Bayern Munich gave the footballing world another masterclass as they kicked off their UEFA Champions League campaign on Wednesday. Opponents Atletico Madrid were nothing to be sneezed at, considering they were responsible for the Bavarians’ departure from the tournament back in 2016. Because of Bayern’s lack of luck when it came to facing the Rojiblancos, not many people were expecting a high-scoring match.
What happened, though, was one of Diego Simeone’s worst nightmares as his team slumped to a 0-4 defeat at the Allianz Arena. To think that the normally airtight Atletico defense would concede more than once, let alone four, was almost considered preposterous before kickoff, especially since they had only conceded one goal in four La Liga games this season. However, Hansi Flick and his henchmen let Atletico concede all of their overdue goals in stunning fashion. Here’s how they did it.
Step 1. Countering the counterplan
Now, if you’re facing tough opposition like, say, the current European champions, you might be inclined to make a few tweaks to your normal game plan in order to stop your opponents from carrying out theirs. That’s exactly what Diego Simeone did.
Atletico’s setup was pretty similar to what they would normally do - two lines of four players behind two strikers in a typical 4-4-2. Now here’s where things got a bit different.
Instead of placing both lines of four deep in their own half, Simeone allowed the midfield four to be a bit more mobile. At times it would sit deep right in front of the defense, but at other times it would not be too far away from the attacking duo of Luis Suarez and Joao Felix. The reason behind this was forward pressure; Simeone had taken a leaf out of Julen Lopetegui’s book from the UEFA Super Cup and pressed Bayern from the very tip of the field, disrupting their buildup play and forcing them into mistakes. Of course, this would be almost impossible with just the two forwards doing the pressing, so the midfield four was employed to aid them in doing so. A master plan from Simeone, who had Bayern’s weaknesses in a firm grasp.
Well, at least until Hansi Flick flicked on his Flick switch.
As Atletico’s midfield line went up and down the field, rarely staying stationary, Flick saw the gaps that they were leaving behind. Gaps that he could exploit. Flick started using his three-man central midfield to his fullest advantage. He ordered his attacking players into the spaces that Atletico’s midfield left behind, thereby evening out the numbers of his players against the opposition’s. Against a normal Atletico side, the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Thomas Muller, and co. would have had to go up against seven or eight defenders. Now, by placing themselves in between the midfield and defense, behind the high-pressing midfield line, Bayern’s attackers only had four players to deal with.
Once Bayern’s attackers were in that space, they had free reign to do whatever they wanted. Not a team that’s too used to playing a high-line, Atletico had trouble recovering from it. This is not to say that they were slow in doing so, but they were disorganized, focusing on the wrong places and leaving other spaces open. That, combined with Flick’s characteristic speedy attacking style, meant Atletico were doomed.
This particular instant, the buildup to Leon Goretzka’s goal, illustrates the situation well.
Atletico’s defense, once so packed, is now over-extended due to the high-pressing midfield. All four of Bayern’s attacking players are positioned between the midfield and defense, and launch a quick attack before Atletico’s midfield can close down the space that they are in.
Atletico’s midfielders are quick to recover, but not quick enough to catch Lewandowski, who started his run way ahead of them. By the time they just start to close him down, Lewandowski has already picked out Kingsley Coman with a through ball.
As Coman charges into the box, Atletico’s defenders panic, not used to being vulnerable to counterattacks. As a result, their man-marking is shoddy; not a single person is giving Goretzka (second from right) even so much a glance. Coman sees his teammate and slots a precise pass to his feet, and the German midfielder doubles Bayern’s lead.
Another example is shown just minutes before Goretzka’s goal.
Again, disjointed Atletico midfield line, and space in front of them. Corentin Tolisso is able to charge into said space, something that would not normally be as easy against a team like Simeone’s.
Atletico’s defenders are caught in action, and are still drawn towards the ball. Tolisso now has a lot of options he can pick out — Lewandowski, Goretzka, and Coman are all in acres of space. No Atletico player is paying attention to any of them.
Stefan Savic is oblivious to Lewandowski’s run and gives him the space he needs. Only when it is too late does he stop him with a risky tackle that could have resulted in a penalty and a potential red card.
