Bayern Munich lost 1-0 to Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday in the first leg of their Champions League semifinal tie.
The Bavarians, as always, won the possession battle by a decidedly large margin but struggled to create chances in the final third. They were undone on the counterattack not only by Karim Benzema's winner but on a number of other occasions. With all things considered, the Bavarians were rather fortunate not to have conceded two or three goals in the first half.
There is no way around recognizing that Bayern played a poor game on Wednesday, and not for a lack of good players. Their problem was a system that they aren't suited to play, Pep Guardiola's fabled tiki-taka game plan. The strategy emphasizes ball retention above all other things—so much that his lineups and deployment of players often invite trouble from opponents.
The main problem with tiki-taka is that a coach resigns himself or herself to playing against unfavorable odds. Tiki-taka is visually impressive due to the strict geometry of its passing, but it also makes it extremely difficult for the attacking team to score.
From an offensive standpoint, attacks are slower because opponents are often pinned back in their own penalty area and unlikely to be caught off guard that close to their own goal. If they are to score, the team using tiki-taka will usually have to find the net in a spectacular manner.
Their opponents, on the other hand, will be required to do less in order to score. Indeed, some will be quick to argue that tiki-taka's philosophy of requiring the ball be won back immediately, regardless of where it was lost and who lost it, is defensive rather than positive.
What is ostensible is that the tiki-taka approach to defending is extremely dangerous due to its use of a high defensive line. It's much, much harder for a team to defend in the attacking third than in and around their own box. There is no goalkeeper to help, and the team is not in defensive positions. Moreover, players attempting to win the ball back high up the pitch are not natural defenders.
In most cases, a strong team can win the ball back quickly. But what happens in the event that the team fails to win back the ball within seconds? Often, their opponents can counterattack. And when they do, they face a back line that may consist of just two players, both close to the halfway line with the footballing equivalent of a mile between them and the goalkeeper, space into which the ball can be played.
Bayern's downfall on Wednesday was purely tactical, from start to finish. Guardiola's obsession with possession got the better of him as he chose to use Rafinha at right-back instead of Philipp Lahm, who played in midfield.
A less headstrong coach would have decided it best to play the experienced captain, who is widely regarded as the world's best full-back, in his natural position against Cristiano Ronaldo and use Javi Martinez along Bastian Schweinsteiger—a combination that simply devastated all challengers a year ago—in midfield.
Guardiola's decision to play Rafinha on the right of defense was either arrogant or ignorant, but in either case was absolutely the wrong decision. Almost every Real attack in the first half came down his flank, including the one that led to Benzema's winner.
It was foreseeable that the man who played a rather minor role in Jupp Heynckes' treble-winning side a year ago would struggle against Ronaldo and Fabio Coentrao. But Guardiola only corrected his mistake with 24 minutes to go, when he brought on Martinez to replace Rafinha and moved Lahm to right-back.
The other major mistake Guardiola made was using a midfield trio of Lahm, Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos. The coach used the same combination against Manchester United in the first leg of the quarterfinal, to similar effect: The trio held possession well, but all offer similar options.
They could make the comfortable passes, but not the cutting ones that tear through defenses. And none had the explosiveness to dribble past a defender or the finishing qualities to pose a real threat in the box. Playing that trio was accepting little penetration in attack, something Real welcomed.
Not sure both Schweinsteiger and Kroos are necessary in this game.— Cristian Nyari (@Cnyari) April 23, 2014
A better option, one Guardiola realized far too late, was to use Thomas Muller in the hole behind Mario Mandzukic. The Germany international was introduced with 16 minutes left to play and quickly created Bayern's best chance of the game, assisting a Mario Gotze volley, before having a penalty claim denied as he tried to find the net from Mandzukic's header.
The extremely industrious Muller also would have harried Xabi Alonso more than Kroos, whose ineffectiveness in such a role conjures memories of his inability to contain Andrea Pirlo at Euro 2012. The fact that Muller was always first-choice in Heynckes' treble-winning season, even ahead of Robben, should have been enough of a hint to Guardiola that the 24-year-old ought to start.
With their opponents sitting so deep and no real No. 10 in the center, Bayern had to resort to playing on the wings. They crossed again and again, but Real were well-prepared. The hosts doubled up on the wings and knew which way to expect the one-footed Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery to go whenever either had the ball.
Mandzukic was the only source of any heading ability in the box until Muller's introduction, and he struggled against Pepe, Sergio Ramos and other Real defenders, who isolated the Croat in the box.
Many will be quick to cite Guardiola's success with tiki-taka at Bayern and Barcelona, but it's hard to make the claim that the Bavarians have taken a step forward under the Spaniard. Tiki-taka was built for his former Barcelona, which had all the right tools to use its strengths and mask its weaknesses.
It isn’t hard to look at Bayern right now and split the squad into two piles: those who have tried to adapt and those who simply can’t.— Stefan Bienkowski (@SBienkowski) April 23, 2014
Guardiola's Barca initially had two true center forwards in Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto'o, joined by a budding footballing god in Lionel Messi. With Messi and midfielder Andres Iniesta able to dribble through tight spaces and use both feet, they could penetrate without necessarily using the entire outfield. Left-back Eric Abidal, for example, played a rather subdued role.
Among Bayern's XI on Wednesday, there was only one true finisher: Mandzukic. Only Ribery had the agility and dribbling ability to work in tight areas, with Robben's control slightly inferior to that of the Frenchman. They ran short of ideas and tried to force a goal, and that—when the midfielders were impossibly high up the pitch—was when Real were able to counter.
Bayern of course were able to win the Bundesliga in record time this season, but playing against the likes of Nurnberg and Bremen is entirely different from squaring off against a team like Real in a Champions League knockout-stage tie. The opposition is much better and there is much more at stake. Depth and individual skill alone can make the difference in most every domestic fixture. But it takes tactics to win the Champions League.
For Bayern, the writing was on the wall long before Guardiola's arrival. Louis van Gaal, who managed Guardiola during his playing career at Barca, introduced a tiki-taka-type system at Bayern in 2009. He did many great things for the club, but ultimately, the risks of playing with such a high defensive line and denying forwards the opportunity to use their pace to catch opponents off guard saw Bayern end the 2010-11 campaign without trophies. He was sacked shortly before the end of the season.
Van Gaal's successor, Jupp Heynckes, had his work cut out. He had to teach the team how to defend and needed better defensive players than he could get in his first season. But after a year, he turned his team into arguably the best and most dominant Bayern team there ever was. He always had his philosophical approach to football, but tailored his tactics to the abilities of his players.
Guardiola continues: "In this sense, they (Madrid) are unstoppable. They are not just footballer, they are athletes."— Daniel Taylor (@DTguardian) April 23, 2014
Guardiola has instead tried to make his team play in a certain style that just is not suited to their skill set. In a post-match press conference, he spoke of Real being "athletes," as though he'd forgotten that it was Bayern's superior athleticism that saw them manhandle the Barca he built just a year ago.
Wednesday was not the first time Bayern were found lacking in balance this season. They had difficulty breaking down and containing Arsenal, as well as Manchester United. The English sides had far less individual quality than the Bavarians and in both instances ultimately fell.
But Real are one of the few football clubs in the world that can contend with Bayern man-for-man. They punished Guardiola for his stubbornness and unwillingness to adapt his system to play to the strengths of his players.
Bayern may well advance to the final, but if they do, it will likely be on merit of individual skill and desire. Tactically, Guardiola hasn't taken the next step with his team. To the contrary, more and more, he's leading Bayern towards the farce that ended the Van Gaal era.