Duels with Real are among the best that the history of the German record champion has to offer. You only have to look back one year to see the importance it has. Therefore: Preview is also review!
18 April 2017, Madrid: In the Santiago Bernabeu the final phase of a gripping duel is underway. Real Madrid had missed out on closing the game for good in the first 50 minutes. The Spaniards had 14 shots at that time, some of them from promising positions. Bayern had eight. Basically only one, at best two good chances.
At that point, it was difficult for two reasons to believe that the Ancelotti team would still achieve a positive outcome. First of all, there was the season of mixed performances. Although the team sometimes showed great qualities against Real, they were always tempted to lose control. The second reason is this notorious final phase in the Santiago Bernabeu.
Especially in the final fifteen minutes the team from Madrid succeeds again and again in accelerating the pace so incredibly that the opponent is crushed by it. Many professionals who played there report how the game is getting faster and faster in the second half and their own influence is diminishing.
But not so that night. The Bavarians slowly grew stronger and fought back with an impressive mentality. Even after Ronaldo’s equaliser, they managed to take the lead in that very final phase.
It is arduous to discuss the following red card for Vidal. The Chilean had already begged for the sending-off several times before, and his action in this scene was simply unnecessary, albeit fair. Consequently, the Munich team was not lacking in readiness or individual quality, but simply in fitness and tactical cleverness.
But it didn’t have to come to this showdown in the first place. In the first leg, the story was different. After 45 minutes the Reds had eleven shots, five from a very good position. With the penalty kick and a header, Vidal missed the early 2-0, a crucial point in both duels.
The first half was balanced with slight advantages for FC Bayern. Only in the middle of the first half problems were revealed which explained the difference between the two teams. Ancelotti’s team too often gave up control of the center, leaving Real the upper hand in the most important area of the pitch for too long.
If you combine the two duels and ignore wrong decisions completely, the realization remains that Real were simply a bit more clever and better. From this experience and the resulting conclusions, the approaches for this year’s task can be formulated. Jupp Heynckes has every opportunity to reach Zidane on his wrong foot.
Real Madrid is playing a season of ups and downs this year. Especially in the league, Real is not getting consistency on the pitch. Nevertheless, one should be careful to draw any conclusions about the Champions League semi-finals. That’s where the Madrileneans can be on point.
To make it clear, step by step, why this unbelievably successful team is still a little weak this season, one must first discuss the ball possession game. Despite many creative minds, Zidane’s team seldom manages to get a good structure in the centre. From there the balls usually go to the outer lane. Subsequently, attacks fade into flanks.
Teams like Atlético and Bilbao have managed to pull Real’s teeth with a compact style of play. If the control center around Kroos and Modric is cleverly taken out of play, and Isco is missing as a fixed point in the space between the lines, Madrid will have a hard time finding Benzema or Ronaldo as the target player.
Madrid have also shown two different faces in the Champions League. Against Paris and Juventus, on the one hand, there was the uncreative, leisurely and sometimes slow Zidane XI, who pushed the ball back and forth, but were ultimately trapped in a U-structure. On the other hand, however, there were also moments against both teams in which Kroos and Modric were able to thrive. Then they really got the party started.
It does not have to be interpreted too much as a negative aspect that Madrid can change its rhythm at any time. With their way they manage to completely calm down the game in a moment, in order to suddenly start the decisive attack in the next.
Modric, who is always looking for diagonal dribblings to find space for the other players, and Kroos, the master of passing, can turn a whole game within seconds. They are the source of most of the football Real Madrid plays. This football has changed a little under Zidane over time. There are practically three different approaches between which the Frenchman changes regularly.
1. Focus on the centre
In the first approach, it is a question of producing relay stations for ball circulation in order to then transfer the ball to the wings. Mostly Zidane uses a diamond in the midfield. Casemiro as a securing six, Kroos and Modric in the halves, Isco for example as a free element behind the twin strikers. Marcelo and Kroos on the left side stimulate the build-up of the game. However, this applies completely independently of the approach chosen.
As the full-backs push very high, the eights must be particularly careful with their advances. Sometimes this variant lacks protection, resulting in gaps on the wings that Bayern could use with its strong wing players. On the other hand, the majority in midfield is so large that they could cause the Reds real difficulties in this formation. Whether Zidane picks the diamond will depend on how he himself sets the focus and whether he sees a way to balance the weaknesses and strengths.
2. Having success on the wings
In a 4-3-3 – or more precisely a 4-1-2-3 – Real has the aforementioned problems of a U-structure. Often, Isco is missing as a player who can reasonably occupy the zone 14. But on the wings, Madrid is even more unpredictable. With Asensio’s speed Madrid could put a lot of pressure on Bayern. But Kimmich’s side could also become a problem if Marcelo, Ronaldo and Kroos unfold there.
Here, FC Bayern has to support the other players by moving compactly into the respective ball possession zone. Not at all easy, because with a relocation the other side can be opened. Kroos and Modric can play these balls on both sides, so Madrid are a team that can play in different areas of the pitch very quickly.
Heynckes must therefore choose a formation against the ball that makes these shifts more difficult for Real, while at the same time relieving his own backs in the duels and closing the centre. The usual 4-1-4-1 can work with even closer graduation and a lot of running.
