Mailbag: Final edition – Bayern against PSG
Alex, Daniel and Maurice got together to discuss whether the final will be a shoot out, what will be the most exciting duel on the pitch and who could become the match winner for Bayern.
Question 1: Paris Saint-Germain and FC Bayern are the two best attacking sides in this year’s Champions League. Will we see a shoot out or rather a typical low-scoring final?
Alex: I believe we’ll see early goals (plural) and then the game will calm down a bit because neither team wants to risk an all-out shoot out throughout. I still expect goals on both sides, and potentially several of them. Hansi Flick has been quite consistent in establishing a very high defensive line in his Bayern team. It’s not uncommon for the Bayern back four to have pushed up to the halfway line when Bayern turn over the ball in the opposition half. Manuel Neuer often has more or less an entire half of the pitch all to himself. I like this approach a great deal because it radiates confidence, class and has certain tinge of almost arrogant casualness – and Bayern can afford it, too, because they have the necessary speed to track back in time – but it doesn’t come without risks. As far as the development of the match is concerned, in the worst case scenario, Bayern will begin as they did against Barca and Lyon. Their defensive line will be overrun several times or be overplayed with a long ball over the top or a clever pass in behind. Thanks to Neymar and Mbappé, who of the two of them is the even more dangerous player for Bayern’s playing style, PSG will prove more clinical at seizing their chances than either Lyon or Barca. Then Bayern will be forced to act. Even if PSG should then decide to sit deeper and focus on defending, I can’t imagine that they will manage without conceding a goal. On average, Bayern have scored 4.2 goals per game this Champions League season. PSG’s defense is not bad, but Bayern have so many different strings to their bow in attack – their attacking game is possibly the most versatile in world football right now – that PSG will definitely concede goals (plural again). I can’t imagine a cagey affair where both teams play a holding game and move the ball around calmly in midfield. All in all, I believe in a result in the vicinity of a 3-2 or a 4-1 for Bayern.
Daniel: I believe in a scenario in between these two extremes. Not really a shoot out like a 4-3, but also not a classic 2-1. Bayern’s high defensive line promises goals, while PSG’s untested and in my opinion rather overestimated defense promises some big blunders. I would have thought that Tuchel would change his defense for such a big final, but it looks like he has trust in the current composition of his team and gives his players a long leash. For Bayern it will be important not to get involved in a open exchange of blows.
Maurice: Then it looks like it’s up to me to predict a typical final. A factor never to be underestimated in any final is the role of the psyche of the players. The pressure at the very highest level is just this little bit greater. The fear to play a bad pass or to give away the game early with a single, unfortunate action will probably be on the minds especially of those players who will play their first game at this level. So I think we’ll see both teams be a little more passive at the beginning of the game and try to control it a little more than in their previous matches. It will be crucial for the outcome of the game who after this early phase of calm will be able to successively gain the upper hand and find the better answers to the questions their opponents will ask of them.
Question 2: Neymar and Lewandowski, Mbappé and Müller, di Maria and Gnabry – there are big names on both sides. Which duel do you look forward to the most and is a potential match decider?
Alex: I would want to put a slightly different spin on this question. I am most curious to see how David Alaba and Alphonso Davies will measure up against Kilyan Mbappé and Neymar. Because of the playing style of Bayern I just described, I expect many a foot race between these players. There is no doubt in my mind that Bayern will score goals. For me, the biggest uncertainty is how many goals Bayern will concede. To me, this question will decide the game and I therefore consider the outcome of these head-to-head duels as one of the most decisive factors in this final.
Besides their high line, another significant factor affecting the number of defensive challenges Bayern will have to make, and thus the probable outcome of the game is also the number of misplaced passes Bayern will have in their build-up play. Should Thiago in particular, similar to the semi-final against Lyon, have an off day again and serve numerous balls straight into the feet of the opposition, the call on Alaba and Davies to intercept Neymar and Mbappé on the break will be all that more urgent. Bayern will most likely not change their high line (let’s hope not!), but they could and should improve on the rate of misplaced passes in midfield, marking the game a little less tense and exciting than a neutral spectator might wish for in a final.
Daniel: Definitely Joshua Kimmich and Jérôme Boateng against Neymar and Kylian Mbappé. It will be exciting to see if Kimmich will play a bit more conservative (at last). If he doesn’t always rush forward but only push up when he sees a gap in attack. To this end, a return of Benjamin Pavard is also possible, but I can’t for the life of me imagine that he is already at a 100% of his form. How could he be? Ten minutes against an almost beaten Lyon is by far not enough for me. And preferring a Pavard whose fitness is dubious to a fit Thiago is a recipe for failure as far as I’m concerned. That would simply be a coaching mistake the likes of which even the highly praised Hansi Flick could not recover easily. No, he should rather trust in Kimmich and Boateng.
But one shouldn’t become too concerned anyway. Atalanta is a fairy tale, but they don’t have the quality of Bayern. Leipzig’s defense can keep up with Bayern, but failed on Tuesday because of a completely strange organization. If you give them that much space, it’s not surprising that Neymar and Mbappé will know to use it to destroy an opponent all by themselves. But even these two haven’t had to compete against such a high-quality and tactically well-drilled defense as Bayern’s is this season. And for all the gaping space between Manuel Neuer and his center-backs, Bayern less the first 15 minutes against Lyon is just that. When they put their minds to it, they can compress the space between central defense and defensive midfield like hardly any other team, and if everyone takes part in that from the start (which didn’t always work out against Lyon), PSG will have a hard time scoring too, Neymar and Mbappé notwithstanding.
