What Bayern Munich did to Barcelona in the Champions League semifinals wouldn’t have been possible without Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez. And Arjen Robben and Frank Ribery. And Dante and Thomas Muller. You get the point.
Barcelona’s short-passing, high-pressing brand of tiki-taka has so often seen them tear their opponents apart, but against Bayern Munich, they found themselves contending with a group of players not only technically equal to their own but also equipped with the tactical nous for disrupting the game plan on which they rely so completely.
What Bayern have done under Jupp Heynckes over the last two rounds of the Champions League is nothing short of astonishing. In four matches against the champions-elect of both Italy (Juventus) and Spain (Barcelona), they scored 11 goals while allowing none; they counter-attacked with menace while conceding precious few opportunities in their own half of the park.
And they did it by keying in on their opponents’ most important playmakers.
Juventus, as shown in the accompanying chart, stayed relatively compact in their 2-0 home win over Celtic in the Round of 16. The Andrea Pirlo-Arturo Vidal axis was the metronome of the Bianconeri midfield, and passes from defender Luca Marrone often got things started from the back.
Bayern, as we see in the next chart, put two midfielders directly on Pirlo—in this case Schweinsteiger and Luiz Gustavo—and managed to disrupt the Pirlo-Vidal pattern. And with the Italian so constantly harassed, his defensive teammates had to play the ball around him in order to move upfield.
The result was a team shape spread too far apart to be effective, and somewhere up top lingered Alessandro Matri and Fabio Quagliarella—both completely isolated.
The Bundesliga champions did much the same to Barcelona over their two semifinal matches.
When their pattern of buildup is at its best, Barcelona have Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta in a triangle, and Lionel Messi drops back to accept the killer pass that will almost certainly come.
This is what we see in the accompanying chart from their 4-0 thumping of AC Milan in the Round of 16, where even Pedro—by virtue of a Messi connection—is consistently involved from his position out on the left.
Heynckes, in this case, has teamed-up Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez to specifically disrupt Barcelona’s triangle and to harass Xavi and Iniesta in particular.
Xavi, who has Schweinsteiger close to him throughout the match, is unable to set the passing rhythm as he simply doesn’t get his usual number of touches, and Cesc Fabregas, playing the Messi role, is forced to drop too deep to compensate for Xavi’s ineffectiveness.
The entire triangle, as shown in the final chart, has spread apart, and Barcelona’s most reliable move involves switching the ball from right to left among the defense and attempting to release Iniesta.
Bayern Munich have forced them to play around the area where they’re typically the most dangerous—the centre of the park—and as a result, they are spread out and inaccurate in the passes they actually attempt.