Bayern Munich – Barcelona: Bayern Finish The Job As Barcelona Hit Rock Bottom (3-0)
At the beginning of the season, not even the biggest skeptic would have suggested that falling into the Europa League was within the range of potential outcomes that awaited Barcelona this side of the Lionel Messi era. Yet that is precisely the future that Xavi’s group now faces, as Bayern Munich picked up where they left off in demolishing Barcelona’s cathedral.
Tactical analysis and match report by Manasvin Andra.
So thoroughly did fear and pessimism define Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona that even the financial implications of his removal did not stand in the way of his exit. Having lost Lionel Messi, Barcelona seemed farther than they had ever been from their identity, a situation that was clearly untenable for President Joan Laporta. Little surprise then that he tapped the true heartbeat of the greatest Barcelona side of all time – Xavi is back, bringing with him the kind of hope that only the past can conjure.
Despite the Catalan’s return, results have been uneven, with Barcelona suffering a loss to Real Betis before arriving in Munich. The importance of this result could not be overstated – a loss would mean that they would drop into the Europa League, a result once unimaginable for this juggernaut. That it was coming against a Bayern team that had ended an era only emphasized the magnitude of this occasion; as a result, Xavi’s team was closely scrutinised upon its announcement.
The coach went for the expected 4-3-3 formation, with Marc-André ter Stegen receving protection from Gerard Piqué and Clément Lenglet. Jordi Alba and Ronald Araújo were the fullbacks, behind a midfield trio of Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong and Gavi Paez. The line was led by Memphis Depay, who was flanked by Ousmane Dembélé and Sergiño Dest on the left and right respectively.
On the other hand, with qualification sealed, Bayern Munich only had to show up to the game to finish the group stage proceedings. However, the Bavarians knew that Barcelona was there for the taking, just as they were during the first meeting between the two sides. Given the occasion and absences through injury, Julian Nagelsmann made the expected changes from the side that beat Borussai Dortmund in Der Klassiker. Niklas Süle replaced Lucas Hernandez in defense, while Jamal Musiala replaced Leon Goretzka in midfield. Over the past couple of games, it has been Kingsley Coman at right winger rather than Serge Gnabry, which continued for this game in the usual 4-2-3-1 shape.
Barcelona controls the opening half hour
Coming into this game, the expectation was that Barcelona would be pressed into exhaustion and countered into oblivion. Surprisingly, neither of these events transpired in a robust first half performance from the visitors.
The tone was set with a high pressing scheme on goal kicks, where Barcelona’s 4-3-3 shape turned into a ball oriented 4-4-2 press.
Barcelona’s pressing scheme in action. This also shows how Bayern had issues with their progression in the absence of their first choice double pivot. Here, Musiala and Coman are at the edge of the scene.
The idea was to man mark the ball carrier’s options after cornering him on the touchline, which extended even to the defenders tracking the dropping Bayern forwards to an extent. This was effective when the ball was deep in Bayern territory, but had the potential to be fatal if Bayern’s first choice double pivot was available. Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka would have combined to eradicate the pressing structure; but with players absent, Bayern were a bit limited when it came to playing through the center.
Moreover, Alba and Araújo were careful to track the Bayern fullbacks, which means that Alphonso Davies was forced to give up the ball after his angles for turning were cut off. Though Bayern were prepared to be pressed in this way (and dealt well with it as the game wore on), it was effective during the opening exchanges.
On the other end, Barcelona seemed to have two ways of building up from their 4-3-3 scheme. Rather than changing to a 3-2-5 structure as expected, Xavi kept the fullbacks deep and instructed Busquets and de Jong to form a box with the center-backs. With Dembélé extremely wide and Memphis occupying the backline, Gavi oriented himself to the left to support Barcelona’s vertical play.
Barcelona’s 2+2 box structure with deep fullbacks. This was the initial buildup structure that was used as it is conducive to the kind of vertical play that Xavi has sought to incorporate.
