Sevilla gave Bayern an expected, but thoroughly unpleasant amount of trouble. They needed James Rodríguez’s talent to untangle a tightly knit defensive scheme.
After destroying Borussia Dortmund with such ease and a decidedly mischievous demeanour, Bayern faced the first real test of the season’s final stretch.
Indeed, Sevilla are one of Europe’s most interesting teams. They won the Europa League three times in a row from 2014 to 2016. Since then, they have been trying to graduate into UEFA’s top competition. Last year, Leicester City dumped them out in the Round of 16. After progressing through on this occasion, it stood to reason that Vincenzo Montella’s side would come out with the proverbial knife between their teeth.
Sevilla’s worker’s overalls
Sevilla are no strangers to facing teams who are substantially better on paper. That remains the reality in Spain. In the Champions League, it is more of the same. Sevilla are simply too good for the Europa League but are not quite up to par with the big boys. As such, you could not expect them to come out with an overtly offensive game plan. UEFA presented their lineup as a 4-2-3-1. Montella conceived something much more conservative.
The Italian manager knew two things. First, that sitting deep throughout the 90 minutes is tantamount to suicide against a team like Bayern. Second, that his team needed to score a goal rather than play for a result.
Looking to tick both boxes, Montella assembled a 4-4-2. The classic formation is pretty versatile, provided both four-man lines act as a block, whether it is pressing upfield or trailing back. It functions on the basic premise that the midfield cannot be split to prevent diagonal passing or running.
Sevilla have the raw talent to make this plan work. Indeed, they proved as much in the above screenshot. They wanted to apply pressure and avoid having to resort to counterattacks all game long.
Montella and his players also knew that Bayern like having the ball and suffocating teams into their own box. This results in a need to crowd the midfield, which forced Bayern to play wide. Arturo Vidal was simply the wrong man for this system. His box-to-box nature made it easy for Sevilla to crowd the midfield since he did not stand as a permanent reference between lines.
Bayern attempted to counteract the knot by doing what they do best: slowly cranking up the pressure with possession.
It did not work. Franck Ribéry and Thomas Müller had too many men in front of them to ask for the ball. As a result, they trailed a few metres back. With two lines of wide players covering the flanks and a wide formation to allow such cover, overlapping runs became hit-and-miss. It did not help that Juan Bernat had a horror show of a game, either.
For Bayern, Sevilla’s tactics meant that they could not make their own work. Vidal was all over the place, as was Javi Martínez. The attacking players were simply too far from the attacking third to mean any harm. Bernat was way too close to Sven Ulreich for comfort. Sevilla went in front with a mix of width and the inevitable counteraction of a pressure that was futile.
Until James came in, that is.
James is the sort of player with the quality to sit between two four-man lines and create spaces. His introduction made Bayern more organised. Thiago Alcântara could run more freely. Javi finally saw the sense in sitting in front of Jérôme Boateng and Mats Hummels, as he should.
However, do not think for a second that James simply sat there waiting for the ball. Much like Vidal, he has found joy in running box-to-box. He likes assisting with creation from the back if need be.
However, as I said, his real place of impact came between Montella’s lines.
With an infiltree in their fortress, Sevilla went berserk. Bayern could amass numbers forward, forcing their defenders and midfielders to mark almost man-to-man. Whichever way you look at it, that is not ideal when you are forced to sit in your defensive third.
It was amazing to see that a simple change in personnel, that did not technically entail a change in tactics, turned the game so heavily in Bayern’s favour. James was plainly the right choice, without demeaning Vidal’s contribution to the team. You cannot charge through a four-man midfield line. You need to thread through it.