The quarter-finals’ most anticipated clash is finally here. Barcelona locks horns with the favourites of the competition Bayern Munich in what will prove to be a decisive encounter. The Catalans breezed past SSC Napoli in the second-leg after a goal-fest in the first half. In this piece, a tactical analysis will be provided on the set-up, areas of strength and of weakness of Bayern Munich.
Bayern Munich and Barcelona face each other in the critical Champions League quarter-finals on Friday night. They are two clubs who changed managers mid-season, but two contrasting scenarios emerged. Bayern’s Hans-Dieter Flick is receiving accolades and appreciation all across Europe, while Quique Setién is under severe pressure. The reason behind the conflicting stances is the obvious levels of success both coaches have achieved. Flick masterminded his team to make a comeback title win at the Bundesliga. Setién, on the other hand, oversaw his side squander the lead at the top to gift La Liga to their rivals Real Madrid.
The difference occurrences now result in a difference in the mood around each camp. Usually irrespective of what the fixture is, Barça enter into the game as favourites. However, for once, this time, the Bavarians are tipped to win the tie. And this not only has to do with the difference in quality, form and fitness conditions, but it also has to do with the current mentality. Bayern Munich is on a seventeen match winning streak across all competitions which dates back to February of 2020. And now, they are just three wins away from completing the continental treble.
Having taken over the helm from Niko Kovač in November, Hansi Flick had a massive task ahead of him. Indeed, there wasn’t an astronomic point gap for them to overcome, but what he had to improve is the mental condition. Under Kovač, every single player was mentally drained out. They were tired of his training methods, frustrated with the tactics, and felt restricted with the lack of freedom. And this was visible in Bayern’s final games under Niko, where they didn’t seem to be enjoying their football.
Hansi Flick has transformed a weakened side into a winner and strong Champions League contender | Photo by Thomas Kienzle / AFP via Getty Images
So, when Flick took over, the first thing he did was set the player free. Players like Thomas Müller appeared to have no future at the club under the previous boss, now has reignited his career at the German outfit. Furthermore, Bayern began to play with a swagger and intensity that nobody saw after the Jupp Heynckes era. The players regained their confidence and have been restored into their best positions.
Hansi guiding Bayern to their eighth consecutive Bundesliga title seemed to be the most logical conclusion to their season. Along the way, they also picked up the DFB-Pokal. Having closed off the tie of the round of sixteen against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge itself, everybody expected them to be a little less intense in the second leg. Nonetheless, they maintained their ruthlessness, in fact, upped it, by beating them 4–1 at the Allianz Arena, with an aggregate of 7–1. They now head into the clash with Barça with utmost confidence that they can get the job done.
The fact that Barcelona will be underdogs in the clash will actually permit Setién to go with a different tactical approach. We saw numerous azulgrana enthusiasts expressing their displeasure for how the Catalans saw out the second half versus Napoli. But frankly, the fans wouldn’t really raise their voice over the performance as long as they beat Bayern. Flick will set his team up in a 4–2–3–1, with a rush of pace across both flanks.
While David Alaba has converted into a makeshift centre-back, he has actually done a fantastic job there alongside Jérôme Boateng. On the left flank, Alphonso Davies continues to shine brightly. His overlapping runs and surges upfield have been a pain in the neck for any side that faced Bayern. With Kingsley Coman also sitting ahead of the Canadian there’s an unbelievable amount pace and acceleration on the left wing. Still, both of them remains a doubt for the game against Barcelona due to minor fitness niggles.
From their full-backs to their striker, Bayern have an extremely complete side in all positions | Photo by Christian Kaspar-Bartke / Bongarts via Getty Images
On the right, they will be forced to deploying Joshua Kimmich at right-back. After Benjamin Pavard picked up an injury in training, the German who has been enjoying his football at midfield is forced to cover for him. Notwithstanding, that in no way does weaken the midfield as it paves the way for former Barcelona man Thiago Alcântara to make the double-pivot. The elegance of Thiago and the brute of Leon Goretzka will be a challenging combination to deal with. Serge Gnabry will look to maintain his ruthlessness on goal, after having a great season both as a right winger and an inverted winger when needed.
“Bayern are not just Lewandowski. The wingers get forward a lot, Müller, Gnabry are also very good…Lewandowski scores a lot of goals but the danger comes from anywhere”
Thomas Müller, who renewed his contract with the Bavarians is expected to cause menace for Barça’s backline through his movement. The Raumdeuter‘s work without the ball is what makes him one of the most challenging players to handle. Even so, his efforts don’t stop with just exploiting open spaces, as he also has an eye for the pass. He is one of the primary reasons why Robert Lewandowski manages to get into many scoring positions.
