As Barça and Bayern prepare to face each other in Friday’s Champions League quarter-finals, we take a look at the key individual battles of such clash.
Last Saturday, Barcelona had its nervy win over Napoli scoring a 3–1 victory, while, conversely, Bayern Munich steamrolled Chelsea on an aggregate of 7–1 to book their spot in the final 8 of the Champions League. With this, the football world is set to witness an enthralling fixture between the two European giants.
Both sides will be charged to knock out each other to reach semi-finals. Predictions show that, arguably, Bayern Munich will be dominating this game. They have got a stronghold in almost all areas; defence, attacks and midfield. Nonetheless, besides the dominance of the German champions, they leave chances for the opponents. The question is how Quique Setién’s team gets successful in keeping Hansi Flick’s front men at bay. Tactics will play a huge part in such duel, but so will individual performances. Thus, below we debate on the critical battles of such fixtures.
Do we need to compare the strikers? Lewandowski vs Suárez
Ever since Luis Suárez arrived in Catalonia, he has worked his socks off. Probably with his patience, confidence and status, he can win this show too. But for Robert Lewandowski: he is unstoppable. Suárez and Lewandowski, both can score and assist. However, the Poland international is better than the Uruguay national, as per the records.
Looking at the statistics of the 2019/20 season, Lewandowski has 34 goals and 64 shots on goal. In this sphere, Suárez is way behind with 16 goals and 43 shots on target. Sauntering to the next stats, the Barcelona striker is better with 8 assists, leaving the Polish behind with 4. However, the figures for passes proves Robert to be exceptional with 23 key passes to Suárez’s only 7. On the defensive side, Hansi Flick’s man has one block, 62 aerial duels and a total of 73 tackles. Well, here, Quique Setién’s target man got two blocks, 14 aerial duels and 25 tackles.
With 34 goals, Robert Lewandowski finished second in the Golden Boot race, only behind the 36 goals from Lazio’s Ciro Immobile | Photo by Matthias Hangst via Getty Images
Without debate, the importance of the Polish player to Bayern Munich is much greater right now than that of the former Liverpool star for Barça. If you take Suárez out of Setién’s squad, they may still somehow manage to score from different other positions. Try taking Flick’s number 9 out and boy, they are in trouble. Interestingly enough, it was proven this campaign when Lewandowski scored 34 times in 31 Bundesliga appearances, but the Germans struggled to score as much in the 90 minutes without his presence in the game.
On the contrary, when Uruguayan was injured, the Catalans managed to score goals as easily, if not more –– especially during his injury at the start of the season ––, in his absence. Hence, clearly, the Barcelona man is contributing relatively less than Lewy. Nonetheless, to prove this, the Friday night encounter between both centre-forwards will be electrifying. Presumably, Lewandowski’s better form and exceptional skills will give a tough time to his counterpart Suárez.
Midfield encounter: Müller and Thiago vs Busquets and De Jong
The strength of the Germans in this clash will be their midfield. However, in a way, their strength could be made their weakness if the 34-time Spanish champions start taking advantage of the half-spaces, overloading the midfield.
According to this season’s statistics, Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets has two assists whereas Thomas Müller is taking the lead here by having 20 assists so far. Talking about passes leading to a shot on goal, Müller is again leaving Busquets behind with 38 key passes while the former has 11 passes in his plate. While Sergio created 13 chances, Müller is winning the race by creating 58 chances in this season. When it comes to goals, the Spanish midfielder scored two goals and recorded four shots on goals. Whereas, the German professional is once again ahead there with 8 goals and 19 shots on target.
It is obvious, though, that the positions and roles of Busquets, a single pivot, and Thomas Müller, a Raumdeuter or space interpreter, are completely different. Their stats are very distinct, and it is normal and incomparable. What is clear, though, is that Sergio and Müller will face each other frequently throughout the match as it will be a duel that could define the tie. Bayern’s number 25 will look to occupy the spaces behind Busquets and in front of Barça’s centre-backs, while Sergio will be in charge of minimising those gaps. In a battle for space between two players mostly defined by their spatial awareness, whoever takes control of such position will be closer to coming out victorious.
