Bayern Munich will enjoy a narrow 1-0 lead over Paris Saint-Germain heading into the second leg of their Champions League round of sixteen tie on March 8, to be played in Germany. Julian Nagelsmann appeared to get the better of his French counterpart, Christophe Galtier, but the game was a tale of different phases.
When Bayern had a decisive upper hand in the first half, they failed to punch through. In the game’s culminating stanza, Paris were unlucky not to at least equalize — including the sort of just-offside goal that the rules of the game are frankly cruel to disallow.
Such an outcome prompts a deeper look at the chess match between the two managers. Did Nagelsmann make the most of it, or did he escape? Do Paris — with presumably a fully-fit Kylian Mbappé by that time — have good reason to feel confident?
Bayern abandoned their two-man strike team
To pull themselves out of their sleepy start to the Rückrunde, Julian Nagelsmann switched to a 3-1-4-2 — featuring a resurgent Thomas Müller whose presence on the pitch re-introduced the zany but superbly effective chance-generating directness for which the Raumdeuter is known.
Against PSG, Müller was dropped, ostensibly for Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Jamal Musiala but also in favor of Leon Goretzka and a change of formation. Goretzka pulled costume-change duty in and out of possession in a 3-2-4-1, forming a defensive presence alongside Joshua Kimmich in defense but cantering into attack while Bayern were on the ball.
This helped Bayern flood and congest the pitch centrally. In possession, a 3-1-5-1 kept defenders narrow and opened up space on the wings, which Bayern tried hard to exploit. In transition, Bayern still had midfield numbers to present multiple opportunities to win the ball back.
However, Bayern weren’t lacking only a clinical touch in the final third. PSG Parc’d the bus and denied Bayern clean opportunities in front of goal. For all the dominance, even João Cancelo’s sumptuous crosses could only find an isolated and out-numbered crew not able to receive.
Was this wholly necessary? Galtier’s 4-4-2 structure out of possession featured a front two in Lionel Messi and Neymar Jr. that did not press, giving free reign to Bayern’s 3+1 build-up through Joshua Kimmich. At one point, Kimmich casually sauntered with the ball from deep in his own half to approach the opposition box with nary a challenge in sight.
In other words, in-possession security was more than accounted for. Bayern might have tried different ideas to open up space on one wing, then the other instead of keeping them both open all the time — and put the PSG center-back pairing under much more pressure with two box threats lurking in Thomas Müller alongside Choupo-Moting.
Galtier’s adjustments proved their worth
Bayern finally pounced in the second half with a gorgeous showcase of modern football, the wingback-to-wingback goal. Alphonso Davies and especially Kingsley Coman put in superlative shifts on either flank.
But eventually, PSG’s formation shifts finally outmaneuvered Bayern’s. Kylian Mbappé was a one-man show. Both teams tried their luck at getting in behind the opposition lines on the wings, and Serge Gnabry’s introduction for the man-of-the-match Kingsley Coman opened up a chasm on the Bayern right.
The back three is compact in the center but can be vulnerable down the wings, especially when not well-matched man-to-man. Gnabry was expeditionary but left an exhausted Dayot Upamecano to chase both Nuno Mendes and Kylian Mbappé — a configuration which resulted in the Bavarians coming only inches away from paying dearly.
On the other side, Bayern fared only slightly better. Warren Zaïre-Emery had given Bayern defenders trouble but it was Lionel Messi who ultimately forced Benjamin Pavard into a desperation tackle that resulted in his second yellow. The Frenchman will now be suspended for the second leg, leaving Bayern’s back three in questionable shape.
Burning questions for March 8th
Without Pavard, can Nagelsmann run any kind of back three at all? Well, Josip Stanišić is a potential stand-in, and has previously shown his mettle against Mbappé on international duty for Croatia. But at center-back, it’s a different story. Dayot Upamecano is both Bayern’s paciest and steadiest man. If removed from the center, there will always be one wing where he can’t sprint back.
Similarly, new transfer window arrival Daley Blind is well-schooled in distribution and has boatloads of experience. Pace, he does not.
So, will Bayern need to return to a back four? Their top healthy options at full-back would then be Davies and Cancelo — both of the more attacking variety. A shift to a 4-2-3-1 might also mean just one number ten. Could Müller miss out once again, and/or Leroy Sané too?
Of course, the back four is hardly unfamiliar territory for Bayern. But it could mean more tinkering, and more rhythm adjustment, at a time where it’s just seemed like Nagelsmann has found a good formula for the present.
Early forecast: partly cloudy with a chance of raining goals
Both PSG and Bayern showed that any recent form issues could readily be set aside. Both sides lived up to the intensity of a Champions League knockout, and that should be no different next time. Bayern have a slim lead, and the home advantage — but there’s the sense that PSG have further room to raise their level from what they showed this time.
Bayern, on the other hand, will need to come up with key answers at the same time: the solution to Mbappé’s return, and the optimal deployment of a back four with current personnel.
They may do it, but the early outlook suggests there’ll be another period of Yann Sommer and the Bayern backline weathering a storm of arrows from Messi-Neymar-Mbappé.