The idea was for the fullback, central midfielder, striker and winger to form a structure where one-touch passes and layoffs would help them get behind Bayern’s high line. This is a common tactic, but Barcelona possessed superb press resistance with Busquets and de Jong and good pace in Dembélé and Dest. It did work to an extent when Dembélé got in behind for a couple of cutbacks, but last ditch defending kept the ball out of Neuer’s net.
The second scheme was a straightforward 4-3-3 organization, with Busquets deepest and Gavi and de Jong occupying the left and right midfield spots. Here, Memphis dropped to offer a direct lane into himself for Lenglet, while Gavi made a countermovement into the space behind. Rather than playing the pass into the striker, Lenglet instead sprayed the ball to the right to Dest, who beat the offside trap and bore down on goal.
While none of these opportunities resulted in a goal, it did show how Barcelona were able to enter the Bayern box. There was also a transition chance when Dembélé and Memphis sliced through Bayern’s poor rest defense, but once again were unable to find the back of the net. These were positive moments; unfortunately, things would soon take a turn for the worse.
How Bayern overcame their double pivot issues
Corentin Tolisso and Jamal Musiala are an unorthodox pair, and it was unsurprising to see Bayern fail to weaponize the midfield as they usually do. Without their usual players, the hosts tried to move through the flanks from the start. On the left, Tolisso supported Davies as the latter tried to push Bayern forward, with Sané also coming deep to support the play.
On the right, Thomas Müller and Kingsley Coman were called into action near the center circle, as Lewandowski frequently came short to receive with Leroy Sané and Musiala darting behind him to attack the Barcelona backline. Overloading the flanks left Barcelona with a lot to do as they could not rely on winning individual duels given Bayern’s quality on the ball. This game was a good example of how potent and automatic the Müller–Lewandowski has become, showing that they are as adept at connecting in midfield as they are in the box.
It was also a game where Neuer launched passes up the field, with Niklas Süle doing his part by beating his man and carrying the ball deep into Barcelona territory on at least two occasions.
The map above shows this clearly, as the double pivot’s typically large footprint is absent. While initially difficult, Bayern’s fluidity and offensive talent eventually shined through, as Müller created a couple of situations before taking it upon himself to get Bayern going from a Lewandowski feed. Another goal arrived after Sané nearly took the leather off the ball from outside the box, resulting in a score which really should have prevented by ter Stegen.
Musiala strike proves terminal for Barcelona
Xavi sent Nico on to replace Dest to start the second half, with Barcelona retaining the 4-3-3 shape. This was necessary since the first half shape often devolved into a 5-3-2 once Bayern had scored their goals. Further, Dest was largely ineffective down the right, lacking the requisite chemistry with de Jong that would have benefited Barcelona down the right flank. Earlier, Alba had gone off injured, and was replaced by the offensively limited Óscar Mingueza at left back.
In the second half, the more aggressive version of the 4-3-3 shape saw de Jong and Nico play as the attacking midfielders, as they pushed up to support the Dembélé, Memphis and Gavi frontline when Barcelona pressed. This left some space on either side of Busquets, which Sané tried to exploit. However, the defensive line pushed up to compress the space, and Araújo continued to be effective as a right back. This lasted until Davies got the better of the Uruguayan, getting to the byline for a cutback that was tapped in by Musiala.
Still, there was some promise offensively for the tweaked shape, as the fullbacks moved up a tad higher and Nico and Gavi rotated to maintain width and provide connections inside. Memphis began dropping and receiving to feet to help overload the area around the ball, while Dembélé and one of de Jong, Nico or Gavi made out-to-in runs from either side. Despite these changes, Musiala’s goal left Barcelona with a mountain to climb, and it was evident that Bayern would rest in this comfortable game state.
Barcelona’s drop into the Europa League marks the (hopeful) endpoint of the club’s stunning decline. So dire is the situation that they cannot even be considered outright favorites for Europe’s second competition, which underscores the scale of Xavi’s task. Barcelona do have the tools to once again reach the summit; whether they do so depends on getting almost every decision correct from this point on.
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