Barcelona – Bayern Munich: Ineffective Barcelona Fold Against Cruising Bayern (0-3)
At times in the first half, it looked like Bayern were intentionally keeping the game slow as they waited for Barcelona to react. Instead, they found an opponent uninterested in attacking and ineffective in defending, as Ronald Koeman’s side crumbled in view of the manager’s misguided conservatism.
Tactical analysis and match report by Manasvin Andra.
As Barcelona prepared to host Bayern Munich at the Camp Nou, ghosts of the 8-2 defeat in Lisbon reared their head. Then, they had Messi; now, even the safety blanked offered by the greatest to ever do it has been taken away. In his place is a Spanish prodigy who has already drawn comparisons to Iniesta, and two Dutchmen whose ability to put the team in their shoulders is one of the few promises of the post-Messi era. They also retained the wily old play constructor at the base of their midfield; still, Bayern simply looked several levels above from a talent standpoint.
However, a strong collective can go a long way in masking individual deficiencies, and that is what Ronald Koeman sought to create. Barcelona used a 5-3-2 shape, with a defence of Eric García, Gerard Piqué and Ronald Araújo being flanked by the wingback pair of Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto. Ahead of them sat Sergio Busquets, with Pedri and Frenkie de Jong. Leading from the front was new talisman Memphis Depay and the recently signed Luuk de Jong, who it was hoped would provide Barcelona with a different style of play.
Fresh off a beatdown of his old club, Julian Nagelsmann arrived in Spain with a similar team, with Niklas Süle replacing Dayot Upamecano in central defence. Benjamin Pavard and Alphonso Davies continued as the fullbacks, bombing forward to support the double pivot of Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka. Robert Lewandowski led the line, with Leroy Sané, Thomas Müller and surprise starter Jamal Musiala backing him up.
Barcelona surrenders offensive initiative
From the beginning, it was clear that Barcelona wouldn’t look to aggressively push their fullbacks up. It was a clear 5-3-2 shape off the ball, which occasionally turned into a 5-1-3-1 shape with gaps opening up between Busquets and the offensive quartet. The defense couldn’t move forward to close the gap because they were pinned by Bayern’s forwards, and Busquets needed to stay back as a screener to intercept passes and give Barcelona an advantage in defense. This was risky since any one of Bayern’s forwards could drop off the line and receive with space, though Pedri and de Jong could have recovered if it had happened.
Busquets had to cover a huge amount of his space by himself, which posed threatening situations for Barcelona.
The Barcelona press did not trouble Bayern, since they rarely pressed with the requisite intensity or numbers to force turnovers. One tweak that was evident was Roberto stepping up to disrupt Davies when he received the ball, with Araújo coming across to keep a watch on Sané while monitoring the space behind. In these phases, Alba would tuck into the defensive line, ensuring a four man-chain at all times. This meant that space was available to Bayern down their right, and they used this to bring the ball forward through either the dropping movements of Müller and Lewandowski or Kimmich’s passing.
With Busquets and de Jong acting as screeners, there were occasions when they managed to intercept Bayern passes. This was followed by immediate passes into Depay, on whom lay the burden of turning and generating attacking transitions. The Dutchman is an adept receiver and did manage to turn and feed Luuk de Jong once, but he was offside and was anyway handled with ease by Pavard. These passes arrived not only from interceptions but also from buildup scenes, where ter Stegen or García hit it directly to the forwards. Again, it must be noted that none of this troubled Bayern, who were comfortable and cruised through the first half.
Bayern demonstrate clear superiority
The visitors’ shape in possession allowed them to stretch Barcelona laterally, and with the Catalans keeping no more than four men to the press, the home side weathered the storm while sacrificing the initiative on offense. Their narrow shape – which focused on blockading passes through the center – meant Bayern has access to the wings in their own half, with Pavard in particular invited to begin the attacking sequence. Additionally, Bayern could also use up back and through sequences to pull Barcelona forward and get in behind, though the home side’s uncharacteristic emphasis on defense held them at bay. This did not stop Bayern from getting into the box, with a strike from Sané being kept out by ter Stegen. Despite looking like they were coasting, the visitors had the clear upper hand throughout, with Koeman’s structure essentially setting Barcelona up for failure.
This was seen in situations where Bayern breached the Barcelona half, which prompted the Catalans to shift across and crowd the passer. This led to more circulation for Bayern, who were comfortable in reverting to the defense and always had Davies available for the outlet pass. They were helped by erratic positioning of the midfield and forwards, since the first line barely exerted any pressure and the midfield retreated till they were part of the defensive line. This meant that Bayern had essentially beaten two lines, with only the defensive line remaining.
While the big switches of play did not arrive – neither Musiala and Sané neither has the tendency to access the other flank in the manner of Serge Gnabry or Kingsley Coman – what the wingers do have is the ability to play an instinctive brand of football that complements the strengths of key attackers like Lewandowski and Müller. That is precisely how the first goal arrived for the visitors, with Müller’s strike from outside the box sending ter Stegen going the wrong way after a deflection off García.
More of the same in the second half
The first half concluded with Bayern reducing their pressure as Barcelona circulated amongst themselves to slowly build an attacking sequence. That incisiveness never arrived, and the second period began with the same kind of Bayern domination. While Barcelona tried to press with some vigor, the suboptimal positioning of the midfield meant that they had to travel greater distance to press the defenders. If they did jump it was easy to circulate to the far side and Sané, whose dropping movement into midfield was the trigger for Davies to run in behind and drag Roberto with him.
Further, with Luuk de Jong and Depay waiting to receive the ball, it was easy for Bayern to hound Busquets and Frenkie de Jong till they retook possession. Shutting down Barcelona’s only creative hubs meant the pressure intensified on the Catalans, and it told as Lewandowski reacted before Araújo to a Musiala shot that rebounded into the box. 2-0 to Bayern, and with Koeman withdrawing Busquets in favor of the young Gavi, the game was effectively finished.
Still, infused with energy from Gavi, Yusuf Demir and Phillippe Coutinho, Barcelona pressed, though the problems that had plagued them before continued now.
Substitutions helped increase the speed of Barcelona’s play; the formation morphed into a 4-3-3 structure with Memphis Depay and Frenkie de Jong as the focal points.
The withdrawal of García meant that Barcelona shifted into a 4-3-3 shape, with Frenkie de Jong at the base of midfield flanked by Pedri and Gavi. Depay was the striker who dropped to create a diamond in midfield, with Coutinho offering creativity on the left and Demir bringing some much-needed pace and athleticism to the attack. While surrounding Frenkie de Jong and Depay with smart players who can keep the ball moving and can cut in behind is a good idea, there is a limit to how much success can reasonably be expected against arguably the best team in the world. The arrival of Gnabry, Marcel Sabitzer and Coman indicated the gulf in quality between the teams, and Lewandowski’s 85th minute strike was the icing on the cake as Bayern took a comfortable victory.
Even the most ardent Barcelona supporter must have recognized that as constructed, Barcelona are not amongst Europe’s elite. There is a dearth of talent that must be accounted for before they return to the top, and it will take time before that moment arrives. What cannot be countenanced is the kind of set-up Koeman used, as it seemed like the goal was to avoid a shellacking rather than aiming for points. Even that meagre goal was not achieved; worse, Barcelona looked nothing like the side they can be with proper coaching.
Bayern should have put this game away sooner, but they also cannot be blamed for coasting for long stretches. They came to take points and make a statement about their status as contenders – both were achieved in a fashion befitting the Big Red Machine.
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