By Michel Munger, Editor-in-chief at Bayern Central
FC Bayern München has changed much since the last meeting with Juventus in 2013. This guest post’s mission is to explain how.
Under Jupp Heynckes’ tutelage, the Reds beat Juve 4:0 on aggregate with a brand of football that could be labeled as direct and vertical.
Bayern then was comfortable with more or less 55% possession, attacking on the wings with magicians Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben. They would dribble against defenders and either shoot or look for passing targets in free-roaming Thomas Müller and striker Mario Mandukic. Full-backs Philipp Lahm and David Alaba, would send exquisite crosses to Mandžukić.
A robust midfield was anchored by Bastian Schweinsteiger, who was in charge of distribution and of supporting the attack by following ball carriers closely. His “double six” partner Javi Martínez was the destroyer who absorbed counterattacking pressure. He won the ball back and helped relaunch the attack.
With Philipp Lahm, Jérôme Boateng and David Alaba, the back four was the best in the world. The back line received the help of Ribéry and Robben who frequently tracked back to shut down attacks.
Although possession-based, Bayern’s playing style was direct. Execution in tight space was a trademark of the Bavarian powerhouse, leading it to destroy even FC Barcelona en route to a Champions League win.
Change of philosophy
Enter Pep Guardiola. His philosophy is more ideological than Heynckes’. He believes in total control of the action and positional play. His hunch is that FCB does not play well without the ball.
With this philosophy, possession skyrocketed to over 60% in most games. It sometimes reached a dizzying 80%!
This game plan however backfires against the big teams. To execute Guardiola’s tactics, Bayern has to send its defenders high on the pitch, collectively entering the final third. Teams put 10 or 11 men behind the ball and look for counterattacking opportunities.
When it happens, one defender has to take break up the play before ball carrier can pass to other rushing teammates. This is how Bayern has conceded costly goals in Champions League semis against Madrid and Barcelona in the last two years.
Guardiola’s ideology put an end to verticality and most teams took notice. They defend and defend to death, making many wins lacklustre.
A weakness Juventus should look to exploit is Bayern’s bill of health, which is not clean. Key players such as Jérôme Boateng, Javí Martinez, Holger Badstuber are missing. The team only has one healthy centre-back and it is recently signed Serdar Tasci. He started his Bavarian career with a concussion suffered in training!
The current makeshift back line is untested against dangerous teams. Will it crack under pressure?
Injuries also affect the precious wings. Arjen Robben is picking up speed after numerous spells on the sidelines. Franck Ribéry has just returned to the squad and he is not 100% fit yet.
Beware, however, of a duo that we lovingly nickname CoCo.
Douglas Costa was signed last summer and he provides an impressive offensive spark. His superior speed and athleticism allow him to burn full-backs mainly on the left flank, finding space for a good cross to the penalty area. Anyone rushing towards goal will try to meet the ball and squeeze it past the keeper.
The other half of this duo is a familiar name: Kingsley Coman. The young Frenchman is a surprising revelation. He does not have Costa’s pure speed, but he is more intelligent on the ball. He takes on defenders and works around them, finding spaces to make great passes to his teammates. He usually patrols the right flank.
The two players can however swap positions and drift inside at will.
A year or two ago, Bayern’s attacking would come to a screeching halt with injuries to Ribéry and Robben. With CoCo in the lineup, this is not the case anymore. Although untested in the Champions League knockout stage, the pair has already demonstrated its ability to make up for the absence of stars on the wings.
If you wonder, we are not giving Coman back. Bayern will surely use the buying option in his loan contract.
Vidal not finding form
What about Arturo Vidal? You sold him last summer in a move that surprised many. Bayern fans saw him as the box-to-box midfielder who would make Bayern’s central midfield tougher.
It has not turned out that way. Vidal plays regularly but his efficiency is rather low. He does not cover the pitch as he used to.
Why is that so?
Box-to-box midfielders struggle to make their mark under Pep Guardiola. His favouritism of Xabi Alonso, whose play is incompatible with the role, and little use of the central midfield changes explain the problem.
Notice that Luiz Gustavo left quickly after Pep’s arrival. Bastian Schweinsteiger never found his legs and he left for Manchester United. Javí Martinez rarely plays in the position, held back in central defence. Even the professor’s pet, Thiago Alcântara, has had a difficult season so far.
If you want to read more about this question, try this piece we published in December.
How can Juve beat Bayern?
With all of the above in mind, you should know that directness and verticality have been erased from the playbook. There is little chance that Bayern will attack with the energy of old. It will most probably come up with the usual insanely complex passing game with a high line of defence.
Even lowly opposition such as Eintracht Frankfurt has managed to frustrate the Bavarian attack by parking the bus and defending energetically. With resolve, pressing and good positioning, opponents can look for the decisive counterattack that can break Bayern’s back.
If Juventus wants to go “back and forth” by taking the game to Bayern, though, it will pay a high price. Costa, Robben, Müller and Lewandowski are deadly on the rare counter opportunities they get. Check out this video of a counter against VfB Stuttgart earlier this season for a scary example.
You now have clear view of today’s FC Bayern. Enjoy the tie!