Maurice: Of course all eyes will be on Mbappe and Neymar against the supposedly vulnerable right side of defense of Bayern. But they themselves have no reason to hide either. I’m looking forward to the one-on-ones on the Bayern flanks. With all due respect to the development of Juan Bernat and Thilo Kehrer in Thomas Tuchel’s system, but with a Serge Gnabry in goal scoring mood as well as Ivan Perišić and Bayern’s Roadrunner Alphonso Davies, they will have to fight an uphill battle. In contrast to their counterparts from Munich, Bernat and Kehrer cannot always count on the support of the players in front of them. I’m expecting some rapid surges ahead by Davies & Co, which will keep the two Parisian defenders quite busy all day.
Question 3: Kahn 2001. Robben 2013. Which Bayern player will be the match winner in Lisbon on Sunday?
Alex: Let me sketch out three alternatives:
1. Robert Lewandowski: After his quiet performance (by his standards) in the game against Barcelona and his rather unfortunate display against Lyon, he manages to cut the proverbial Gordian knot in the final and score a hat-trick in the 4-2 victory of Bayern over PSG. This achievement crowns his extraordinary season, would earn him the Ballon d’Or if it were awarded, and goes down in the history books as the highlight of his season and the pinnacle of his career as the emblematic representation of the best Robert Lewandowski ever.
2. Alphonso Davies: The incredible Bayern youngster barely gives Kylian Mbappé and Neymar any room to breathe throughout the whole game and with his speed is the lifeline in Bayern’s defense. Several times he manages to close critical gaps, chase down PSG’s attackers to face them in one-on-one challenges and thus win the decisive seconds for his teammates to catch up, get into their defensive shape and keep the number of conceded goals low. At the same time, he also takes part in Bayern’s attacking game to good effect and even sets up a goal with a clever pass. After the game he is celebrated by the global media as the up and coming best left-back in European football, if he not already is (opinions still differ).
3. Manuel Neuer: Thanks to the usual high line deployed by Bayern and the offensive-mindedness of their entire defensive complement, PSG again and again manage to get in behind in attack, especially via Neymar and Mbappé being released by di Maria. Repeatedly, these guys have an almost clean path on the goal of Manuel Neuer or are able to create dangerous overloads close to Bayern’s goal. It is only thanks to Manuel Neuer’s outstanding positional play and precise instinct for when and how far to come out of his goal to face the onrushing attackers that PSG’s scoreline remains markedly below their xG. Moreover, whenever he has the ball under control after an attack from Paris, his powerful, long throws across more than half of the pitch ensure plenty of quick counter-attacks that catch PSG’s defense, who are still unorganized or have not yet tracked back, off guard, creating several goalscoring opportunities. After the game, Neuer is uniformly celebrated by the media as the ultimate backstop of a top team the likes of which other teams don’t have in quite the same impressive fashion. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge says that the game has once again proven Neuer’s unique ability and that everyone who cares to know will understand now why Bayern renewed his contract in May by another three years despite his advanced age.
Daniel: Somehow I have had the feeling throughout the whole tournament that Kingsley Coman will still gets the famous “one moment”. The one situation where he forgets how little end product there is to his actions sometimes.
Alternatively it would be fitting if Ivan Perišić were to turn up again. Wouldn’t it be a marvellous story if this player, who has had his problems in the Bundesliga, were to crown his already impressive Champions League tournament with a stellar performance, only to leave the club immediately thereafter because they still don’t want to afford him?
And then of course there’s Robert Lewandowski. He will still remember the discussions over the last years about his absence in big games, and I think it’s eating away at him how relatively unimportant his goals in Lisbon have been so far. Either he will collapse mentally under this and miss absolute sitters again or he will become the ‘Man of the Match’ and with his performance guarantee himself the title of the FIFA world footballer at the same time.
Otherwise I agree with Alex: Neuer will probably have to save at least one unstoppable worldie on Sunday. There’s hardly a game where he can expect the shots to be coming in left, right and center with so much certainty as this one. Otherwise I don’t necessarily believe that Serge Gnabry’s glorious Champions League knockout phase will continue in quite the same way in the final. But I do believe that after Sunday people within and without Germany will have realised just how outstanding a center-back David Alaba is.
Maurice: The other two have already checked off the most likely candidates. I like the idea of Kingsley Coman playing a decisive role against the very team that sent him away in his youth. But I don’t really see that coming. It would be typical for this season if either Thomas Müller or Leon Goretzka were to play the role of the decisive goal scorer. For nostalgia’s sake, I go for the native Bavarian, who will thus finally cast off his curse from this ominous 2012 match and become truly immortal in the hearts of the Bayern fans. It would also be the culmination of a storyline that began with a frequent relegation to the substitutes bench under Kovač and an ousting from the national team under Löw. So maybe it would be too fairy-tale an ending after all…