Wednesday, April 22, 2015

5 conclusions from Bayern Munich 6-1 FC Porto

Bayern Munich and FC Porto met once again last Tuesday, six days after their previous contest - the six days that Pep Guardiola kept claiming would be enough to correct some mistakes and make the difference. And that they did, as shown in the final scoreline. Similarly to last time around, here are five things we should take from Tuesday's drubbing of FC Porto.

  • 1. Football is about much more than just footwork

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There is one aspect that should be highlighted before any other: While the return leg will be a sad reminder for all FC Porto supporters of the gulf that now exists between their team (and any other Portuguese side for that matter, something that will tend to worsen as UEFA cracks down on third-party ownership) and Europe's big dogs, this was a match that offered one of the best pieces of evidence of how football will probably be played in the future.

Both sides kept adjusting their positioning and tactical formations throughout most of the match and both sets of players were able to interpret the changes and different tasks and movement that different positions required. Apart from the goalkeepers, centre-backs and the centre forwards (and even so...), virtually every other player had to keep reinterpreting the diverse challenges the match insisted on posing as both managers fine-tuned their teams in search of the advantage point. In comparison to, for instance, last weekend's Chelsea 1-0 Manchester United, it becomes clearer and clearer why the Premier League is falling behind the European wagon.

  • 2. Tactical (in)flexibility

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There is probably a reason why Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola is hailed as one of the best coaches in the world and is always in such high demand. At the press conference in Porto a week earlier, the Spanish coach made no mention of the weekend Bundesliga fixture, repeatedly focusing instead on the six days until the return leg and how those six days would be important to correct a lot of the things he had perceived as wrong.

On the other hand, FC Porto coach Julen Lopetegui made the odd-sounding claim that his team held no surprises and that everyone knew how the Dragons played. Sure enough, the first half was the perfect mirror for both coaches' stances.

While Guardiola kept almost the same starting XI (Holger Badstuber taking Dante's place), the side had little to do with the eleven men that took to the pitch at the Dragão. The Spaniard even went as far as saying that Bayern were not ready for Jackson getting so tight to maestro Xabi Alonso on the first leg, but that they were ready for it when the second leg came around.

Indeed, Xabi Alonso hardly ever got himself in between the centre-backs and for most of the first half his role resembled a simple game of shadows, making sure his movement dragged Jackson Martínez out of the way so that Jérôme Boateng and Badstuber had the necessary space and time to progress with the ball or pass it with some purpose. FC Porto went through the whole first half without being able to adjust to that simple manoeuvre.

Furthermore, the Spanish coach played his full-backs Rafinha and Juan Bernat in a narrower position, rather than hugging the touchline - with Phillipp Lahm and Mario Götze providing width. This allowed Bayern to have significantly more passing options and bamboozled FC Porto's men, who were unable to understand whether to mark their supposed direct opponent or the one that kept popping near them.

  • 3. The coach's hand

Julen Lopetegui will have been doing
a lot of this last Tuesday.
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In last week's match report from the Dragão, a reference had been made to just how important coaches are and how their work is sometimes plain for everyone to see. At the Allianz Arena, Lopetegui did himself no favours by stationing Mexican centre-back Diego Reyes on the right side of FC Porto's back four, which meant that a man with hardly any playing minutes during this season was deployed out of position, at one of the toughest stadiums in Europe, facing one Mario Götze.

Given the Portuguese side's need for technically skilled players at the back so that the team had time on the ball when they got it back and the fact that facing Bayern hardly ever calls for a less mobile player stationed out wide, it was hardly surprising to see the Mexican player being replaced with Ricardo half an hour into the match.

On another note, it is equally hard to ignore the fact that FC Porto came out like a deer in headlights, afraid to use the third way between pressing or parking the bus that had worked so well last week. While it's true Bayern were much more accomplished with their pressing when transitioning into defence and effectively stifling the Portuguese side, it is undeniable that the Dragons were a bit further back than at the Dragão, which yielded a huge distance to Bayern's goal whenever they had the chance to win the ball back.

Whether by design or the inability to put his players at ease before such an important match, Lopetegui's European reputation took a serious dent here, as anyone curious enough about the first leg's result to tune in for the return leg won't have been impressed with FC Porto's first half.

  • 4. The vulnerabilities of 4x3x3

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One of Pep Guardiola's main trumps is his rejection of one definitive tactical formation. While he has perhaps been most successful with the 4x3x3 during his Barcelona stint, he has proven more than adept at chopping and changing his tactical formations in order to keep opponents - and sometimes his own players - guessing.

Even though Bayern seemed positively outmanoeuvred at the Dragão, the Spanish coach clearly learnt his lessons and went with a very different approach this time around, drilling holes in what seemed a very static strategy from FC Porto.

In fact, Guardiola stretched FC Porto out wide with Götze and Lahm, but made sure there were plenty of passing options in the middle. As mentioned on the first leg's preview, Óliver Torres and Herrera can sometimes take too long to occupy the necessary positions in front of their defence and Guardiola surely noticed it. With Robert Lewandowski often dropping back with his back to goal, there was also Thiago Alcântara and Thomas Müller lurking around, which meant FC Porto's holding midfielder Casemiro was much less sure of whether to press or cover the space.

Last night's match was surely a definitive reminder of just how vulnerable the 4x3x3 formation can be if the opposition knows how to pick the pockets of space that invariably form around the holding midfielder and behind the interiores - or shuttlers. The time FC Porto took to take notice of those changes was crucial to Bayern's incessant pounding.

  • 5. What does it all mean?

The problem with analysing results rather than processes in football is the instant bipolarity this option presents. Last week Guardiola's head was to be served up on a silver platter and his Bayern project was going nowhere. Today he's being heralded as one of the big names in coaching history. Conversely, Lopetegui was last week being touted for the Real Madrid coaching position (the rumour mill at its best) and this week he's under an enormous amount of pressure as he is forced to defeat Benfica at the Estádio da Luz if he harbours any hope of winning the title and therefore keeping his job with his current employer.

For Guardiola this emphatic win was most definitely a sigh of relief. With last season's debacle against Real Madrid in mind, crashing out against Europe's minor opposition, for all their history, would have deepened the sense of perceived crisis in Bavaria and truncate the Spaniard's wiggle room. While they seem under control, success in domestic competitions would no doubt be insufficient for the club's (almost impossibly) high demands and might bring Guardiola's project into question.

Therefore last night's win - and the way it was accomplished - will serve as the perfect panacea for Bayern's ailments and provide Guardiola with the much-needed time to bring some of the key players back, rather than being forced to watch the rest of the Champions League on the telly. On another note, the demolition of FC Porto will serve as notice for anyone that might think - at their own peril - that Bayern were already with one foot out Europe's door.

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