Bayern used a well-known tactical formula to stifle Real Madrid. Tactically, it worked. It is a shame that the attack failed to turn chances into goals.
I will extract myself from sorrow and be as objective as possible in this analysis. Indeed, I intend to convey what an odd little paradox this game was.
Remember the days when we did not know how exactly Bayern would shape up on the pitch, regardless of who was on the team sheet? Remember the days of constant experimenting with positioning and selection? Pep Guardiola, and to a lesser extent Carlo Ancelotti, got us used to that inherent uncertainty. They are the sort of men who tweak systems throughout a season.
Jupp Heynckes is no such man. He treated us to the already usual 4-1-4-1 with a touch of 4-2-3-1 that he selected for the team when he returned. As ever, the premise was simple. Javi Martínez sat in front of the centre-backs. James Rodríguez floated anywhere from Martínez’s side to the edge of the box along with Thomas Müller. Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry flooded the wings.
Until Robben had to be substituted off, that is. See, the essence of the system did not change; Thomas Müller took Robben’s place in the shape. However, its mechanics were altered. Müller is no Robben, even if Robben is no Müller. This meant that Bayern could not rely on both wings to thread attacks. The focus shifted to the middle, where Thiago Alcântara entered to replace the injured Dutchman.
This, to an extent, favoured Madrid. Casemiro could do what he does. Luka Modrić, who wore workers’ overalls all night, aided the Brazilian’s thuggish duties. The game was perhaps less cut for Toni Kroos, who essentially did not show up.
Madrid’s inferior system
Likewise, Real Madrid stuck to what they know. Zinédine Zidane’s 4-3-3 is well-established by now, in a world where the Frenchman loses no sleep in benching Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale. Cristiano Ronaldo spearheaded the attack, essentially as centre-forward. Naturally, he drifted slightly to the left, so that he could receive balls in position for his right foot. Madrid also crowded the midfield, creating a five-man line in defence to block Bayern altogether. This forced die Roten to start further back.
Cristiano Ronaldo stood as centre-forward.
Lewandowski had to start from behind Madrid’s midfield line.
With a very conventional panorama, Bayern were able to cause tons of damage. James’ freedom allowed him to show up unmarked in crucial spaces. This happened when Bayern scored. James received the ball running forward and threaded a lovely pass to leave Joshua Kimmich in space.
Real Madrid under Zidane have little in the way of an actual tactical scheme. The only real changes come in the attacking phase, where anyone between Ronaldo, Benzema, Bale, Marco Asensio, Lucas Vásquez and Isco rotate and play depending on the opposition and the rotation. They are a team that depends on quality and automaticity, rather than positioning and organisation. With names like Kroos and Modrić standing behind the attackers, this is possible. However, Bayern managed to be far superior.
Proof of Madrid’s inferiority is how deep they sat at times.
In the above shot, Toni Kroos is basically in line with the defence. Madrid are used to having the opposition press their attackers. This often grants Modrić and Kroos himself a bit of space to move the ball. That was not the case on Wednesday. Being unable to transition into a more raw role like Modrić, Kroos went virtually unnoticed during the game.
A point about counterattacks
Save for the second goal, where Kimmich and Rafinha stood where Mats Hummels and Niklas Süle should have, Bayern made a point of arming themselves against counterattacks. Michel pointed out to me before the match that, given Bayern’s tactical weakness to such motions, it would be interesting to see how they would counteract it. Well, it was interesting indeed.
Adding to an already stellar performance, Franck Ribéry was often on hand to stand on the edge of the box in dead ball incidents. This allowed him to shield the remaining defenders, even if slightly. Plus, his speed on the day was crucial to make him an asset for that task. This duty rotated between Ribéry, Thiago and James, who are not particularly brilliant in the air. A smart use of numbers there by Heynckes to address a known problem and stop it being a problem.
The occasional futility of tactics
I can yap about tactics all day long. The truth is that Bayern were tactically better. Still, the best tactics in the world cannot deny Real Madrid of one or two chances during a game. They are that good. With regards to that, Bayern lacked the one thing Madrid had. Efficiency. It is no use creating dozens of chances if you are going to squander them all. This makes this defeat all the more hurtful. Bayern could have – and should have won this game, by a similar scoreline to that of the other semifinal, dare I say.
As it was last year, it is now an uphill battle in Madrid but not because of Jupp Heynckes.