Despite exhibiting a couple of defensive flaws in both halves, Bayern obliterated Bayer Leverkusen in the DFB-Pokal semi-final. Jupp Heynckes’ secret weapon? His usual weapon.
There are a few rare occasions where a scoreline reflects the proceedings of a game this well. Yes, Bayern ran over Leverkusen with ease. However, ‘Kusen managed to trouble the Bavarians some, too, particularly in the counterattacking phase. This calls for a particular assessment of the tactical schemes.
First half: a paradox
People have drawn many parallels between this iteration of Bayern and that of 2013. Indeed, many of the fundamental principles came back when Jupp Heynckes returned. However, his pragmatic approach to team selection and tactics dictated one major change. After Bastian Schweinsteiger’s departure, Bayern did not really sign another world-class defensive midfielder. Sebastian Rudy came in this year, but he lags miles behind Basti’s best self. Arturo Vidal is a different class of midfielder.
Instead of taking Guardiola Avenue, Heynckes tweaked things a little. Javi Martínez became the anchor of the team. Alongside him comes a cast of mixed midfielders that play different roles depending on the opposition. James Rodríguez morphed into a deeper creative midfielder in this capacity. Thiago Alcântara provides quality to cross lines. Vidal steamrolls with his superb physicality. It is this guiding concept that has defined Heynckes’ 2018 team.
On Tuesday, he gave the nod to Thiago.
His mobility across the entire pitch was key to Bayern’s attacking efforts. He can thread the ball through tight spaces or run with it to push the opposition back. As a result, Bayern can push forward as a whole, with the full-backs providing myriad overlapping runs to spread the marking thin. In this way, Bayern essentially fielded a 4-1-4-1 / 4-2-3-1 hybrid.
The ability to play so high upfield with such numbers constituted a double-edged sword. With Javi sitting between the centre-backs, both David Alaba and Joshua Kimmich ran upfield constantly. This meant that there were spaces for Leverkusen to capitalise on.
And they did.
Early on, Franck Ribéry botched a header that set a five-man counterattacking motion going. If not for Sven Ulreich’s save in the resolution, this would have resulted in an equaliser for die Werkself.
Second half: ‘Kusen implode
For some inexplicable reason, Leverkusen entered the second half in disarray. Seemingly dazzled by Bayern’s overwhelming offensive prowess, they went through several changes in shape.
First, they split their midfield line in a 4-4-2 to create two lines. This resulted in a 4-3-2-1 of sorts.
Naturally, this did not work. It only opened space up for Thiago and limited the organisation of Leverkusen’s counterattacking. It also allowed Bayern to press even higher up the pitch. Heiko Herrlich noticed this and recomposed the team into fewer lines. A 4-3-3.
This did not work either, and it signalled Leverkusen’s capitulation. The tactical recomposition effectively broke the team and eliminated their harmfulness. Bayern needed no longer to worry about counterattacks.