Searching for tips and inspiration from Chelsea, Milan and Lord of the Rings
Can Bayern Munich stop Barcelona’s tiki-taka football?
It’s really just another way of phrasing the often-asked, seldom answered (at least in the affirmative) question: Can Barcelona be beaten?
But since this is football—and a football match that has yet to be played—the rejoinder should, of course, be “yes.”
That said, it’s telling that we ask, and continue to ask, this question in the first place. For while it is a question, it’s also a concession—a concession that Barcelona are the dominant team in Europe, the favourite to win whatever match they play.
And how the opposing manager goes about handling that question will have a lot to do with how his side fares against the Catalans, with whether they have the bravery to emerge from a shell designed to contain Barcelona’s possession and with whether they have the gumption to disrupt the tiki-taka.
If the question is combined to read, “Can the tiki-taka be stopped, and Barcelona beaten,” the only manager who will stand a chance will be the one who answers, “No, and yes.”
The Chelsea Template
Just over a year ago, Chelsea faced a quandary similar to the one Bayern Munich are up against this week. Granted, the Blues went into the first leg of their semifinal tie against Barcelona with a squad considerably inferior to the one the Bundesliga champions will field on Tuesday, but that fact should only make their achievement all the more impressive.
Given the way they approached their task that night at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea might as well have had their pre-game team talk delivered by Gandalf from Lord of the Rings: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
Chelsea used their time exceptionally well in handing Barcelona a 1-0 defeat last April (they progressed to the Champions League final after earning a 2-2 draw at Camp Nou the following week). Assignments were meticulously adhered to, defensive pressure was applied in concert and every player in a blue shirt seemed to summon an otherworldly level of concentration.
And Roberto Di Matteo, in one of the most gutsy, pragmatic managerial decisions you’re likely to see, opted to throw conventional preparation out the window.
There was to be no brave talk of “going out and playing our game,” or “attack them at their weak spots,” or any of the other platitudes that only sound absurd when it comes to facing Barcelona. Rather, Di Matteo approached the Blaugrana with humility—conceding that as Chelsea were unlikely to see much of the ball, they’d concentrate on winning the hundred or so individual battles that were going to take place over the course of the match.
In other words, they’d make use of the time given to them, however brief.
It was in this match that the term “two banks of four” entered the popular lexicon. Setting up just in front of the defense, Raul Meireles, John Obi Mikel, Frank Lampard and Ramires operated as a second backline, with Lampard popping up to direct the Barcelona possession to either his right or left, where it could be more easily smothered.
And then, in the second minute of first-half stoppage time, a frustrated and deep-drifting Lionel Messi gave up the ball to Lampard, who picked out Ramires with a long, accurate pass. The Brazilian burst into the attacking third and squared a pass for Didier Drogba, who banged it into the back of the net.
It was the only shot on target Chelsea would muster that evening, and they used it very, very well.
The Milan Template
Massimiliano Allegri took a rather different tact in AC Milan’s Round of 16 first leg at home to Barcelona.
In one of the best games Milan have played all season—and in one of the finest examples of how to disturb the Catalans’ buildup play—the Rossoneri manager had Stephan El Shaarawy man-mark Dani Alves throughout the 90 minutes so as to deprive Messi, Pedro and Andres Iniesta a line of supply from the right flank.
The plan worked to a tee, and by winning that one matchup Milan forced their opponents to come through the middle more than they would have liked, where they were crowded out by Sulley Muntari, Riccardo Montolivo and Massimo Ambrosini.
Despite having two thirds of possession, Barcelona managed little in the way of goalscoring opportunities—their tiki-taka pushed back to the middle third of the park, where Milan were more than happy to watch them make pass after meaningless pass.
Only once at the San Siro did Barcelona actually work the ball into Milan’s 18-yard box for a shot, and that effort was skewed wide by Carlos Puyol.
Messi, Pedro and Iniesta were deprived of meaningful chances altogether. In fact, with Alves man-marked and the midfield crowded by Rossoneri shirts, Barcelona’s most frequent route of buildup took place on the left of midfield and included Sergio Busquets, Iniesta and Jordi Alba. Neither Messi nor Xavi were much involved.
Naturally, this exasperated, crowded-out Barcelona conceded more counter-attacks than usual, and Milan used a pair of them to earn an impressive 2-0 win. The first resulted in a free kick and Kevin-Prince Boateng’s opener just shy of the hour-mark; the second featured the excellent El Shaarawy, whose lofted pass after M’baye Niang’s bursting run found Muntari with nine minutes to play.
Of course, we now know Milan were unable to replicate their first-leg effort the following week at Camp Nou, but that should in no way detract from a notable, stand-alone performance.
Stops and Starts
Something both the Chelsea and Milan templates had in common was an abundance of stops and starts. Barcelona’s tiki-taka requires fluidity, but with so many whistles it was difficult for them to move the ball forward into meaningful space using the short, quick-passing style that is otherwise so effective.
Whether it was a drawn foul or an applied one, a ball out of bounds or a shot forced too quickly, both sides got Barcelona into a pattern of haste, and when a player is hurried he will more often commit mistakes, even if he’s a passer as accomplished as Xavi.
Bayern Munich would do well to impose a similar pattern, to deprive their opponents of a fluidity of time that—when given to them—soon turns into a fluidity of space. And Bayern manager Jupp Heynckes must be humble enough to admit that Barcelona will win the possession battle, for it’s only from that concession that he can impress a game-plan based on disruption, and it’s only from disruption that his side will create chances of its own.
Heynckes should also claim one of the flanks, as Milan did, by marking one of Dani Alves and Jordi Alba out of the match. The likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi drift about too much to make a marking job possible, but the Barcelona full-backs—who add an element of width by running up and down the wings—open themselves up to it.
By eliminating some of that width, Bayern can direct more of Barcelona’s buildup play into a crowded midfield, where Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez can destroy it.
From there, the counter-attack is on, and few clubs boast as many weapons, with as much speed and finishing ability, as the Bavarian giants.
Can Bayern Munich stop Barcelona’s tiki-taka football? No, but they can disrupt it, crowd it out and move it far enough into the middle third so as to be almost ineffective.
Then, with some key saves from their goalkeeper and a standout performance by an outfielder in the mold of El Shaarawy’s, they’ll stand a chance at defeating one of the most dominant club teams in recent times.