Bayern Munich handily dispatched CSKA Moscow in their first match of the 2013/2014 UEFA Champions League group stage. While Bayern ruthlessly exploited several individual errors to generate all three of their goals, their overall game plan was dominating to say the least.
Overloading the Double Team and the Zonal Mark
As the game began and Bayern advanced on the Russians, CSKA Moscow defended in the nearly standard two banks of four. What was clear from the outset was that they had a very direct gameplan for stopping Franck Ribery down the left hand side. Using right winger Steven Zuber and right back Kirill Nababkin to double team Franck Ribery was a good idea to stop the European player of the year, but one that was fraught with issue due to the extremely high advance of David Alaba. Alaba moved into the unoccupied space created by the double team and was an extreme nuisance for the first 15-20 minutes of the match as CSKA struggled to contain the pair of them.
Meanwhile on the opposite side of the field, Thomas Muller was equally as busy, frequently interchanging with both Mario Mandzukic and Arjen Robben to create a free flowing and shifting attacking band. The constant shifts and the presence of multiple men in a single defender’s zone gave the CSKA defense fits as Alaba and Ribery marauded around and through the double team and found men moving along and through the defense nearly unmarked.
It took CSKA nearly 20 minutes to stop double teaming and drawing their defense out of position. In response, Bayern began an aerial bombardment through Mario Mandzukic as Thomas Muller shifted out onto the right hand side of the pitch (Robben tucked into the central midfield role).
The Double Pivot
Much has been asked and debated with regards to the single pivot of the Bayern 4-1-4-1. However, with the Hannover game this last weekend and in this match, Guardiola has actually moved towards more of a double pivot in his 4-1-4-1. Toni Kroos, occupying an advanced role as one of the two center midfielders, has dropped deeper while Lahm, occupying the single pivot role, has remained more of a fixed point. Sometimes the pivot drops deep between the centerbacks to facilitate transition side to side, while at other times moving staying forward to facilitate effective distribution.
Previously, Guardiola used the single pivot as a mobile and free flowing position to generate distribution in all directions. With Lahm, Pep has transitioned it to a stationary side to side facilitation role while Kroos has dropped deeper and now operates in a free flowing vertical playmaker role. The effect in the last two matches has been to increase the dynamism of the offense, something which CSKA had massive trouble adapting to for the first 45 minutes.
These roles were maintained even after Bastian Schweinsteiger was substituted for Toni Kroos leading me to believe we may be seeing the next iteration of this system. At this point, it’s anyone’s guess as to who the main players will be in these pairings as the season progresses (but honestly Phillip Lahm may be the man for Guardiola here).
The CSKA Moscow Response
After the dominance of Bayern in the first half, CSKA responded by substituting Zoran Tosic for Steven Zuber in the right midfield position. The immediate effect was to increase the Moscow based sides attacking speed. This required David Alaba to drop back and check his insanely high forays into the Moscow half (until Ribery moved to a high inverted winger role after the Robben/Shaqiri substitution, then Alaba proceeded to continue to foray away).This opened breathing room for the Moscow defense and provided them with the opportunity to exert more pressure on the Bayern attack (particularly on Muller) allowing them to generate some sustained possession and offense.
While the solution wasn't perfect, it did give Moscow more of a chance in the second half before a horrible defensive miscue by the Moscow defense left Arjen Robben complete unmarked in the box for Bayern’s third goal. After that, Bayern were content to defend and counter aggressively when they lost possession and Moscow had really no hope of finding a consolation goal despite several decent chances on counterattacks of their own.