Likewise, Simeone’s counterplan for Bayern ironically became his downfall. By ditching his strengths and trying to play towards Bayern’s weaknesses, he gave Flick the opportunity to exploit the new weaknesses that his team exposed; weaknesses that his men could not cope with due to their unfamiliarity with them. Flick, meanwhile, ended up outsmarting his counterpart by countering his counterplan with a counter-counterplan. That’s way too many counters in one sentence, but tell that to Flick.
Step 2. Play to your strengths
Now that we’ve got our players in good positions, it’s time to score some goals. Having wrapped up Atletico’s weaknesses, Hansi Flick now puts his team’s strengths into play.
The first element is speed. Bayern’s first goal took a mere eight seconds to materialize, from Joshua Kimmich’s interception to Coman’s finish. The second goal took just a second more, from Robert Lewandowski’s interception to Leon Goretzka’s finish. Taking away the third goal, which was the indirect result of a set piece (but what a result it was), the fourth goal took a bit longer than the others, but still took just twelve seconds from Thomas Muller’s through ball to Coman’s finish, and a few of those seconds were due to Coman going left-and-right and sending Atletico’s entire defense to get a hot dog.
The second element is simplicity, which is basically the other side of the same coin as speed. No pass is too complicated and no time is wasted in playing one.
It only takes a single lob from Kimmich to find Coman darting into the box for the first goal…
...and a single through ball from Muller to find an onrushing Coman for the fourth.
As the photos in the previous section show, the second goal only had three passes in the buildup, and the third, well, we all know what happened, and we’d love to see it happen again and again.
The final element is probably Flick’s favorite thing in football: pressure. Bayern’s first two goals were a direct result of pressure in the opponent’s area. Take a look:
After a loose ball is cleared into the path of Joao Felix, Kimmich promptly takes the young Portuguese on and claims the ball for his own.
Almost immediately after claiming the ball, and in almost the same spot where he got it, Kimmich launches forth the ball that leads to Coman’s opener, wasting as little time as possible.
The second goal also comes from a quick interception.
In the buildup to the second goal, as soon as Marcos Llorente receives the ball, he is swarmed by two Bayern players in Coman and Corentin Tolisso.
Llorente has little choice but to play the ball backwards away from the pressure, but his pass is inaccurate, and ends up going right to the waiting Lewandowski. Lewy breaks away quickly and initiates the counterattack that leads to Goretzka’s goal.
Both instances showed a good example of pressure in high places, which is important for a number of reasons; for one, it allows you to prevent the risk of counterattacks. Had Kimmich not reached Felix before the first goal, it may have resulted in a counter that could have put Bayern’s defense in jeopardy. The second goal started in a lower area than the first, but nonetheless showed Bayern trying to push Atletico back into their own half, where counterattacks would be less lethal.
Another reason why pressure is so important in high areas is that it automatically puts you in a good place to attack. You are able to catch the defense off guard, and your teammates are already in attacking positions. From then, it’s just a matter of connecting the dots. In the first goal’s blueprint, there were no more than two dots, and in the second, no more than three. Quick, ruthless, and efficient attacking led to Bayern’s four goals in this game. It just goes to show that playing to your strengths will work wonders if you do it right.
Step 3. Fluid formations and midfield switching
Hansi Flick set his team up in a 4-3-3 formation due to personnel problems, ditching his favored 4-2-3-1. Due to Leroy Sane’s injury and Serge Gnabry’s positive test for COVID-19, Flick was forced to field Thomas Muller as a winger, and add an extra central midfielder in Corentin Tolisso. Joshua Kimmich would anchor the midfield as a lone 6 while Tolisso and Leon Goretzka would play ahead of him in 8 roles.
When defending, Flick’s side would indeed take the shape of the aforementioned 4-3-3. Both Tolisso and Goretzka would come down to their penalty area to provide support, as shown in this moment.
All three midfielders are currently present inside or just outside the penalty area. What Robert Lewandowski was also doing all the way down there, I have no idea.
Here is another example.
Likewise, Bayern’s midfield trident is all present in this defensive sequence, with only the attacking trio absent from this particular shot. Notice the inverted triangle shape that the three midfielders take, albeit with Goretzka at its peak instead of Kimmich.
