In a match rife with the storyline of revenge, Friday’s UEFA Super Cup clash between Bayern Munich and Chelsea was a great example of the power of tactics.
The 4-1-4-1 without Schweinsteiger or Thiago
Lining up in the by now familiar 4-1-4-1, Pep Guardiola chose to start the match with Toni Kroos in the single pivot as a deep lying playmaker. However, in stark contrast to how this formation has played to date this season, Kroos played directly in front of the two centerbacks and never deviated from that position. Schweinsteiger drops deep between the centerbacks and plays with a dynamically shifting defensive line, while the midfielders and fullbacks do the movement through the center of the pitch. With Kroos, the centerbacks stayed equidistant and maintained a solid structured system behind the creative Kroos. For the first 20+ minutes, Kroos was brilliant in controlling the match from deep and pushing the Bayern attack forward. Guardiola utilized Lahm and Müller to control the attack through the attacking center of the park. That decision ended up being the most costly for this Bayern Munich squad, as Müller's constant and erratic movement to find and attempt to utilize channels ultimately allowed Ramires and Lampard to control the center of the field.
With Jose Mourinho setting up Chelsea in a counter attack oriented and deep 4-2-3-1 , the ability of Lampard and Ramires to control this zone, forced Bayern attacks to the wings. Ultimately, this proved unfruitful as crosses were picked off by Chelsea’s stellar aerial centerbacks. Attempting to move the ball back into the center of the park, brought Ramires and Lampard to bear on Lahm (and Müller, when he wasn't somewhere else) and force the possession change. The turnovers turned into rapid counterattacks down both wings. Mourinho chose to utilize the technically gifted Hazard against the less stellar of the two fullbacks in Rafinha. In contrast, Mourinho used the speed of German international Andre Schürrle on the right wing to match up against the attacking David Alaba.
The opening Chelsea goal was a direct product of Chelsea’s tactical matchup being advantageous as a midfield turnover sprung Hazard, who made Rafinha look inept in seconds, before the speedy Schürrle sprung down the right and crossed for a great volley from Fernando Torres (who was a nuisance all night).
Midway through the first half with Bayern controlling the match but being very susceptible on the counterattack, Guardiola chose to switch up his midfield triangle. Bringing Kroos forward and dropping Lahm into the single pivot, was a direct response to the presence of Ramires and Lampard. Using the superior possessive power of Kroos, Bayern were able to control that zone with the end results being to blunt and stifle the counterattacks from Chelsea.
Javi Martinez and the return to the 4-2-3-1
The 56’ substitution of Javi Martinez for Rafinha saw Philipp Lahm move back to right back and the Spanish international occupy the single pivot role. While Martinez did nothing to embarrass himself in that position, he certainly wasn't the dominating force that Bastian Schweinsteiger or Toni Kroos are in this position. Ultimately, Javi’s influence and stamp on this match came when Mario Götze was substituted for Thomas Muller.
Guardiola instantly transitioned the team into the 4-2-3-1 we all love. With Kroos acting as the deep lying playmaker, Martinez was able to dominate the center of the park just as we became accustomed to seeing all of last season, really ending any of Chelsea’s chances in the middle of the pitch.
That transition gave Mario Götze free reign in the center and his pairing with Kroos gave Ramires and Lampard fits in attempting to stifle them. Ultimately, Ramires made a clumsy challenge on Götze, saw his second yellow, and Chelsea played a man down for the rest of the match. From that point on, Chelsea were relatively neutered until the first 90’ whistle as they morphed into a 4-4-1, designed to defend and counter through the speed of Hazard and Torres.
Bayern’s Set Piece Trouble
With the Chelsea defend and counter strategy, the importance of defending each Chelsea set piece effectively could not be understated. Unfortunately, they were consistently dangerous and only the skill of Manuel Neuer kept them out on several occasions. Given the progress this team showed last year in basically eliminating their set piece vulnerabilities, it’s return on Friday is a worrisome indicator we should be cognizant of going forward.
The Search for the Final Equalizer
In the 93’, a loose Eden Hazard made Philipp Lahm and Jerome Boateng look sick, lame and dying as two feints left him with a free view of Manuel Neuer’s goal. Giving a player like Hazard that kind of view on goal is tantamount to suicide, and the Belgian took no issue with that as he buried the ball in the net.
Unfortunately, this left Bayern scrambling for the equalizer as Shaqiri came on from Robben. After the 105’ break, Bayern transitioned Javi Martinez into a striker, playing what was effectively a 4-2-4 with Götze and Kroos playing the middle and spraying the ball wide for Ribery and Shaqiri, who whipped cross after cross into the box. Later, using a shifting attacking band of Ribery, Götze, and Shaqiri that was constantly mobile and at any time any one of them was attempting to whip the ball in. Javi and Mandzukic were terrors in the box, and Mandzukic in particular had several fantastic headers. Only Petr Cech’s astounding goalkeeping display kept Bayern out. Ultimately, it took bringing forward centerback Dante and putting another huge aerial presence in the box before the equalizer came from Javi Martinez off a controlled header from Dante.
There were concerns that Guardiola was never going to use the 4-2-3-1. There were concerns that he was going to be married to the 4-1-4-1. There were concerns that he may be tactically inflexible when faced with situations that directly challenged his system. Friday’s display should have ended (or perhaps, temporarily alleviated) those concerns as Guardiola didn’t use one, or two, but three different formations with some small, and some massive, mid game shifts to earn Bayern Munich the first UEFA Super Cup in their history. While the fact that the match ended in a draw and decided on penalty kicks was unfortunate, Bayern Munich played excellently and took the game to Chelsea and put in a display that should bring great hope in this squad as we move into September.