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.
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.