The 4-3-3 in defending was used effectively to counter Atletico’s high-press in the early stages of the game. Atletico’s high-midfield line meant that they would have at least six players pressing Bayern’s defense, as seen in the two shots above. By adding an extra midfielder to the mix, Bayern took a numerical advantage in defense and was able to outnumber the Rojiblancos in their half, thereby closing off space and pushing the ball out to the flanks. What few chances that Atletico got in this game mainly came from the wings, where Bayern could afford to lose while packing their own box in the middle to keep Atletico’s twin strikers at bay. In addition, by having an extra man, Bayern always had one man left in space to supplement wherever he was needed without the risk of leaving anyone unattended.
But in attacking, Bayern would switch to a more familiar 4-2-3-1. Goretzka would play deeper in midfield with Kimmich, while Tolisso would move further upfield as a 10, flanked by Muller and Coman. Tolisso’s shift meant that Bayern would still have four attackers facing Atletico’s back line. Because the Atleti defense was left unguarded by the midfield, Bayern was able to even out the numbers and attack with ease. With Atletico’s less mobile defenders haplessly struggling against the fast switching of Bayern’s offense, Bayern were able to record almost thrice as many shots as their opponents, 16 compared to Atletico’s 6.
Here is Tolisso’s heatmap (courtesy of Whoscored.com) from the game.
With little, if any, particularly bright spots, this map shows that Tolisso was constantly switching between his two roles as an 8 or a 10, covering a wide area rather than staying in one place for an extended period of time.
Goretzka’s map (courtesy of Whoscored.com) shows something similar.
Again, not that many prominent bright spots, just a steady blue that differs slightly in shade. Interestingly enough, Goretzka is seen to be more active in the opposition half than his own, which begs the question: how is he playing in such an advanced position but classified as a 6 in a 4-2-3-1?
The answer lies in Bayern’s attacking prowess. Bayern were constantly pressing Atletico’s back line all game, causing Goretzka to often venture forward and offer support to gain that numerical advantage. It’s a trait that Goretzka displays quite often when playing in a 4-2-3-1, not necessarily staying as a true 6, but playing as a 6/8 hybrid.
The same can be said for his partner Kimmich.
Kimmich evidently has a lot more brightness than his other two midfielders, and, like his partners, has more activity in the 8 area because of Bayern’s dominance in the game. By pressing high, Bayern basically turned the 8 area into their 6 area, which Kimmich covered admirably for 90 minutes.
But another question, why is Kimmich’s map so much brighter than that of Goretzka and Tolisso? The answer is simple: Kimmich ran A LOT. He covered a total of 11.896 kilometers, almost 900 meters more than Tolisso’s 11.056km, and well over a kilometer more than Goretzka’s 9.642km. That’s roughly eight to ten more pitch-length sprints! Kimmich’s distance covered takes up about 10 percent of the entire team’s, which just goes to show how much he was running.
Likewise, the fluidity in switching between two different formations, and the work rate of the midfield was essential to Bayern’s win over Atletico. By the way, speaking of distance covered. Manuel Neuer covered twice as much ground as Douglas Costa yesterday. Even though the latter was a substitute, it’s still impressive to see a goalkeeper run almost five kilometers in a single game.
This game showed how flexible Hansi Flick is as a coach. Many fans most likely associate Flick with his ridiculously high line and intense pressing, and for good reason, as said philosophy won his team a treble. But he also showed that he is willing to make changes to accommodate the opponent, while not completely deviating from his style. Bayern were still pressing and running all game, but in a different way than usual, so to speak. The result? A fine showing against one of the best defensive teams in the world.
The players need to take some credit as well. In the midst of an incredibly tight schedule, and having lost major players to injury and illness, the team spirit was in danger of being dampened even before a single ball was kicked. However, the spirit was anything but broken, and the team remained as motivated as they always were as they quickly and ruthlessly dismantled Atletico like they did to so many others. The fact that the players can still deliver such a rousing performance, despite many factors that are not in their favor, is very encouraging, and is a worthy attitude of the previous season’s treble winners.
All in all, this victory is definitely a huge step forward, but it is also just one game. Bayern would be well advised not to let this go to their heads, as the schedule is only going to get harder. This game will not be the same as the next game, nor will the next game be the same as the game after that. That said, Flick and his men have not slacked off this season after the glory of last season, so it would be safe to assume that they are still hungry for more. Taking the season game by game, and approaching every game with the same passion will mean more good things for Bayern.
This game is over, and we move on.