Entering the final weeks of the 2012-13 season, Bayern Munich's treble hopes are alive and well. The German giants have won the Bundesliga in record time and are in the semifinals of both the Champions League and DFB-Pokal.
Bayern's form is simply brilliant, but not everything has been entirely rosy in Munich as of late. In the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinals tie with Juventus, Toni Kroos sustained a torn groin muscle that has effectively ruled him out of the rest of the campaign.
Although Bayern overcame Juve by a comfortable 4-0 margin, being drawn against Barcelona in the next round marks a difficult hurdle that will significantly affect the plans of head coach Jupp Heynckes.
Based on the tactics of former Bayern coach Louis van Gaal, which emphasized ball retention above all other factors, Kroos' loss would be an absolute hammer blow. Bayern would have faced Barca with the intent to match their opponents' skill in the center of the park and essentially beat them at their own game.
Kroos is the type of player who would fit in well at Barca, and accordingly would be much more appropriate for that kind of game than anyone on the Bayern bench.
Under Heynckes, however, Bayern are more adaptable and capable of handling the loss of a player like Kroos. In many ways, the German giants were better against Juventus following Kroos' departure than in the brief time he played.
Despite missing the 23-year-old's formidable presence in the center, which would intuitively be needed against a strong Juve midfield, Die Roten benefited from the addition of Arjen Robben on the wing. As selfish and lacking in sharpness as he was, the Dutchman was a terror on the wing and forced the Juve midfield to adapt to his ever-threatening presence.
Robben didn't match Kroos in terms of his ability to contribute to a ball-retaining strategy, but that never has been Heynckes' approach. The trainer has a different philosophy toward midfield control, which due to Barcelona and Spain's success has in recent years mistakenly become synonymous with completing hundreds upon hundreds of passes and maintaining possession.
As Bayern have proven, it's not so simple.
Die Roten, for example, won 54 percent of the possession in the first leg of their tie with Juventus and 57 percent in the second leg. These figures indeed represent a plurality but not to overwhelming degree.
Bayern's dominance of the midfield in both games suggested there was more than just ball control that led them to victory.
A key factor was Robben forcing the Juve midfield to react to him, which made the Italian side less able to play its game. Another had to do with the way Bayern limited their opponents' ability to operate. Juve may have had a combined 44.5 percent of the possession over the two legs, but the quality of that time on the ball was poor.
Much of Juve's possession was in their own half and was spent under heavy pressure. Bayern's attackers, Mario Mandzukic and Thomas Müller especially, crept up behind Andrea Pirlo and nipped the Juve attack in the bud, winning the ball back quickly. The Italians rarely got the ball to their forwards and often had to resort to hopeful punts downfield.
Barca are a better side than Juve, and Bayern will find the tie difficult no matter what. Still, the Catalans have had difficulty this season overcoming teams that press in midfield. They only beat Real Madrid once in six meetings this year, and that was during the preseason.
Three losses and two draws is a very decisive record in favor of Real, who sacrifice possession in favor of a more tactically controlling approach.
Even Celtic, not exactly renowned for their class in midfield, were extremely effective against Barca as a result of their tactics. They swarmed the Spanish side and won 2-1 at home in the group stage. FCB overcame the Scots at Camp Nou but did not take the lead until the 94th minute.
These matches proved that when facing Barca, tactics can overcome even a huge gap in individual skill.
Bayern have superior class to Celtic in midfield, and if last year's Champions League semifinals are an indicator, the Germans have the edge over Real as well—even without Kroos.
Given their tactical similarities to teams that have beaten Barca, Bayern should have nothing to fear as they take on the Catalans. The loss of Kroos is a bitter pill to swallow, but as long as the team can stick to their tactics of high-intensity pressing, midfield containment and counterattacking, there is no reason they cannot progress to the final.
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