For many it’s the end of an era and a number of observers have witnessed a change of guard at the top of European football. There are also those who wish to be more patient and see how the vanquished respond. Whether you belong to one of these categories or have an entirely different view, one thing is for certain, Bayern’s sheer dominance over Barcelona over two legs and the nature of their wins have given everyone some food for thought.
Few would have predicted the Germans will win both legs when the draw was made. I doubt even the proudest, most passionate of Bavarian fans would have expected their team to knock seven past Valdes without Neuer picking the ball out of his net even once. Something extraordinary has happened here.
I am sure by now you must have read a fair number of reports/analyses from different perspectives. Messi’s injury has obviously been a big factor. Vilanova’s long term absence due to his serious illness must surely have had an impact on the Barcelona squad given the fact that he was palpably, even if cautiously and slowly, trying to shift the team’s approach from the constant high intensity pressing we’d become accustomed to in the Guardiola reign. The lack of depth in the Catalan ranks, particularly in the centre of defence, is another valid reason. Key players might also be tired, mentally and physically, after years of consistency at the very top.
Of course, we must be careful not to dilute Bayern’s brilliance by listing Barcelona’s problems. The Germans were stronger, sharper, and smarter. They had clear ideas – for instance, the use of set-pieces and aerial strength in the box – and executed them excellently. Heynckes’ team have deservedly received praise for their pressing, organization, discipline, work ethic, counter-attacking, and other attributes.
I don’t want to go over these things again as many excellent writers have covered these in a manner beyond my current abilities. However, I do want to explore one particular angle that I found very interesting. It’s a very specific territorial battle that Bayern won in both games and thus denied Barcelona the chance to impose their trademark suffocating grip on the game.
Before I get into what Bayern did, allow me to note certain characteristics of Barcelona’s style that has made them one of the best club sides ever put together.
It is said that the defending side should try to make the pitch as small as possible while the attacking team should stretch the play. It’s widely accepted wisdom but sometimes we forget that the process of compressing the playing area and that of stretching it are physical acts where the players have to move around on the pitch and it takes time. And teams are often very vulnerable when they’re doing this because a quick transition can catch many players out of position.
Barcelona, in my opinion, have a very unique solution to this as they compress play and stretch it at the same time. By basing their game on a short passing style and by insisting that the man on the ball be always provided with multiple passing options, the Catalans ensure that they always have a number of bodies around the ball. At the same time, at least one wide player and/or their full-backs consistently offers width up the pitch.
The ability to understand and minimize the risk taken in possession has been a key to its successful execution and patience has been a vital attribute. As a result, when Barcelona did lose the ball they often had enough players who could immediately press as a unit and win the ball back within a matter of seconds (6 second rule?). Not only was the man on the ball put under pressure by two or three opponents, his passing options would be cut off by other Barcelona players who read the situations and swarmed in accordingly.
The team’s shape played a crucial part in bringing the excellent tactical ideas to fruition on the pitch. Once the team settled into its rhythm after the initial exchanges, we’d see the central defenders on the half-way line, Busquets a few yards in front of them moving into carefully judged spaces to keep the ball rolling, Xavi would be around him again creating and using space, Messi would drop deep or move across horizontally till he got a chance to run at the defence or play someone else in behind. The wider players played their part making intelligently timed diagonal/vertical runs or by holding their positions or by cutting inside.
The above is, without a doubt, a very simplified version of their tactics but it should rekindle memories of the patterns of play when Barcelona dominated games.
In order for these tactics to succeed there is a very specific area of the pitch that Barcelona have to control. Take a look at the following chart of their passes against Milan in the 4-0 win at the Camp Nou in the previous round.
It’s impossible to make sense of individual passes from that chart but we don’t need to. The density of passes is important. Most of it is just inside the Milan half. That’s the area where Barca set up their base camp before launching attacks. It’s the perfect territory for the likes of Xavi and Busquets to control possession and dictate the tempo.
This is so because they need to stay at an ideal (short) distance from the central defenders who have to be on the centre line. Opposition strikers can be on the halfway line without being offside so no team would want to push its key defenders further forward during open play unless absolutely necessary.
If the midfield pushed too far forward they’d be away from their defenders and into the opposition ranks in front of their penalty box. That’s not the right place for controlling possession because the risk of losing the ball would be very high, as would be the gap between their own lines which would make controlling transitions much harder.
If they stayed deeper and pushed the central defenders further back, the team would be farther from the opposition box/goal and closer to its own penalty area and goal. Again it wouldn’t be ideal. In fact, Bayern succeeded in pushing them back but I’ll come to that in a bit.
You could call that purple box, although an approximation, the control room for the suffocating Barcelona system. Attacks are built from there with carefully picked moments of penetration and all the players form layers around the ball. An attacking player might want to pass it back and Busquets or Xavi would be available to receive it. Behind them would be the layer of central defenders and even Valdes could receive a pass if the opponents got too close. Similarly, there would be midfielders available for sideways passes and beyond them, right on the flanks, either a full-back or a winger would be waiting. This layering also helped control transitions by quickly pressing the man on the ball and the first layer of options around him.
What Bayern did, through superior physicality, immaculate organization, and astute decision making, was to wrest control of this vital piece of territory.
The following chart compares passes made by Barcelona against the Germans in the two legs.
The density of passing remains a very good indicator of where all the action was. The control room is sparsely populated. Barcelona had more possession deeper in their own half.
Barcelona’s most frequent passing combination was Marc Bartra to Gerard Pique – a move that happened 21 times.
He went on to add,
The ball spent too long at the back, and Barcelona never picked up the tempo and piled on the pressure on the Bayern defence.
