In our previous article, we looked at the possible areas that Bayern Munich might look to exploit FC Barcelona’s defense in the UEFA Champions League. Now, it’s time to look at the opposite side of the same coin.
When Hansi Flick was appointed Bayern’s interim manager, he inherited a makeshift defensive line. Over the course of the season, the same developed into one of the best and most dynamic defenses in the world. Part of the reason Flick’s team is scoring so many goals is because of the involvement of his backline in setting-up attacks.
However, since the restart, Bundesliga teams applied some common patterns to exploit the Bayern defense. To make matters worse, Benjamin Pavard suffered an injury setback in the preparation for the Champions League. Not only did this remove a crucial defender from the system, it forced Joshua Kimmich to move away from midfield — a player who played a crucial part in Bayern’s fantastic Rückrunde from the center of the pitch.
In this part of the series, we analyse the possible ways in which Barcelona can set up attacks and how Hansi Flick can counter them :
Block Bayern’s creativity and outnumber their pivot
With Thiago and Kimmich, Bayern used to dominate the whole match with the ball. But with Kimmich shifted back to right-back, Bayern will have one playmaker less in the buildup.
Thiago Alcantara is going to be the focal point in progressing the ball upfield. But if Barcelona manages to block him, holding the ball in the middle would be difficult for Bayern. This was especially visible when Liverpool came to Allianz Arena in the second leg of Round of 16 last season. With James Rodriguez failing to link the defense and the offense and Javi Martinez busy with defensive duties, Bayern’s offensive creativity suffered as Liverpool players frequently pressurized Thiago into making back passes.
If Barcelona uses their previous version of the 4-4-2, they’ll be able to outnumber ThiaGoretzka pivot. The Catalans will have a numerical advantage during pressing as well as buildup phase of the game.
On account of lack of true wingers in this formation, Barcelona has adapted to creating chances and scoring from the middle. They use positional plays and focus on penetrating the defense from the center. Out of Barcelona’s 63 assists in La Liga, only 6 were recorded as crosses. This is in stark contrast to Bayern’s style as the Bavarians have assisted 22 goals through crosses, out of 75 recorded assists.
Possible solution: Use Beckenbauer Jr’s long balls.
Hansi Flick and Bayern are blessed to have a modern libero in David Alaba. For Barcelona to block Thiago, the players will have to come out and press. Bayern can then use Alaba to execute long balls to bypass Barcelona midfield and/or defense. Per FBref, Alaba recorded the highest progressive passing distance by an outfield player and boasted a long-passing accuracy of 85% in Bundesliga.
Hansi Flick can take a leaf out of Jupp Heynckes’ book and have Alaba and Boateng find Mullewandowski through over-the-top balls. Back in 2013, Don Jupp adjusted his tactics and used long balls to wreak havoc on Barcelona. Hansi Flick has also previously used diagonal long balls as part of his tactics.
Escape Bayern’s counter-press with long balls
Bayern’s counter-pressing makes it very difficult to break their defense from the middle and through ground passes. In order to suffocate opponents in their half, Hansi Flick opts for a high defensive line. To overcome this, Bayern’s opposition often executes long balls to bypass Bayern press.
Unlike the first weakness, if Barcelona sit back and absorb pressure, they’ll need to feed Leo Messi and Luis Suarez with over the top long balls.
Against Bayern, the long balls can be used to exploit the space between Alaba and Alphonso Davies. Hansi Flick has given Davies the freedom to attack at will as he has the pace to track back quickly. Son Heung-min, Jadon Sancho, Achraf Hakimi, Mason Mount and many more have suffered a similar fate at the hands of Davies. But this time, FC Bayern’s roadrunner will be up against a superhuman. As a matter of fact, the space that Davies and Alaba operate on also happens to be Messi’s favorite part of the pitch.
Possible solution: Release the FC Bayern Hulk.
As of now, Davies’ offensive input is too important to be discarded. One remarkable thing Real Madrid were able to achieve in El Clásico was the use of Casemiro to take Messi out of the game. Leon Goretzka may not be at Casemiro’s level but since he uses his physicality and anticipation while defending, Flick can deploy his midfield buff to cut-off passes and aerial balls for Messi.
Momentary lapses and defending set-pieces
The scorelines may or may not reflect this but over the course of the game, Bayern’s defense observes momentary lapses. These were especially visible against Frankfurt, Bayer Leverkusen and Chelsea. Perhaps Flick has accepted that the defense is bound to get exposed due to the heavy demands of gegenpress.
So far, the coach’s solution to this problem has been simple : “start over, attack and score”. But if the tie turns out to be a close game like the game against Borussia Dortmund in the Rückrunde, clinical finishers like Messi, Suarez and Antoine Griezmann will punish Bayern for those lapses in concentration.
Lately, Bayern’s opponents have managed to exploit Bayern’s weak defending on set pieces. The quality in air is not a problem, since Bayern have plenty of aerial power in Boateng, Goretzka, Muller and Lewandowski. It’s the lack of coordination that causes man-marking conflicts during corners.
Regardless of whether Barcelona chooses or not to focus on scoring from this particular area, Hansi Flick should work on the players’ confusion and assign clear roles to each while defending corners.
The weaknesses in Bayern’s system exist, but they can be overcome. If the Bavarians manage to play with the same intensity, it’ll be hard to overcome their counterpressing. But if they lose focus, they’ll be ruthlessly punished, as they experienced it against Real Madrid in 2018.
In this one-off tie, the two FCB’s recent form will be a much more decisive factor than their contrasting league campaigns. Bayern will be facing by-far their toughest opposition of the season. But if Hansi Flick’s side maintains focus throughout the match, they should emerge triumphant in this quarter-final clash.