Thiago Alcantara vs the entire Schalke 04 press
Thiago was effervescent against Schalke 04. Deployed as the lone midfielder in Niko Kovac’s 4-1-4-1, there was an inherent risk Bayern Munich brought to bear against Schalke’s 3-4-3. Dominoc Tedesco’s side used an agressive 5-man press all game long, using Mark Uth and Breel Embolo as their primary foci, supported in wide areas by aggressive pressing from Alessandro Schoepf and Daniel Caliguiri. This 4-pronged press was supported by Franco Di Santo who functioned as a floating presser, attacking Thiago when he had the ball or pushing up and double pressing against isolated Bayern defenders.
This defensive strategy from Schalke came with costs in midfield (I’ll get to that), but was effective in limiting Bayern’s movement forward. This left Bayern to circulate the ball in midfield, from Hummels to Alaba to Thiago to Kimmich and back again. Time and again, it was Thiago who circled out of pressure, keeping Bayern in control, and limiting Schalke’s effectiveness in the attacking third. Bayern struggled to move the ball, but employing patience and working through a metronomic performance from Thaigo, Bayern (almost) always beat the Schalke press eventually.
Leon Goretzka - the man who did nothing and everything
Leon Goretzka’s return to Gelsenkirchen was the subject of fanfare preceeding this match, but if you watched this match one would believe that it was one of his quietest games. Prior to a tactical change, Goretzka sat underneath the striker in the the Bayern 4-1-4-1. But whereas Thomas Mueller and James Rodriguez formed a dynamic, and decidedly lethal, attacking force, Goretzka was comfortable to sit and occupy space.
But with that stability came real problems for Schalke 04. Goretzka’s continued presence forced the dynamic Weston McKinnie and Sebastian Rudy to occupy the central zone and pass him as a mark. This left Schalke unable to support Schoepf, Caliguiri, and Di Santo as they wide pressed Bayern. When Schalke’s defensive midfield did abandon their marking duties, Goretzka was there to play effective 1-2 passing, carving open the Schalke backline with ease time and again.
James Rodriguez still does it all
Bayern Munich have not had a player quite like James Rodriguez since Bastian Schweinsteiger left. Granted, the Colombian has nothing approaching Der Fußballgott’s defensive chops, but his attacking unpredictability, spatial movements, and quick, electrics attacking thrusts have been a feature lacking from this Bayern Munich team for a long time now. It’s great to see them back, and it’s wonderful to see James rewarded with a set piece goal as well as drawing Bayern’s second half penalty following some excellent slalom dribbling.
Niklas Sule & Mats Hummels - Destroyers of Strikers
Niklas Sule put on a masterclass in 1v1 defending in this match. As a centerback, when you’re paired up against Breel Embolo, the question is always who is going to win the physical duel? On that front, the duo clashed all game, fighting for every ball with Sule scrapping well to prevent Schalke from gaining any foothold in the Bayern half.
On the other side of the defense, it was his partner Mats Hummels tactical and spatial dominance that left Mark Uth unable to do anything all game. It was a great display in two fundamentally different, yet complementary, defensive styles.