Bayern are expected to maintain a high line and press heavily upfield to retrieve the ball quickly. After that, they will look to quickly distribute it to the flanks, predominantly the left side. Lewandowski and Müller will be making life tough for Gerard Piqué and Clément Lenglet inside the box. The entire backline of Barcelona should have a steadfast performance if they intend to keep Bayern at bay.
Player to watch
Indeed, in a team full of quality, it would be unfair to pick only one player and say that he’s the crucial one. Nevertheless, there’s not much to argue over the fact that Robert Lewandowski must be watched throughout the game. Currently, the Pole can be regarded as one of the best strikers in the world. He doesn’t let even half chances go by and has made it a habit to make the opposition pay dearly for giving him space.
After scoring 34 goals in the Bundesliga, he was robbed late of the European Golden Shoe by SS Lazio’s Ciro Immobile. In the Champions League, he currently is on 13 goals. He was involved in all four goals the Bavarians scored versus Chelsea in the second-leg, scoring and assisting two apiece. Unlike most goalscoring strikers, Lewandowski has a lot of work involved in the build-up play as well. In addition to pressing high and winning the ball back, he also tries to hold it close to his body and free the wide-men.
At 31 years of age, Robert Lewandowski has been enjoying one of the best seasons of his career | Photo by Mike Hewitt via Getty Images
While Alphonso Davies makes overlapping runs from the left flank to feed deadly crosses into the box, Lewandowski makes sure that he is there to convert it. It’s not easy to be as consistent as the number nine has been for Bayern. Barcelona should ensure that he is devoid of space, time, and opportunities, else he can put the game to bed long before schedule. However, it is safe to say that one would have to sympathise with him. There’s no denying that this was statistically one of his best seasons. And had the France Football Association not rescinded the Ballon d’Or for this year, he would have been in contention for sure.
That said, Setién’s backline should be aware that in terms of challenges, there are hardly any mightier than Lewandowski. And keeping him quiet would essentially give the blaugranas a massive chance of progressing to the semis.
While Bayern Munich have many players worthy of praise and caution, there’s no hiding of the fact that even Barcelona possesses plenty of firepower. Lionel Messi still hasn’t been mentioned in this tactical preview, and he alone is enough to change the entire narrative. While Bayern has collectively had a fantastic season, the Argentine supremo continues to win games on his own. His goal against Napoli in the second leg was an epitome of resilience and desire. If he turns up to the occasion, then Bayern will definitely have to take a step back and focus on defending as well.
Aside from Messi, Barça have Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann who are slowly picking up their game at the right time. But the most pleasing development for the Catalans is the return of Ousmane Dembélé. The 23-year-old was given the green light by the medical staff to feature against the Germans. Undoubtedly, he will be exhilarated to make a comeback. Dembélé’s return comes at the perfect time as Setién has been completely devoid of wingers. The fact that Ansu Fati was the only viable option available for the Spanish tactician indicates how out of depth the squad is in certain departments.
“Of course, we are convinced. We know the potential of the rival, their numbers and their capacity, with extraordinary potential, but we are too. I think it will be an even game, with alternatives. We have a lot to say in this game.”
on beating Bayern Munich
It’s never easy to pick a definite winner when both squads are filled with players who can win games by themselves. Both sides should be wary of each other and should look to produce solid performances defensively. The fact that they’re only three wins away from winning the Champions League should be an extra motivation for both Barcelona and Bayern Munich. At the end of the day, a high voltage tactical battle awaits us. And irrespective of who comes at the top, we will have ninety minutes of football of the highest order.
How Zidane’s Real Madrid beat Koeman’s Barcelona
The highly anticipated day of El Clasico, the clash of eternal rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid finally arrived. The Blaugrana were just two points ahead of Los Blancos with the same number of games played. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid are at their most vulnerable right now; recent losses to Sevilla and Chelsea had already demoralized the team. Additionally, Luis Suarez – their top scorer -, is injured.
El Clasico has incredible importance on its own. Add to that the fact that it will be pivotal in the title race, and it becomes apparent how much it means to both sides. In this tactical analysis, we take a look at how Real Madrid managed to conquer Barcelona in a 2-1 victory.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona lined up in a 3-5-2 as expected. This formation is one that has contributed to Barcelona’s recent positive results significantly. Though this could be viewed as a 5-3-2 or even a 3-5-2-1 at times, the basic principles remained the same. Barcelona would look to build up from the back. The backline of Ronald Araujo with Clement Lenglet and Oscar Mingueza on either side of him was the platform upon which the team would build-up.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets would be the deepest player, with Frenkie De Jong and Pedri Gonzalez as the two interiors. These two youngsters would operate in the half-spaces as their roles entail, but they would drop back and join the attack as well. Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest, the two wing-backs, would look to stretch the opposition and would be positioned high up the field.
