CL round of 16 first leg: Lazio vs. Bayern

Justin Separator February 23, 2021

Given Bayern’s present condition, there are certainly bigger surprises than a loss to Frankfurt. In this preview, we will not delve into the reasons for this again. You can read about them here or here.

However, even the best reasons cannot shield the team from criticism for the account they gave of themselves in the first 25 minutes of the match against Frankfurt. Bayern again were fast asleep in defense and far too hectic in possession. It was as if they did not know how strong Frankfurt’s pressing was and how much it would play into Frankfurt’s hands if they were allowed to dig themselves in in the opponent’s half.

In the opening exchanges, Bayern were hardly given the chance to breathe in possession for more than a few seconds at a time. Instead, the ball always reappeared at their penalty area in no time and the team was back in defensive mode.

Review: Bayern’s defeat at Frankfurt

Frankfurt was in more or less complete control during the first third of the game, because Bayern did not manage to heed the three points we mentioned in our preview: Firstly, they let themselves be outplayed in the center. This was certainly not least due to the fact that with Marc Roca and Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting two players played there who noticeably lacked integration and automatisms. However, the three main build-up players Jérôme Boateng, David Alaba, and Joshua Kimmich bear most of the responsibility. These are three experienced players who know each other and the routines well, but were initially unable to counter the opponent’s pressing in a way that was nowhere near suited to engender calm. Instead, they drove many long and uncontrolled balls right into the feet of the opponents or predictable passes into the pressing traps on the wings. Frankfurt managed to isolate Bayern’s full-backs by conscientious man-marking, forcing quite simple turnovers.

Secondly, for a long time the Bayern team did not manage to maintain horizontal compactness during longer defensive spells. Again and again, the players let themselves be drawn out of position, losing sight of other opponents. Bayern once again showed that they tend to be either too passive or too active in longer defensive phases, while Frankfurt was able through skillful combinational play to create chances via Filip Kostić and Amin Younes as if they had no real opponent pressure.

But perhaps the most important factor was, thirdly, that Bayern were unable to exert any pressure on Frankfurt throughout the first half. They simply never managed to exercise their pressing. This was partly because the ball only very rarely was in Frankfurt’s half, depriving Bayern of their high gegenpressing. The distances were simply too long after long balls because Frankfurt did to Bayern what Bayern should have done to Frankfurt: Penning the opponent in at the back. On the other hand, they seemed to have great respect for Frankfurt’s long balls. On the day, the deep and passive approach turned out to backfire massively.

What was better?

In the second half, Leon Goretzka came on for Marc Roca, and with him came some minor adjustments in Bayern’s game. Above all, Flick ordered a tighter positional play in order to horizontally squeeze Frankfurt’s well-balanced formation. Goretzka, playing alongside Kimmich in the center, had a much greater impact on the game than Roca, while Süle’s positioning was slightly but crucially adjusted. In build-up, the makeshift right-back stayed in the defensive half-space instead of taking up a wide and slightly higher position than the rest of the back line.

As a result, Kostić had to cover more distance before being challenged by Süle, thus leaving space in behind for Leroy Sané to exploit if he lost the ball. Through the triangle of Süle, Sané, and Goretzka, Bayern were able to build up their attacks in a more composed and controlled fashion. At some point, Frankfurt gave up the high press and concentrated on defending – because they were in the lead, but also because Bayern were coming up and keeping up a high press would have opened up unnecessary spaces.

At the end of the game, a draw would have been well deserved. Bayern recovered well from the weak first half, but failed to take their chances. By StatsBomb’s xG reckoning, Bayern should have won the game 1.1 to 2.0, the direct opposite of the actual result.

It was to be expected that Bayern would have a hard time against Frankfurt, who are in an outstanding run of form at the moment. That makes Bayern’s comeback in the second half all the more impressive. However, the completely unnecessary drop of points against Bielefeld is a real irritation. It seems typical that, in addition to all the other worries, Bayern also lack match luck. However, Bayern can take courage from the second half in Frankfurt, especially for the Champions League round of 16 encounter with Lazio.

Lazio: a sky-blue hell for Bayern?

On Tuesday evening, Lazio will host Bayern for the first leg. Lazio currently sit in a respectable 5th place in Serie A at 43 points with ten points behind leaders Inter. As Serie A journalist and expert Marius Soyke told us in a recent podcast, that seems about right for them.

Although the Biancocelesti are one of the most followed teams in Italy, they traditionally cannot keep up with the league’s big guns Juve, Inter, Milan, and Napoli. This is largely due to the fact that they regularly drop points when they have to make the game.

They will not be in this quandary against FC Bayern will most likely make the game, while Lazio will be able to play to their strengths, which are eerily similar to those of Frankfurt. Athletically, physically and tactically, they bring all the prerequisites to hurt the Bayern team. Bayern’s defeat at Frankfurt seems like a perfect blueprint for Lazio on how to set up their game.

Compact center, pressure on the wings

Apart from minor differences, both teams act quite similar in defense. When they sit back, they protect the whole width of the pitch out of a back five with the near side wing-back frequently pushing out to create pressure. When this happens, the remaining four defenders shift across to provide cover.

