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.
Can Alexander Isak be the firepower Barcelona need in their attacking arsenal
With incoming presidential elections and the resulting anticipation of a rebuild, more and more players are being linked to Barcelona. Besides big names like Erling Haaland and David Alaba, Real Sociedad centre-forward Alexander Isak is reportedly on the Catalans’ radar. A new striker is an absolute must for the club and Isak’s €70 million release clause is turning heads. His stock is rising and he has a bright future ahead of him, but should Barcelona pursue him?
Isak is currently in the midst of his second season for Basque-outfit Real Sociedad. The 21-year old started his career at the Swedish club AIK before moving to Borussia Dortmund’s youth setup in 2017. Lacking first-team opportunities, he was loaned to Dutch club Willem II, where he tallied an impressive 14 goals and 7 assists in 18 appearances. Isak then moved to Sociedad in the summer of 2019 and scored 16 goals in his debut season. This season, he has 12 goals in 29 appearances.
He has been dubbed the “next Zlatan Ibrahimovic” by some, and with the Swedish national team, Isak has scored five goals in 18 appearances.
Tactical and Statistical Analysis
Isak has all the attributes of a classic “target man”, one whose main role is to win aerial duels and play off of creative teammates, but his game is much more than that. He stands tall at 190 cm, or 6 foot 3 inches, but has incredible speed and balance. Despite his height, however, he is only winning 42% of his aerial duels this season.
Isak likes to play off the shoulder of the defence, eagerly waiting for through balls from creative midfielders like Mike Merino or David Silva. Alternatively, he can also hold the ball up. With his combination of speed and dribbling ability, he is a constant threat on the counter-attack, capable of getting past defenders or dragging bodies and creating space for runners. He also has decent vision and passing acumen for a centre forward, but Sociedad’s set up doesn’t allow him to maximize these qualities.
Statistically, he is averaging 1.36 dribbles per 90 minutes this season at a clip of 64.8%. According to fbref.com, when compared to forwards in Europe’s top five leagues (Spain, England, France, Germany, and Italy), Isak stands out in terms of his successful pressures rate (93rd percentile), pressures in the attacking third (81st percentile), and carries into the penalty area (87th percentile).
In front of the goal, Isak is dangerous with both his feet and his head. He is unpredictable with his finishing, always keeping defenders and goalkeepers on edge. This campaign, his 12 goals are fairly evenly distributed: six with his right foot, three with his left, and three with his head. Most of his goals have come from through balls or passes over the defence. He carries the ball in his stride and finishes with confidence.
His goalscoring record was rough to start the season, scoring only four goals across 20 appearances, but he’s picked things up in 2021. The forward has been in rich vein of form, already scoring nine goals this calendar year. Furthermore, in La Liga, he has scored in each of his last six appearances, not to mention a hat trick last time out against Alavés. He could have a breakout season if he continues scoring at this rate, attracting offers from teams across Europe.
Where would he fit at Barça?
Naturally, Isak fits a need for the Blaugrana at centre forward. The team has no natural “number nine” –other than Martin Braithwaite — and with Messi entering his twilight years and potentially leaving in the summer, they desperately need goal-scorers. The Swedish international is well adapted to playing as a lone striker in a 4-3-3 system and is already accustomed to playing in La Liga, so Barça won’t need to worry about adaptation along those lines.
Tactically, his height and runs into the box could bring a different dimension to a fairly one-dimensional Barça attack. While he could fit in well with the team’s patient and possession-oriented approach, his game is more suited for runs into open spaces and spearheading counter attacks.
The question is, would he start for Barcelona? Messi is best suited for a false nine role, and Isak would not displace Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, or Ansu Fati in the front line. On the contrary, he could be an extremely productive squad option, but his potential transfer fee would be too high to warrant such a role.
Should Barcelona pursue him?
There are plenty of intriguing reasons for Barça to pursue Isak, but he should not be their number one transfer target. He undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of him and is showing immense quality this season, but he might not be ready to carry Barcelona’s front line.
There will be a lot asked of him, and he will be expected to perform on the biggest stages in world football, and his zero goals in the Europa League this season are not reassuring. Despite his incredible form over the last few games, Barça need to see more consistent output if he is to be their number nine for the next decade.
He would also cost the club around 70 million euros, and that money could serve the team better by investing that in other areas like centre back or centre defensive mid.
While he is still young and has time to improve, Barcelona should focus on more refined and finished products.
On the one hand, Isak could bring a lot to the Blaugrana and offer much-needed variation to their attack. On the other hand, there are signs pointing to the fact that he is not yet the calibre of player Barcelona need to lead their frontline, especially for that sum of €70 million. He could be a more than sufficient squad option and someone who could develop in the long term, but once again, that transfer fee warrants caution.
Also, facilitating his move could be quite difficult given that his ex-team Borussia Dortmund have a reported €30 million “buy-back” clause attached to his name. If (and when) the German club are to lose Erling Haaland, they could easily opt for Isak as his replacement.
Isak is a solid striker and has a lot of potential, but he is not yet the player capable of leading Barcelona’s front line. That paired with his potential transfer fee means the club should focus on other transfer targets first.