But if Bayern run after them too often, the intensity could quickly lead to tiredness and lack of concentration. Then mistakes are imminent. This means that the Bavarians should react less and act more. But more about this later.
3. All out attacking in a 4-4-2
Because one variation remains in Zidane’s tactic box: the development of the entire offensive power. In a classic 4-4-2 Zidane then abandons his defensive stabilizer Casemiro. The defense consists here more or less of an offensive pressing firework. Kroos and Modric lack a backup, so that they are often taken by surprise in passive phases.
But the offensive penetrating power is of course enormous. On the outer lanes Bale, Asensio, Vázquez and Isco can determine the positions among themselves. Isco would be a very special variant here, which would probably act more centrally than the rest.
Especially in Munich, however, this formation is only conceivable if Zidane wants to catch up. Casemiro has become a constant for the Frenchman and for him at least as important as Martínez for Bayern. So a 4-4-2 would be a bit of a surprise.
Ultimately, however, all approaches are designed to put Ronaldo in the best possible shooting positions. The Portuguese is once again in captivating form when it comes to the important weeks. Defending him is almost impossible. That’s why the connections to him have to be cut.
What to expect from the game?
Whatever Zidane’s approach, it always comes down to two keys that FC Bayern has to find. First of all, there’s Marcelo as a factor in the game structure. The Brazilian must be pinned back defensively as early as possible in possession of the ball in order to prevent his dangerous advances. The left-back can shape and dominate a game. He complements his dynamic dribblings with clever passes.
As FC Bayern shifts well and aligns its own 4-1-4-1 slightly diagonally, the most important connections can be cut into the space between the lines. But this requires enormous concentration. Especially the triangle of Kroos, Modric and Ronaldo is too dangerous to sleep for even one second. Defending them will be a great challenge.
The second key is midfield. A few days ago we explained why James and Thiago together as eights would be a quite appropriate option against Madrid. They combine offensive power with playful class and good defensive behaviour. Thiago is the perfect link between James and Martínez. He can and must extremely relieve his Spanish colleague on the sixth.
Even if Jupp Heynckes chooses Müller on the eight and Robben on the wing again, the same principle applies. The eights have to defend the spaces behind them, but without getting too fixated on the work against the ball.
If Bayern manage to set up their own ball possession game in such a way that Real is forced to react for the most part, a lot is won. But as soon as Modric and Kroos can develop, and these phases will inevitably come, the focus must be on working against the ball. If the Reds manage to form a deep and compact defensive block, Real will run out of ideas.
Then it is important to move wisely, fill the gaps and not get involved in too many one-on-one duels. Bayern will have to be flexible. Sometimes the focus is on own ball possession, sometimes they have to have a good structure without a ball in order to switch quickly after winning the ball. The Bavarians do not have the necessary equipment for a game that is designed for 70% ball possession. Therefore, they will have to work at maximum in both extremes and even more so in the transitions.
These expectations of the game alone suggest that there will be an exchange of blows. Both teams have similar strengths and weaknesses. The Bavarians have to find the rooms next to Casemiro – especially between Ramos and Kroos. Both are not always disciplined in their positioning and thus open up possibilities. There, James, Müller and Robben (depending on their line-up) offer players who could take advantage of this weakness.
In Munich in particular, Real could strive for a more passive approach to close these gaps. However, Real rarely succeeds in doing this all the way.
On the other hand, Real will also want to find the spaces next to Martínez. Whoever has the most minutes of control in midfield has the best cards on the road to the final. But that doesn’t mean that the team wins with more ball possession. Control is also defined by behaviour without the ball.
Last year Real Madrid was better in both respects. But this year FC Bayern has Jupp Heynckes. A coach who knows Real Madrid and Spanish football. And a coach who has largely revived the positional game of his own team.
The famous little details
Despite all the tactics, another difference to last season plays an immense role: fitness. The Bavarians have come into shape at the right time. The entire squad looks impressively fit. In this way, the Munich-based team succeeds time and again in compensating for tactical weaknesses through attitude and legwork.
Heynckes has formed a unit from his team. The unconditional will to win, the basic fitness, the experience of last season’s naivety and the tactical improvements could make it harder for Real Madrid than it has been for a long time.
Nevertheless, Real have the best squad in Europe, an unshakable self-confidence and tactical means to really hurt the Reds.
And so Europe expects a duel at eye level. A duel between two rivals that have shaped European football for decades. A duel that promises an incredible intensity. It will be the famous little things that make the difference: Exploitation of opportunities, external factors, daily form, luck, tactical attitude, individual class (…) – all this and much more can be decisive.
However, the signs are significantly different from last year, and the chances of FC Bayern reaching the final are good. Although the losses of Coman and Neuer are still very painful, a Bavarian squad has rarely been so fit in recent years when it went into May.
With a lack of structure, a bit of luck in the right situations and a lack of fitness, the Munich-based team managed to bring Real Madrid to the brink of defeat a year ago.
This time they are much closer to the competition from Spain. And if Heynckes succeeds in defeating Real, FC Bayern must finally erect the long overdue statue.