In front of the back five, Lazio, like Eintracht, attempt to keep the midfield very compact and narrow. However, they use a different formation. Instead of two 6s and two 10s behind a central striker, Simone Inzaghi relies on three central midfielders behind two attackers.

The two attackers usually form a block in the center in order to force the opponent’s build-up play out wide. Behind them, the three midfielders are quick to close down the approaching ball carriers on either side. The near side wing-back pushes up and provides support as soon as a ball win seems likely.

Bayern’s possible solutions against Lazio’s pressing

Lazio is usually able to apply such tactical patterns with great consistency and precision. If Bayern build up too predictably through their wide full-backs as they did in the first half against Frankfurt, there is a risk that they lose the ball to Lazio just as quickly, too.

With Süle in a more central and deeper position, Bayern found a remedy that could also work on Tuesday night. A big advantage of this is that there would be no 2-on-2 situations in build-up between the center-backs and the opposing attackers. In addition, Kimmich and his midfield partner would be better able to hold their positions in defensive midfield because Süle’s deep positioning would void the need for them to fall back.

This slightly shifted 3-2 formation could be enough to initially gain control and signal to Lazio that their attempts at a high press will ultimately not meet with success. Especially in the early stages of the game, this will be an important element. After that, it will be a matter of breaking up the Italian block in the center. Without Thomas Müller, there has been no central player who is able split open the opponent’s defensive lines with ease at the right moments for Bayern in recent games. Although Choupo-Moting in his stead did not do badly, he did not exactly excel either. Musiala was not used much in the last games, but arguably brings greater control in tight spaces, a quality which could become important without Müller.

Flick will have to make a compromise here. Choupo-Moting is a fairly stable option who holds the promise of giving a solid performance when called upon if he is embedded in a stable team. On the other hand, he himself hardly adds a creative spark in attack which would lead to something special. Musiala’s problems lie more in the game out of possession, but he has already proven on several occasions that he can energize an attack. Especially against physically strong teams, however, he has exhibited defensive problems time and again.

Lazio is not just Immobile

And that is exactly what Lazio is. A team that will constantly harass Bayern all across the pitch. But there is more to the Biancocelesti than just a well-organized defense. The Italians know exactly how to get in behind the opponent’s defense needing only a few touches after winning the ball. In the center, they have creative players like Luis Alberto or the hugely talented Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. Both are technically very gifted footballers who can withstand high pressure. So if Bayern fail to press as they did in the first half against Frankfurt, Lazio have the quality to punish them.

Lazio have a lot of pace on the wings, which Milinkovic-Savic and Alberto know how to release. Up front, coach Inzaghi has a variety of players at his disposal who complement each other very well. First and foremost, of course, there is Ciro Immobile, who was Serie A’s top scorer last season with 36 goals. He has already scored 19 times in 26 competitive games this season. The 31-year-old is possibly in the form of his life at present and does not need many touches to score a goal.

He is usually supported by a very agile and fast-paced strike partner who opens up the spaces for the goal scorer. In recent weeks, this has usually been Joaquin Correa, who could cause Bayern trouble in the area between the defense and the midfield. Similar to Amin Younes, who was one of the match winners for Frankfurt against Bayern, Correa could become a key player for the Italians.

Will Lazio be Frankfurt reloaded?

But the same as against Frankfurt, Bayern would be well advised not to focus their defensive efforts on one player alone. Lazio have many qualities. Milinkovic-Savic, for example, may be a very good playmaker, but he is also very robust in the game without the ball and frequently acts as a passing option between the opponent’s lines. He can hold up, shield and distribute balls. Even if his development has stagnated a little in recent years due to his team’s style of play, the 25-year-old is still one of the most multifaceted midfielders in the Serie A.

Bayern should let Lazio bring as few of their qualities to bear as possible. Borussia Dortmund know a thing of two about what can happen if you do not from their Champions League group encounters.

For Flick and his team, this match is not only important in terms of progressing in the Champions League. It is also of great psychological importance. After the 3-3 draw against Bielefeld and the defeat in Frankfurt, Bayern need a psychological quick win to get back on track in the Bundesliga as quickly as possible. In addition to the second half in Frankfurt, the upcoming return of Thomas Müller is a silver lining. The attacker has been dearly missed in all phases of the game for Bayern.

Against Lazio, however, he will once again have to look on from the outside, as he is still in self-isolation due to COVID-19. For Bayern, the game presents a great opportunity to redeem themselves. On the other hand, there is the risk of slipping into a “crisis” (as which a defeat against Lazio would no doubt be framed in the media). Historically, such moments have always been those in which FC Bayern were able to turn the tide. But this season, anything seems possible. The game tonight seems completely open. Lazio have not only been very stable in recent weeks, but their philosophy is uncomfortably similar to that of Eintracht Frankfurt, too. They are a team whose style of play perfectly matches the current problems of the record champions.

»Eier, wir brauchen Eier!«

— Oliver Kahn

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