Champions League MD 01 Preview: Barcelona vs. Bayern
With a 4-1 victory at RB Leipzig, Bayern layed down a marker early in the Bundesliga. Particularly in the second half, they put in an impressive performance and showed clear signs of progress over their wobbly pre-season performances. But do they already have enough to make it through to the Champions League knockout stages?
Julian Nagelsmann’s most substantial progress so far is in the defensive stability of the team. This is only partially reflected in the numbers at the moment, but that is for different reasons. Four goals against in four games, i.e. an extrapolated 34 goals conceded over the whole Bundesliga season, are still too many for Bayern’s post-Flick aspirations. However, 3.8 expected goals against in total and 9.5 conceded shots per 90 minutes are the best values in the league.
The chances Bayern allow are often not the result of tactical shortcomings, but rather of individual mistakes – for example, when Goretzka with an outstanding pass involuntarily releases Davie Selke to charge down on Manuel Neuer’s goal unopposed in the first minute against Hertha (around 0.2 xGa). Otherwise, Bayern’s game seems more stable defensively than it did last season. This is not least because players like Dayot Upamecano, Niklas Süle and a fit again Lucas Hernández have convinced so far, save for a few minor individual lapses.
The fact that Nagelsmann more consistently than Hansi Flick orders three players to stay behind in defense when the team goes forward is one reason for the plus in stability. The more decisive factor, however, is the focus on a tighter positioning in the centre of midfield. Not only Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka and Thomas Müller play with obvious attention to their distances from each other, but also the wingers, who are often a little more tucked in, reliably chip in in gegenpressing.
A big change from last season is also that the team takes longer periods of defending deeper in a more restrained midfield pressing, in which only Müller and Lewandowski act higher up the field. Overall, the team now more regularly launches their concerted, intense gegenpressing only when the first pressing line is overplayed. Only then do they start defending forward and push out aggressively, which as a result makes them more compact overall.
The Bayern team currently puts the opponent under pressure in their own attacking third almost 45 times per game – about one time fewer than last season. However, 77 pressures in midfield and almost 46 in the defensive third are twelve and ten more, respectively – albeit with an average possession of 3% less per game. Nevertheless, their defensive action seems to be more responsive and the players seem to get quicker into the duels due to a more balanced occupation of space.
So everything picture perfect at FC Bayern? Not quite. The new approach is not without its flaws. The much-celebrated 4-1 thumping of Leipzig showed that the team’s forward play is still a work in progress. Apart from individual mistakes, which invited the opponents to hit them on the break again and again, there are still weaknesses in defending attacks down the wings. Many of the opponents’ finishes thus far have resulted from low and high crosses from the attacking half-spaces or straight from the wings.
This is probably partly due to the fact that Bayern play in a somewhat tighter formation with and without the ball than last season, when they more often adopted a more stretched out shape. Keeping the centre tightly populated while at the same time also being able to smother wide crosses at source is one of the major tasks that Nagelsmann still has to figure out in an otherwise already well-organised defence.
The more the players will adopt the new approach and find into their rhythm in the coming weeks and months, the fewer individual mistakes there will probably be. But the many ball losses against Leipzig cannot fully be explained by the early stage of the season alone. A meager 76% pass completion rate, only 47.5% possession, and some dangerous counterattacking situations that Leipzig fortunately were unable to use to their advantage should not be glossed over by the result.
Bayern allowed Leipzig to cause too much havoc and assert their wild, chaotic style in too many phases. Leipzig frequently played long balls over Bayern’s first pressing line to then launch their own gegenpressing deep in Bayern’s half. This in turn led to a few dangerous high ball wins. Bayern, on the other hand, frequently lacked composure in their build-up play and only rarely were able to consistently create ongoing offensive pressure. 36 pressures in the attacking third are below average, while Leipzig had 68, some of which they translated into moments of significant pressure in Bayern’s final third.
Especially after the first and second goal, one could have expected Bayern to focus on controlling and calming down the game for a time but instead they engaged in an open exchange of blows with Leipzig. They ultimately prevailed, but Leipzig made it easy for them with their blatant lack of precision in the final third. And that is a very big “but” in the evaluation of the record champions’ defensive performance.
Although Bayern often looked stable even when they had to defend continuously over a longer period, there were criminally many situations in which Leipzig made far too little out of their attacks. Relying on the opponent to wantonly waste their offensive opportunities would therefore be a dangerous strategy to employ continuously, especially in the Champions League.
This even more so against FC Barcelona – one would think. But the fact that Barça no longer has the glamour of ere should have made the rounds. With two wins and a draw, they started the season okay, but faced with Messi’s departure and other problems, they too are still searching for rhythm and, above all, for a new identity.
In the 4-2 opening win against Real Sociedad, they looked quite disjointed and incoherent in their performance at times. They mostly managed to control the visitors with good positional and passing play. They also played fairly dynamically and were able to build up pressure in attack. However, there were early signs of defensive problems which were confirmed in the 1-1 draw away to Bilbao and the narrow 2-1 win over Getafe at home.
In the game without the ball, the Catalans are still too unsorted and, above all, too passive. In midfield, this could become a problem against Bayern, who are quick and resolute runners on and off the ball. Moreover, Barça have not yet faced an opponent this season who can attack their possession game as the German record champions can. Prevailing in the face of that will be a big test for the post-Messi side.
But at the other end of the pitch the game will also be a real test for the Bayern defence. Nagelsmann will have to prepare his back line primarily to defend attacks down the right-hand side. 46% of all Barça attacks take place down their left side and thus through Jordi Alba. The two number eights Frenkie de Jong and Pedri also tend to drift out left at times, while the nominal striker Memphis Depay too has his strengths primarily in the left half-space. However, these overloads have worked rather poorly so far.
Although Barça have already been able to create a fair few breakthroughs over the left wing this season, their left-heavvy attacking game is too predictable. Whenever the ball is lost, the opponent immediately gets a good opportunity to develop a threat down the far side of the ball if they are able to switch the play.
And so, despite seven points from three games, there is still a good number of spanners in Barcelona’s works. In terms of individual quality, they are just as far behind their customary high levels as they are on a tactical level. Nevertheless, this team still has many players with superior technical skills, which in itself is always an asset against offensively-minded teams like Bayern.
All told, the Bayern team will undoubtedly go into this first group match as favourites. For Barcelona, the game will be much more of a benchmark of where they really are than for the 2020 Champions League winners. Nevertheless, the Nagelsmann team has still more than enough room for development and should, despite Barcelona’s undoubted problems, not take their first competitive test on an international stage lightly.