Nothing can truly fill the void that fans of Bayern Munich feel after crashing out of the Champions League. But one thing all fans should be grateful for is Jupp Heynckes, who just put on a coaching masterclass in Bayern’s two games against Real Madrid. Heynckes’s tactics not only put Bayern in the best position to win, but also nearly overcame the fateful individual mistakes that gifted Real two of their four goals.
Leg 1: aggressive offense thwarted by injury
Heynckes intended to overwhelm Real Madrid’s shaky defense from the outset. He fielded a highly aggressive combination of five attackers ahead of Javi Martinez as the central defensive midfielder. The understanding was that offensive players behind Robert Lewandowski, especially James Rodriguez and Thomas Müller, would drop back to help in the midfield as needed. Even Franck Ribery spent much of his time tracking back and defending on Bayern's left flank.
But that was not how it worked out. The crucial right wing of the formation, Arjen Robben, pulled up lame in the opening minutes and had to come off. His place was taken by Thiago, who had been omitted from the starting lineup. The change shifted Müller out to the right flank, while Thiago played in a somewhat advanced position on the left, supporting James Rodriguez and Franck Ribery.
On the left flank, Heynckes's original plan worked beautifully. Somehow finding the fountain of youth before Bayern's biggest game to date, Ribery showed just how vulnerable Real was to attack, as he made run after run into Real's penalty area past a seemingly helpless Dani Carvajal. But all the chances he created came to naught, and a heavy touch on his own biggest chance, a perfect pass into a one-on-one with Navas, gave the ball harmlessly away rather than send it into the net.
In the central attack, some of Lewandowski's struggles to affect the match were due to Müller's absence in the space behind him. With Müller forced out wide, Real Madrid's defense could concentrate on nullifying Bayern's striker. Poor finishing did the rest: only one of Lewandowski's four shots was actually on target. And Real managed to snuff the life out of everything else that came Keylor Navas's way. The sole exception was Joshua Kimmich's brilliant solo goal, anticipating that Navas would expect him to cross and punishing him with a perfectly taken shot.
Bayern could have left this game 1-1 and gone into the second leg with much better chances, but a fatal mistake by Rafinha—a misplayed pass to the feet of Marco Asensio—gave Real Madrid an easy go-ahead goal.
Leg 2: a midfield to carve up Zidane's 4-4-2
The first leg of the tie taught Bayern an important lesson: Real Madrid were in fact very vulnerable. But the injuries suffered on both sides had important consequences on how the teams lined up in the second leg. For Bayern Munich, while Boateng could be replaced like-for-like by Niklas Süle, but Robben's injury necessitated a tactical shift resembling the lineup that played for most of the first leg: Thomas Müller out wide on the right, Ribery on the left, James in the middle.
Things got interesting, however, in the central midfield: Thiago started this match, since there now was no viable alternative, but Heynckes interestingly opted to put Corentin Tolisso in the lineup instead of his stalwart Javi. Thiago played the more defensive role of the two, dropping back to help Süle and Mats Hummels defuse Real's offense.
But when Bayern were in possession, Thiago drove forward with Tolisso, where the two utilized their passing to exploit the major weakness of Zindane's second-leg lineup: throughballs up the middle.
Zidane also recognized that Real was vulnerable defensively and switched to a flat 4-4-2 lineup instead of his usual diamond formation. With two of his starters unavailable—Dani Carvajal and Isco—Zidane was forced to move Lucas Vazquez to right-back and Luka Modric to the right wing. Modric was forced to defend against Ribery and Alaba all evening, with mixed success.
But since Modric was pushed out wide playing defense, disrupting Real's usual midfield tandem of Modric and Toni Kroos, Bayern were able to thread passes directly through the open spaces in Real's midfield between and around Mateo Kovacic and Kroos. James and Tolisso repeatedly exposed Real's defense to dangerous throughballs, and center-back Hummels had the most improbable effort of the evening, slotting a perfect pass from deep in Real's half directly to the feet of Lewandowski.
And all for naught
Real’s vulnerability in the middle kept Bayern in the game down to the final minutes, when again it was Bayern's finishing that cost them the match, as Hummels headed the game-winner just wide of the post and Müller could not connect on a long ball to volley it into the net. For all the criticism referee Cüneyt Çakır has received and deserves for missing a handball at the end of the second match, no one can say he did not give Bayern ample opportunity in effectively six minutes of stoppage time to turn the tables.
Two-legged xG map for Bayern Munich - Real Madrid. There's little question which team was better. But "playing better football" is no match for the uncanny power of the threepeat. pic.twitter.com/Leb4nIe3zN— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) May 1, 2018
In both the first and second legs of the tie, Bayern could not compensate for individual mistakes—Rafinha’s bad pass in the first leg and Tolisso and Ulreich’s howler in front of the goal in the second—with merely adequate finishing. Kimmich proved his worth and goal-scoring instincts twice from right-back, but a 2-2 draw fell far short of what Bayern needed to advance to the Champions League final and far short of what Bayern theoretically should have scored.
But Jupp Heynckes set the team up perfectly to maximize Bayern’s strengths and exploit Real’s weaknesses. Although Bayern looked dead on arrival in the Champions League after their humiliating 3-0 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain under Carlo Ancelotti, Heynckes guided the team expertly to the threshold of the final itself. It is an incredible result that no one could have predicted in September. Bayern’s players can only blame themselves for not rewarding their coach with the final sendoff into retirement that he truly deserved.