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UCL Preview: Three key areas Bayern Munich will look to exploit against Barcelona

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Lewandowski vs Messi, gegenpressing vs positional plays, FCB vs FCB: Barcelona and Bayern will meet in a heavyweight knockout clash.

FC Bayern Muenchen v Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: First Leg Photo by Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images

Bayern Munich and FC Barcelona, two perennial UEFA Champions League powerhouses, will lock horns in a quarterfinal clash on Friday. After eliminating their respective opponents Chelsea FC and SSC Napoli, the two sides have travel to Lisbon, where they will face each other in a “win or go home” tie.

The two FCBs have previously met in the quarterfinals of the 2008/09 competition and the semifinals of the 2012/13 and 2014/15 seasons. In all of their previous meetings, the winner went on to lift the Champions League trophy.

This time, Bayern is going into the tie with one of the best squads in Europe and a tactically robust system. For Barcelona, the G.O.A.T. Lionel Messi will be dictating their game, but he is accompanied with an inferior supporting cast.

Over the season, the Blaugrana defense has developed some glaring weaknesses. Their back line, in particular, has not shown the necessary cohesiveness. As a result, Hansi Flick will have the opportunity to exploit it with a creative attack. Let’s have a look at the ways Flick can penetrate Barcelona’s defense.


Quick transitions

On paper, Quique Setién sets his team up in a 4-4-2 formation with Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi up front or, more recently, in a 4-4-2 with Messi or Antoine Griezmann completing the midfield diamond. A defensive midfielder, typically Sergio Busquets or Ivan Rakitic, shields their defensive line.

In both the systems, Barcelona are often caught out on the counter. They follow a man-oriented pressing scheme, but their counter-pressing is not as effective and rigid as Bayern’s. Their high line, coupled with a lack of positional awareness, makes it easy for opponents to hit them on the break.

Napoli wins the ball from Messi and launches quick attack. Notice how Pique moves out of position.

Barcelona’s defense, on average, has conceded a goal every 90 minutes in La Liga this season. During the attacking phase, Barca’s fullbacks leave big gaps as they push forward. Then, when chasing the ball, they tend to move out of position, leaving space behind them. Opponents often exploit these gaps to create attacks with quick transitions.

Carvajal wins the ball and hits Barca on fast break, exposing the gap left between Pique and Semedo.

Bayern can use the wide areas of the pitch to hit Barcelona on the break. Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry are the obvious candidates for this task. If Coman and Gnabry are busy helping out their fullbacks in defense, Thomas Muller has shown he can initiate counter-attacks by placing himself in the empty space on the wing.

In the buildup to Bayern’s goal, Müller starts a counter-attack as he receives a long ball from Joshua Kimmich in empty left wing, then assists Gnabry on the right.

Counter-pressing

On account of their tactical structure and defensive quality, Barcelona struggle to play out from the back when under pressure. They often lose possession when the opposition executes counter-pressing, forcing them to commit errors or resort to long balls.

Barcelona play with single pivot. Here Napoli’s pressure forces Ivan Rakitic to play a bad pass.

On account of their usual system, Barcelona often find themselves outnumbered at the back and use Ter Stegen as an outlet to clear the ball. Real Madrid are not considered a typical gegenpressing side like Bayern or Leipzig, but in their Clásico win Zinedane Zidane was able to exploit this weakness of Barcelona by having his team press Barca vigorously in their half.

Ter Stegen clears the ball to escape Real Madrid’s pressure, but Casemiro wins it back and Real Madrid attack again.

Unfortunately for the Catalans, this Bayern team is one of the best counter-pressing teams in Europe. Hansi Flick’s men suffocate opponents in the middle of pitch, force them to commit errors, and attack immediately as they regain possession. The Bavarian workhorse, Thomas Müller, presses like a fiend and indicates to his teammates possible passing channels they can block.The Bavarians exert as many as 47.8 pressures in the attacking third of the pitch per game, compared to Barca’s 33.4.

Thomas Müller wins the ball in final third, assists Coutinho.

Off-the-ball movement

The players Bayern Munich have an astute understanding of the spaces they need to fill in order to maintain their defensive structure — credit to their respective coaches Hansi Flick. Such is not the case at Barcelona.

Barcelona’s core has shown a lack of positional awareness and coordination in their defensive third. Gerard Pique often leaves his position to charge players. If Sergio Busquets fails to fill the gap quickly, it puts his team in great danger.

In the buildup to Atletico’s first goal, Pique moved out of position to press Carrasco, who in turn takes Pique out of game and wins penalty

In Bayern’s case, this “space-filling” is a continuous and fluid process. In Barca’s case, the players often miss the window in which to fill such gaps. As a result, the opposition is able to play around their defensive line.

Due to lack of coordination between center backs and midfielders, half-spaces are another weak point that the Bavarians can exploit:

Napoli exploits Barcelona’s right half space. They also won the penalty in this area.

Once again, Bayern’s Raumdeuter and his partner-in-crime Robert Lewandowski will be able to play a dangerous role here. The duo knows how to create as well as exploit space. They roam around the defensive line, create space by attracting defenders, and connect defense to offense with their one-touch flicks and positional play.

Lewandowski notices Kimmich’s run, recieves a vertical pass from Alaba, and flicks it into Kimmich’s path. In doing so, he takes two defenders out of play and is later assisted by Müller.

There’s also one lethal group that has reunited on the right side of the field: Müller-Gnabry-Kimmich. The trio has excellent chemistry on the pitch and can break down defenses with their interplay. Kimmich’s importance in midfield can not be overstated but, with Benjamin Pavard unlikely to play, the German international will look to make a difference from his former position, right-back.

A classic Kimmich-Müller-Gnabry combination from last season; here, Müller exploits the right half-space.

Blessed with Hansi Flick as coach, Bayern Munich will surely have a master plan to exploit Setién’s team. The weaknesses in Barcelona’s system are clear; with sharpness and hunger, the Bavarian attackers should succeed in finding the back of the net.

However, at the same time, it would be foolish to ignore some recurring patterns in which opponents have managed to break Bayern’s defense. Barcelona might not be at their former level, but their team still consists of a group of veterans who have the experience to step up in big games. They also happen to have one of the greatest players in the history of soccer, a man who can change games by himself.

Whatever the result may be, the spectators are in for a treat.