Cox ascribes this problem (partly?) to Song’s inability to link the defence with the creative players in a manner that Busquets typically does,
…Song wasn’t disastrous in the holding role, but he lacks Busquets’ positional discipline and understanding of how to let the play flow naturally through him, and up towards the creative players.
But it’s worth noting that in the reverse fixture Barca had the same problem even with Busquets in the starting line up. Refer to the passing density above and the fact that their most common passing combination in that game was Alba to Iniesta with 22 passes on the flank followed closely by, you guessed it, Bartra to Pique at 21 passes.
Against Milan, who sat back, Busquets to Xavi and Xavi to Iniesta were the most common passing combinations, and many of those passes were in the control room area discussed above.
Whereas most of the Bartra to Pique passes were almost all 10-20 yards inside the Barcelona half in both the games.
Against Milan, Barcelona completed 626 of their 715 attempted passes. In Munich, they completed 603 out of 666. The number or accuracy of passes is not very different. In no way does it explain how Vilanova’s side won the former game by 4 goals to nil while losing the latter with the same margin. But the positioning of those passes is more telling.
A few things happened as a result of Bayern successfully pushing Barcelona’s chief possession zone back by 20-25 yards.
1) Barcelona were further away from the Bayern goal and it was harder for them to bring their attackers into play. They were stretched vertically. This reduced the total number of attacks that the Spanish side could mount as well as the quality of the ones they did put together. Remember, they don’t like to play a direct vertical game.
2) The Catalans were never able to get into the siege mode – a shape where they could collectively and effectively suffocate the Germans once they lost the ball – because their spacing was no longer as required for that kind of pressing. Consequently, they could not really press as a unit, particularly higher up the pitch. This was another observation that Cox made in his analysis,
…while Barcelona’s sheer stamina in their pressing was frequently praised under Guardiola, less attention was played to the actual positioning and cohesion in the pressing – the player in possession wasn’t just closed down, all his other passing options were pressured too. Here, Barcelona’s ‘pressing’ seemed simply more like frantic chasing with other opponents left free.
3) As a result of 1 and 2, Bayern were able to hold on to the ball when Barcelona lost it (for longer than 6 seconds!), remained relatively safe at the back, and were always a threat on counters. On the other hand, Vilanova’s side could no longer remain patient in possession in deeper areas, and their attempts to bring attackers into play were down to riskier passes that resulted in threatening transitions which could not be prevented by hard pressing as their shape was lost.
It’s difficult to say just what percentage of that territorial battle was won by Bayern and what was lost by Barcelona. Surely, a fully fit Messi would have had a bigger say in that battle. But I’ve seen Real Madrid trouble their Catalan rivals in recent games through similar tactics by contesting that zone with some success, so I’m inclined to believe this is one of Barcelona’s (the possession game’s) genuine weaknesses and the Germans did well to exploit that.
Heynckes’ team did that by constant and clever pressing. They never went overboard but consistently marked the key players. When they had to leave someone free it was usually the central defenders. Ergo the Bartra to Pique combination discussed above.
Their man-marking was flawless but, equally, the players also picked the right moments and positions to let their man go and hand him over to a teammate. Most teams struggle at this against Barcelona because their movement pulls opponents apart and creates gaps in the defensive fabric. Bayern rarely yielded a yard of space, and never for a period long enough to be expensive.
Mandzukic in this game, and Gomez in the previous one, often left the central defenders and dropped back onto the deepest midfielder. This gave them an extra body in midfield which was useful in dealing with Messi or Fabregas when they dropped deep. In turn, the Bayern central defenders were rarely pulled out of position.
Furthermore, the discipline and work rate of usually attack-minded players like Ribery and Robben was praiseworthy. They often played as auxiliary full-backs when Barca did get the chance to move forward. It allowed Lahm and Alaba the luxury of staying relatively compact alongside their central defenders. Bayern’s backline maintained excellent spacing for most of the 180 minutes.
An interesting side note
Although further observations and analysis is needed on this, I get a feeling people within German football have identified the aforementioned piece of real estate on the football pitch as the key to finding the right balance between attack and defence.
Observe the density of passes made by Arsenal in home games against Schalke and Bayern, both of which the Gunners lost despite dominating possession.
Seems consistent with the discussion above, doesn’t it?
Dortmund topped their group of death but had less possession than their opponents in all six group games. Away to City and Ajax for instance, the Germans did an excellent job of defending that space just inside their own half.
While Barcelona and other possession based sides like to control that central zone just inside the opposition half from an offensive point of view, the Germans have shown that proactively defending that zone can lead to superb balance between attack and defence.
Many teams concede that zone when facing technically dominant sides. Indeed, Chelsea and Inter have won the Champions League by parking the bus, so to speak. But it’s worth noting that they both ended up in the Europa League this season. Defending deep and hoping for chances on the counter-attack can work in the short term but it is rarely going to be a strategy that works over a long period of time, not to mention the sheer drudgery needed to survive in each game.
The German approach, on the other hand, provides greater tactical control over games and the team with lower possession can often create more meaningful chances and look like the better attacking unit!
Defending with the first line of players around the centre line or pressing the first ball out from defence is not a revolutionary tactic. But we must also remember that Guardiola didn’t invent short passing, pressing, through-balls, or a clever dink over the top. He found a way to put it all together meticulously in a system that suited the strengths of his players to a tee. The beauty was in the minor details and flawless execution time and time again.
Similarly, it’s not that Heynckes, or Klopp, or other managers in the German system have created a novel tactical approach. But they seem to have refined it to a level where it could indeed create the new world order in football. I am possessed by that thought, do you have a counter?Follow @goonerdesi