It's not every day that Bayern Munich comes up against a strategy that they completely fail to anticipate. Unfortunately, that was exactly the situation Bayern Munich found themselves in when they kicked off against FC Porto in the UEFA Champions League. By the time Bayern had adapted to the game plan from their Portugese hosts, they were already down 2-0. It was a deficit which they never were able to overcome, eventually falling 3-1 in the first leg of the Quarterfinal tie.
Porto's Aggressive Pressing Strategy
From the outset, FC Porto were on their horse pressing Bayern Munich into oblivion. Taking a page out of the Roger Schmidt playbook, Porto used a combination of 3 primary pressers alternating with two secondary pressers. With Ricardo Quaresma, Jackson Martinez, and Yacine Brahimi pressuring the Bayern Munich backline aggressively this left Bayern Munich with outlets in central midfield. With the only passing options being Thiago, Philipp Lahm, and Xabi Alonso this left the two secondary pressers in Hector Herrera and Oliver free to cut down the passing lanes into the more advanced of the trio, ensuring play had to flow through the slow and methodical Xabi Alonso.
This secondary press was devastating to Bayern Munich as it forced the midfield into dangerous balls into a backline that was under duress from the primary press themselves. That type of pressing strategy generated both of the turnovers that lead to Porto's early goals. The first being a poor pass back into Xabi Alonso who Jackson Martinez quickly removed from the play while minutes later Ricardo Quaresma's pressure and read on Dante won him possession and allowed him to double Porto's advantage. All in all this simple pressing strategy was all that it took to take Bayern Munich apart early on.
Isolating Juan Bernat and Winning the Wings
Apart from the pressing, one of the main keys to the FC Porto gameplan was shutting dpown Juan Bernat on the left. With two central stacked 4-3-3's in play, whoever was able to establish dominance of the wings was going to control the tempo and zone of the match. With Rafinha on the right for Bayern, that side was already ceded wide to Porto but Rafinha' propensity to step into midfield forced Brahimi to either move inside to maintain the press. This cut him off from supporting Sandro's forward attacking runs and gave both Jerome Boateng and Rafinha the ability to shut down attacks on that side of the field for most of the game.
It was on the left where both teams opted to try to play as Bayern attempted to push Juan Bernat up and down the touchline to open space for Mario Götze and Robert Lewandowski to combine. To combat that, Porto's pressing strategy was the first step in the puzzle. With both Quarema and Herrera targeting Dante and Alonso, Bernat was forced to drop deep to aid in buildup play from deep. This eliminated the ability for Bayern Munich to play through the middle and quickly attack down the flank. As play evolved, Quaresma would drop deeper keeping Bernat in front of him most of the way to the goal line. This stratgy limited Bernat's ability to attack Danilo at rightback, leaving Danilo free to respond to the threats posed by Götze's positioning. With both of the Bayern Munich left flank players isolated and out of the play this left the Bavarians with the option of playing only through the middle.
Much like in Bayern's 4-1 loss to Wolfsburg in January, the opposition's intent of pushing play into the middle was built around utilizing the strengths of their defensive midfielder. This time that man was Casemiro. The Brazilian finished the match with seven tackles and seven interceptions as he controlled the deep midfied zone. In conjunction with the work rate of Herrera and Oliver, the trio shut down the Bayern Munich attack the entire first half.
Formation Shifting Defines Second Half
The second half from Bayern Munich started with an attempt to overload the midfield with targets and mitigate the Porto secondary press by shifting Mario Götze into the middle in a diamond 4-4-2. It didn't work as Herrera and Oliver still dominated the passing lanes between Alonso and Götze and Bayern were still trapped in their own half. At that point, Guardiola had to make a change or the game was going to threaten to get out of hand. Enter Sebastian Rode.
The young midfielder came into the match along with a tactical shift to the 4-4-2. Rather then playing with a CAM under Lewandowski, they opted to completely ignore Casemiro's zone instead using Rode, Thiago and Lahm as a rotating trio of carilleros while Lewandowski and Müller attempted to find open space on the Porto backline. It was rather successful compared to earlier strategies, softened the power of the Porto secondary press, and Rode in particular had several excellent opportunities to attack the box. However that shift sacrificed any wing play from Bayern Munich and turned Juan Bernat into little more then a curiosity until Guardiola made his next change.
With the introduction of Holger Badstuber for Xabi Alonso, Pep Guardiola threw his first monkey wrench into the works against Porto and it was the final nail that shut down the secondary press that Porto was using to devastating effect. Holger Badstuber took up Jerome Boateng's position in the backline while the agile centerback moved into defensive midfield. He had one job to do and that was to physically overpower Herrera and Oliver in transition and win the ball back. It was a job that Boateng did with aplomb giving Bayern Munich the time and space to finally attack the Porto box. Most of these threats flowed through Thiago on the left and now the free space on the left worked to Juan Bernat's advantage as he became a terror up and down that side. Only the strong defensive presence of Danilo was able to stop him though it cost the Porto righback a yellow card and a suspension for the second leg of the tie. That loss could be hugely important in the second leg if Franck Ribery is healthy.
After the Boateng move from Guardiola, Porto quickly set up shop, inserting Neves and Hernani and shifting to two banks of four in defense with a relaxed press from Martinez and Herrera. This helped to stifle Bayern's midfield dominance and the rest of the match proceeded as we've seen so many matches go before: waves of Bayern Munich attacks ultimately repelled by patience and staunch defense.
This game was a serious wake up call for Bayern Munich. With limited bench options available to them, they were tactically easy to prepare against and FC Porto took full advantage of that early on. While the tactical shift midway thought the second half from Guardiola trulydid make a difference for Bayern Munich, the inability to get into the box except on several very rare occassions raises serious questions going into the second leg next week. While Bayern Munich will likely have both Franck Ribery and Bastian Schweinsteiger back for that match it remains to be seen whether the presence of two of Bayern's best players will be enough to sway this result in their favor.