CHAMPIONS LEAGUE MATCHDAY 03 PREVIEW: OLYMPIACOS PIRAEUS – FC BAYERN MUNICH
19 points from seven games – a return that Bayern could only dream of this season. Olympiacos has won six of their opening seven league games and have lost only one match in all competitions so far.
They have conceded eight goals in 15 competitive matches, five of which came in the Champions League group stage. The 1-3 defeat away to Red Star helps put things a little bit into perspective.
And yet Bayern will be faced with a difficult task. Olympiacos’s 2-2 draw against Tottenham after progressing from the Champions League qualification phase without conceding, in combination with their almost flawless start in the league should be enough of an advance warning.
On a superficial level, Olympiacos might appear like a team that aims to defend deep and hit their opponents on the counterattack, especially in the Champions League. 43.8% possession against Tottenham, 41.8 against Red Star – Olympiacos seems to feel most comfortable keeping a compact shape with two tightly staggered lines of four and swiftly moving the ball upfield in transition.
However, a closer look reveals that Olympiacos is not averse to keeping the ball at times too. They need a decent possession game for their domestic challenges in the league. There they often are the favourites. They will not be this against Bayern.
Olympiacos will probably start in the same formation they used in their opening match against Tottenham. Their preferred 4-4-2 allows them to be both stable in defense and flexible against the ball. For example, they conduct a deeper midfield pressing by default which they occasionally interject with phases of a more advanced pressing further up in order not to be constantly pinned back to their own penalty area.
A likely scenario for Tuesday night: in the beginning, Olympiacos will defend by trying to tighten the center by means of a deeper midfield pressing executed by two compact lines of four behind the two attackers, whose primary duty off the ball is to challenge Bayern’s holding midfielders. Bayern has found it difficult to deal with this lately.
In such situations, they sometimes switch from a 4-4-2 to a 4-1-3-2 as one of the holding midfielders moves up. Generally, Olympiacos has become quite apt at closing down the center under their coach Pedro Martins. Tottenham, for example, hardly ever managed to create dangerous situations through the middle in their meeting on the first matchday.
Olympiacos could occasionally try to press more aggressively higher upfield. This usually implies that one of their holding midfielders shifts to a higher position in a 4-1-3-2. In these phases, their main focus remains on blocking the center, but Olympiacos then also tries to force the opponent to make mistakes in building up from the back.
Olympiacos needs to be put under pressure to elicit mistakes from them. If they are, they are susceptible to giving the ball away during build-up. Under Martins, they often try to build up from the back with quick and short passes, which they are not always able to execute flawlessly under pressure. But even in their normally very well organised work against the ball, they sometimes suffer from lapses of concentration.
It happens only rarely that the defenders neglect to narrow down the spaces between the lines, but it happens. Then all of a sudden spaces open up in the central positions or left and right half spaces that the opponent can seize upon. Olympiacos’s horizontally compact shape also leaves them vulnerable to quick long switches of the play. However, they have enough determination and pace to be able to quickly close down such openings, which requires their opponents to be swift and precise enough in their actions if they are to seize such opportunities.
Olympiacos’s offensive unit also features some players with pace. Youssef El Arabi (6 goals, 2 assists), Mathieu Valbuena (4 goals, 8 assists), Miguel Ángel Guerreiro (4 goals, 2 assists), and El Arbi Hillel Soudani (4 goals) are their top scorers. It might be a bit of a surprise that top scorer El Arabi has got only two minutes of game time in this Champions League season. Guerreiro was preferred to him in the opening two games.
A name not on this list is that of Daniel Podence, a quick and nimble 24 year old right winger. He has already delivered some performances worthy of attention this season, facilitated not least by the wing focus of his team’s attack play. When they attack the half spaces, Olympiacos often tries to draw opponent players out of position by one of their players suddenly falling back. With his pace and his intuition for well timed deep runs, Podence kept being a nuisance for Tottenham in the two teams’ earlier clash.
Bayern should also be wary of Olympiacos’s threat from set plays. Guilherme and Rúben Semedo are strong in aerial duels and competent headers of the ball. Guilherme has already scored three headed goals (two against Viktoria and one against Volos in the league). Semedo, on the other hand, has already scored three times from a set piece.
From a tactical perspective, it seems obvious what Bayern has to pay attention to on Tuesday night in light of Olympiacos’s strengths and weaknesses. Their first priority should be to avoid losing possession carelessly. When Olympiacos has a chance to use the pace of their offensive players, danger is imminent. If Kimmich and Alaba should start as the left and right full-back respectively, Bayern needs to watch out for counterattacks. Both players are very offensive-minded and carry out their roles accordingly.
In attack, the way of suddenly switching the play across the pitch that Bayern has discovered for itself in recent weeks seems to be a worthwhile tactic. Javi Martinez’s long ball to the right flank that initiated the equaliser against Augsburg and Philippe Coutinho’s switch before Bayern’s first goal against Paderborn are good examples. But Bayern has to work on better supporting the player in possession, i.e. giving him options to link up with or shielding him from opposition. Kingsley Coman’s productivity, for example, often depends on his teammates being available for a pass or opening up a way on goal for him by blocking opponent players. As yet, he is too often left isolated and thus quickly closed down by one or two defenders.
Olympiacos ist prone to make mistakes when they are forced to keep shifting with the ball. Bayern will be well advised to keep them busy and wait for these mistakes. In order to do so effectively, their midfield positioning will have to be much tighter than in the game against Augsburg, where they allowed huge gaps to appear between the midfield players. This brought about fragility in the center and impaired their efforts in gegenpressing after losing the ball.
Bayern will have a long hard match ahead of them if they do not manage to step up their positional play on Tuesday night. The quality of this seems to be largely dependent on the available personnel. Whenever Kimmich, Thiago and Couthino have been on the pitch together, Bayern’s midfield game at least looked partially acceptable. When the main protagonists in midfield have been Tolisso and Müller, however, Bayern’s game suddenly was a lot more complicated and predictable. A clear and consistent blueprint of Kovač’s organisation in midfield has not been visible so far this season. Instead, his team’s approach and level of performance varied with the quality of the personnel he deployed and tended to be below par unless he went with his first choice of players.
Kovač makes hardly any adaptions to the characteristics of the respective players. In the game against Augsburg, Martinez was expected to play like Thiago. In other games, Tolisso was asked to fit the Kimmich profile. But all these players play differently, have their own unique strengths and weaknesses, and fill their roles in different ways. This is an important quality which adds variety and an element of unpredictability to their game, but if there is no fundamental framework that provides a bridge between the individual characteristics of each player and the idiosyncratic requirements of the game in hand, there is no common structure for the absence of which even the best individual ability cannot compensate – which, incidentally, is also one of the root causes why Bayern has already leaked so uncustomarily many goals this season.
Olympiacos may well be able to make use of such an imbalance in midfield. Particularly when they play at home, they are well capable of holding their own in the Champions League. So far they have beaten Viktoria (4-0) and Basaksehir (2-0) and drawn with Tottenham (2-2) in what have been respectable performances one and all. Should Bayern fail to drop their slack attitude and borderline arrogant overconfidence and not recognise the seriousness of their sporting predicament, another severe reality check is surely on the cards in Greece. Only if they manage to wake up and deliver a focused and determined performance, they will avoid what Uli Hoeneß has just recently still called “nonsense”: a repetition of last year’s fall crisis.