“I don’t enjoy being classed as a striker. I don’t see myself as one. I like to be active in space in behind the opposition’s midfield. That’s where I can hurt the opponent most of all. I’m a mix between a striker and a midfielder”
Certainly, on the other side, Frenkie de Jong will be facing Thiago Alcântara. Graduated from La Masía, Thiago is considered to be the champion of the German champions’ attacks. Meanwhile, De Jong proved himself as a strong midfielder with his exceptional recent performance on Saturday against Napoli. Records say, Frenkie has two goals and four assists in 41 matches with Barcelona and Thiago has two assists and three goals in 37 games for Die Roten.
Müller is, undoubtedly considered to be a key component when he plays centrally for Bavarians. On the contrary, Barcelona has a good press-resistant midfield duo in the form of Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong. Without De Jong, Busquets won’t be able to handle the German midfielders. In an ideal situation, if the Barça midfielders overcome Bayern’s first line of defence, this will create an edge for them since Lionel Messi will be there to receive and show the magic. However, to avoid that, Hansi Flick’s men will be playing a very important role here to take hold of the opponents. While Thiago may be marking Messi, Müller will need to disconnect the midfield by taking over Barcelona’s tandem and pressing them.
Perhaps Müller can appear around the deepest-lying midfielder of Quique Setién’s duo. Chances are that with his passion and devotion he might limit the influence of the culés by making them lose possession there.
Germany’s best keeper: Ter Stegen vs Neuer
Besides both Marc-André ter Stegen and Manuel Neuer being world-class goalkeepers, last year their rivalry turned bitter in a tussle to become Germany’s number one. Thirty-four-year-old Neuer is considered to be one of the best keepers of this era. On the contrary, twenty-eight-year-old Ter Stegen is often said to be “Lionel Messi with gloves on”.
Lately, this battle of becoming Die Mannschaft‘s number one came to a rest only to get fuelled ahead of the Barça vs Bayern clash in the Champions League quarter-finals this season. This will be an interesting sight. As per the figures of the current season of the European competition, Barcelona’s number 1 conceded five goals in seven games, keeping two clean sheets. By contrast, in eight games, Manuel Neuer conceded six goals and kept four clean sheets.
“Germany is fortunate to have this pair of goalkeepers, although Neuer is truly world-class and Ter Stegen is still on his way to that level”
Bayern legend and current CEO
On the line, Ter Stegen has set some fabulous stats in the current Champions League season by saving 82.1 percent of shots whereas Neuer had a 75 percentage. When it comes to the foot, playmaker Neuer has registered an average of 41 passes per game, leaving behind Ter Stegen’s 28 passes per 90 minutes.
“Which coach isn’t going to play his best players out on the pitch? I don’t have any doubts I’m the best, even if I’m not 17 anymore”
dismissing Ter Stegen as competition for the starting spot in Germany
Both goalkeepers give each other neck-to-neck competition. Nonetheless, Friday’s night may be decisive to obtain a long-awaited answer: who of these two is the best German goalkeeper?
Messi vs the Bavarians
The enthralling encounter on Friday might bring flashbacks of the Barcelona star who was all fired up to win the 2014 World Cup. The situation is pretty much the same for this match as well: one match, neutral ground and no lead for anyone. While the German champions have a well-built team, with determination and will to win this battle, their greatest fear might give advantage to the culés: Lionel Andrés Messi Cuccittini.
Bayern are unbeaten in the last 27 competitive matches during the year 2020 –– making a notable record for the Germans by winning each of the last eighteen games. Interesting, yes? But this impressive figure can be taken with a small pinch of salt given that the Bavarians are yet to face the Argentine in this run of form.
Although facts say that Bayern are favourites to dominate this game and it is not justified to say that the alien magic alone will be enough to help Barcelona reach the semi-finals, the blaugranas will never give up on their hope of Lionel Messi taking the whole pressure on his shoulders and winning the game single-handedly against Flick’s eleven.
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.