limited in their influence. Koeman’s overthinking and tinkering nullified both their strengths.

Real Madrid on the other hand set up in a skewed 4-3-3 as shown. Early injury to Nacho resulted in Lucas Vazquez coming on as the right back for the remainder of the game. Vinicius stayed high and wide, while Marco Asensio drifted in and out, often letting Federico Valverde occupy the wider channels.

Barcelona’s structure after the 81st minute deserves a special mention. Koeman made several offensive subs, bringing on Antoine Greizmann, Ousmane Dembele, Martin Braithwaite and Fransisco Trincáo into the game, in place of Pedri, Fati, Busquets and Alba. To top it all off, Coutinho was slotted as the only pivot in the side, instead of de Jong as the shape devolved into a bizarre 3-1-6.

Attacks and Buildups

This game had a clear moment after which the game changed – minute 62. Until then, Barcelona were evidently the better team starting to dominate a bit as well. Here are the stats from the entire game:

Barcelona were outshot, outscored, and had fewer shots on target – but a lot of that’s skewed from what happened minute 62 onwards. From the PPDA (Passes per Defensive Action) data, which is a proxy for pressing intensity, it’s evident that neither team went for a very high press. Here is the shot map and xG flow:

Minute 62 was when Clement Lenglet fouled by pulling Sergio Ramos’ shirt inside the penalty area while defending a corner. Ramos didn’t need a second invitation to exaggerate the pull. He fell theatrically to the ground, won a penalty, and Barcelona were chasing the game that moment onwards.

The first blood was drawn by Madrid after a moment of disastrous marking by Busquets allowed Federico Valverde to run into Barcelona’s box, unmarked, and smash home from Karim Benzema’s pass.

Thankfully, Barcelona did not take long to reply. A delightful ball over the top from Lionel Messi met Jordi Alba’s well-timed run, and Alba’s square pass was prodded home by Ansu Fati. Here is a little animation of the goal:

As mentioned earlier, Madrid’s second goal came from a penalty, scored by Ramos himself. And Luka Modric capitalized on some terrible defending to make it 3-1 in the 91st minute.

Passing

Neither team were truly impressive in passing. Here are the most dangerous passes by both teams:

Passes into the box were few by either team. Barcelona did manage to get into the box from central zone 14 or half-spaces, while Madrid clearly utilised their greatest strength – attacking from wide areas. It’s also shown in the key passes map:

However, in buildup, Madrid were far more expansive. They switched the play a lot as compared to Barcelona.

Comparing the passes completed in the final third by each team, quantified by field tilt – Barcelona completed a greater number of final-third passes. However, the field tilt, or final third territory gained, was being dominated by Madrid in the first half. Barcelona started the second half positively and dominated territory. However, they got scored against the run of play. After that, Madrid were happy to let Barcelona keep possession and attacked the team on the counter.

Defence and Pressing

Both teams exhibited some terrible defending in the first half, to say the very least. Both goals were conceded from such cases.

As mentioned before, there were huge gaps in the midfield, and too much space between the midfield and defence; i.e. poor covering by Busquets and de Jong. Madrid made the best use of this for their first goal, and repeated it several times as the clock ticked ahead.

In the first image, it is evident that too many Barcelona players got sucked in trying to press the Madrid defence, resulting in a huge void in the midfield. Madrid play out of the press with ridiculous ease.

In the second image, the gap between Dest and Pique is appalling. Both centre-backs are engulfed towards Benzema for some reason, and Busquets completely loses track of Valverde’s run. One simple through ball and the job is done.

Almost immediately after that, Vinicius almost scored a second. Quick combination with Benzema in the box, while Busquets is seen jogging outside the box, there is a huge space to attack. Thankfully, Vinicius’ poor decision making and first touch allow Alba to throw him off.

The next example, again in the first half, shows terrible spacing between defenders, and terrible tracking from Busquets. A simple ball behind Dest, who is in isolation with the rest of the backline meets a well-timed run that Busquets can’t keep up with.

The next two examples are from the second half:

In the first one, the “pivot” Coutinho loses track of Toni Kroos’ run. Kroos runs onto Vazquez’s cutback to take a shot that Neto saves marvellously, and denies the German again pouncing perfectly on the rebounded shot.

The second image shows the moment when Vazquez lobs a ball into Ramos’ path, who is completely unmarked on the far post. Thankfully, Neto comes to Barça’s rescue saving the Madrid’s captain volley with his foot.

Madrid didn’t cover themselves in glory either, especially in the first half. Barcelona’s only goal of the game came as a result of terrible tracking from Nacho as Alba found space behind him. There were giveaways in midfield that led to multiple chances as well.

Most notably, Fati’s lofted ball into the path of an unmarked Messi, who eviscerated Ramos with a quick dribble but shot straight into the hands of Thibaut Courtois at the near post. However, they weren’t as often as Barcelona’s, and in general, resulted in lower quality chances.

As mentioned before, neither team went all out to the press. Barcelona’s pressing structure was so poor that Madrid played through it without trouble. They could even manage elaborate buildups, with two examples shown below:

Issues

Shambolic would be the right word to define Barcelona’s defending in the game. The lack of speed and the alertness to track runners was exposed yet again. The card-happy centre-backs came to haunt Barcelona again, as Lenglet gave away a poor penalty.

Busquets, on the other hand, looks far from being a starter and should be replaced as soon as possible. And if he somehow manages to retain his spot in the lineup, the midfield structure needs to be fixed so that he doesn’t get tasked with defending such a wide area.

The substitutions and Koeman’s game management made little to no sense. As seen in the Getafe game, in more cases than not, more forwards does not equate to more goals. The midfield was non-existent in the last 10 minutes, and Los Blancos made the best use of this as they scored the third where Luka Modric made the Barcelona defence dance.

Conclusion

The game was pretty even for nearly one hour, with neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid standing out as the better team. Post that, however, the scoreline spoke for itself.

Sergiño Dest made a solid claim for starting as right back in the coming games. He was outstanding in defence and quite courageous and innovative in the offence, with some neat dribbles. Fati kept his goalscoring form alive, becoming the youngest ever scorer in an El Clasico. Neto ended the game as arguably the best player on the pitch, but that is more bad news than good for the Garnet and the Blue.

However, there are defensive, structural, tactical, and personnel problems to be ironed out by Koeman in the future, especially if he wants to retain his job after a change of presidency. Otherwise, this could turn out to be a worse season the previous one for La Liga.

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