In attack, Lionel Messi was joined by Ousmane Dembele. The Frenchman would operate through the centre as Messi would usually drop back and have the freedom to move across the pitch.
Zinedine Zidane has often been labelled as someone who manages big egos well but doesn’t have tactical expertise. Purely a misconception, this match was an example of how well the retired midfielder sets up his team. What was most admirable was how Zidane finds the perfect role for his players’ profiles.
Real Madrid were deployed in a 4-1-4-1. Casemiro would play between the lines, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos just ahead oh him. This formation could also be viewed as a 4-5-1, which would be a 4-3-3 when attacking. In defence, Eder Militao and Nacho were the centre-halves with Lucas Vasquez and Ferland Mendy as the full-backs. To support the midfield as well as the attack, Vinicius Junior and Fede Valverde would act as wide midfielders.
Karim Benzema, the number nine, would drift into the channels or drop a bit deeper as required. He was the key to Madrid’s fluid attack. There would be a constant staggering between Benzema, Vinicius, and Valverde. When Benzema dropped deep to fight for the second ball, Vinicius and Fede would move forward and provide passing options. At times, Vasquez would overlap, which was Valverde’s cue to drop back. The players would also switch roles.
Madrid’s defensive organization
After getting a lead, Real Madrid were still proactive but to a lesser extent than earlier. They would even have five players defending at times, transitioning into a 5-4-1. Their timing and organization was impressive nonetheless. As we see in the image above, Ousmane Dembele is about to receive the pass. Immediately, Casemiro presses him, while other players start moving forward to close the distance to possible passing options. This meant Barcelona had little time on the ball deep in Madrid’s half.
The pressing shown by Los Blancos was very fine-tuned. The players were unsurprisingly not hesitant to play a physical game as well. As the earlier image shows us, Ousmane Dembele would receive the ball ahead of the defense and attempt to involve other players. Pedri and de Jong were the most obvious passing options. However, for them, the passing would more often than not be out wide. This was forced due to Madrid’s structure which prevented them from playing through the middle.
Arguably one of Barcelona’s strongest moves is when Messi plays Jordi Alba through between the full-back and centre-halves. Though it was effective at some points in the match, this was clearly something Zidane expected. When either full-back would have crossing options, the full-backs would look to block the cross.
Simultaneously, the centre-halves would track Barcelona’s attackers Messi and Dembele. These two being the only two forwards, Mingueza’s goal was one of the few times the team actually had more players looking to attack. Casemiro would be in the box looking to clear the ball or cover for any defensive holes.
What went wrong for Barcelona?
Ronald Koeman’s team selection was well-thought-out. Shifting de Jong to midfield was a smart choice. However, as the scoreline clearly shows, some issues persisted.
One of the main ones being the lack of attackers in the final third. This was a formation with two attackers on paper, but one of them was Messi. Expecting the argentine to make runs off the ball and act as a target man is highly unrealistic. He does best when he’s on the ball. This would leave Dembele alone upfront. The Frenchman isn’t a classic number 9 who takes shots on the swivel and can establish himself in the box. Against a defence that was sitting very deep, he was unable to run onto the ball between the full-backs and centre-halves the way he likes to.
The image above shows a common scenario observed in the first half. Receiving the ball in the final third, Dembele turns to face the defenders. As they don’t lunge in, rather trying to contain him. he is unable to beat them in a 1v1. There is plenty of space with no Barcelona players highlighted in the image. This lack of attackers was one of the reasons Koeman switched to the 4-3-3. Shown below, the 4-3-3- allowed Pedri and Dembele to be more involved.
Below, we have a visualization showing the PPDA stats for both teams. A lower PPDA means a higher pressing intensity. As we can see, Barcelona were clearly pressing much more than Real Madrid throughout the match. Despite this, they failed to create enough chances. To demonstrate this, we can observe the xG graph.
As the xG graph shows, there were some situations when the Catalans had a chance to change the score-line in their favour. Among other reasons, Dembele’s inability to play as a striker and inefficiency in finishing was clearly affecting the team. The visualization below the xG graph shows the shot map. It further reaffirms the observation that Barcelona need to improve in front of the goal and in terms of the quality of chances created.
With a higher number of shots, Barcelona still had a lower xG than their rivals. Another indication of low-quality chances is the size of the circles in the box for both teams. The smaller the circle, the less likely it is to end up in the back of the net. The stark contrast is one of the many indicators that there are major issues to be resolved in attack for Koeman’s side.
This loss will hurt Barcelona, even more so as it strengthens the notion that his team doesn’t show up in big matches. If Koeman’s side wants to be Champions, now is the time to give their all. One cannot ignore the fact that the Blaugrana have a lot of work to do to be deserving of the La Liga title. Whether or not they will be able to do this remains to be seen.