This is not an article that I was planning to write. I saw something in the Champions League semi final that alters the narrative of negative publicity towards Guardiola for me and I wanted to look at it in a bit more detail. This piece will therefore be noticeably shorter than those that I usually write…
As with many others I watched the second leg of the Champions League semi final between Bayern Munich and Barcelona and like the rest of you I was slightly surprised by the defensive weakness displayed on the night by the German champions, that is until I started to look more closely at what the Germans were actually trying to do in order to overturn their three goal deficit from the first leg. Pep Guardiola is famous for his attention to detail in terms of pre match planning. He will watch the same opponents over and over again until he is struck by a moment of genius that allows him to instruct his side tactically. This time around however there was no need for Guardiola to watch Barcelona over and over as their structural and tactical weakness is the same as it was when he was in charge, the half space between the centrebacks and the fullbacks can become too stretched and despite the qualities of Sergio Busquets as a single pivot he is unable to cover the full area of the pitch.
It was at this point that I realised that Guardiola was playing chess with Barcelona and Luis Enrique. In chess a good attacking player will quickly identify their opponents structural weak point and look to exert as much pressure as possible on to that point. This is done for two reasons 1.) The weak point is the most likely place that you will be able to break through the opponents defensive structure and 2.) Pressuring the weak point will eventually lead to your opponent reacting and changing their strategy to protect this point and this will give you momentum in the match. Guardiola was in a position where he had a depleted squad, a three goal gap to salvage and the most in form front three in world football to defend against. He was trying to either break through and score one or two goals as quickly as possible or he was trying to force Luis Enrique in to a defensive strategy that would withdraw the threat of one of the attacking players.
The weak point that Bayern were looking to attack at every opportunity was the half space between Javier Mascherano and Jordi Alba as Alba is prone to attacking bursts and is relatively defensively weak. To do so Bayern overloaded the right hand side of their tactical system. The right back Rafinha operated almost as a third centre back for much of the game not looking to overlap of move forwards as much as he usually would. Ahead of him Thomas Muller, Philip Lahm and Thiago would each be stationed more towards the right side of the attack meaning that when Bayern played the ball in to that area they were all able to connect with one another to offer an extremely solid attacking block of players. Robert Lewandowski on the other hand would start towards the left (or weak) side and them look to move centrally to take advantage of any gaps in the Barcelona defense as they looked to shift and cover their left flank.
Here you can see that as the ball is played out to the right hand flank there are two Bayern players that are closely connected in an advanced position. When the player taking possession of the ball on the flank moves forwards they will create an overload pressuring the left side of the Barcelona defence. This image also shows the movement of Lewandowski who has moved to the centre from the wide area.
Again in this example Bayern have four players overloading the strong side of the pitch. They are looking to exert enough pressure to cause the Barcelona defensive structure to break and let then in for an easy chance on goal.
The idea to attack in such an imbalanced way is perhaps understandable given that Bayern were missing their two most potent attacking wide players in Robben and Ribery and it also shows a kind of tactical daring from Guardiola as he so obviously sought to force Luis Enrique to alter his system to counter this.
Unfortunately this attacking system from Bayern also had it’s own weak points in the glaring lack of cover on the weak flank. Juan Bernat at left back was left with freedom to attack up the left wing looking to stop Barca from deploying all of its defensive resources to the left side of their defence. Defensively this would be solved by having Xabi Alonso drop in to a classic pivot position between the centre backs with the left centre back Benatia covering across. Unfortunately this was a position against the likes of Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi that Benatia was less than comfortable in. He didn’t move far enough out and time and time again Barca were able to put pressure in Bayern in transition by playing the ball along that side of the field and looking to turn the Germans defensive line.
Here you can see the huge gap on the left of the Bayern defence and the poor positioning of Bernat at left back as he is dragged infield by a positional run by Lionel Messi. The two Bayern centre backs were too close together throughout the match when they should have been more split to offer defensive cover across the field.
Again here we can see the start of the structural imbalance as Bernat is already looking to stretch and move in to a more advanced position on the left flank. The space left between Benatia and Bernat was one that was taking advantage of time and time again as Barca countered quickly and used the space to their advantage. There can be further questions as to why Manuel Neuer in the Bayern goal wasn’t given more licence to move forward to counter the threat of the pass in behind, whether this was a specific instruction or something less formal we have no way to know.
Theoretically the ideas shown by Guardiola in this match were sound and it made for an interesting tactical spectacle. Indeed there is no way now to know what the outcome would have been if Bayern had not conceded an equaliser so quickly after they had scored the first goal. If they had been able to score again or even move in to another period of sustained attacking play then it is possible that Luis Enrique would have been forced to move Neymar in to a deeper position and then the shape of the match would have changed completely. There is no doubt that there is a link between chess strategy and football strategy and in this match we were able to see this link played out in front of our eyes. The media narrative will still remain that Guardiola failed in this match but it showed us that he is still on the forefront of tactical thinking.