A fantastic, tactically open tie came to an end after a thriller in Munich, as an effervescent Bayern Munich overcame a brilliantly organized Juventus side.
Many enthralling Champions League ties have been summarized as games of attack vs defense (Barcelona vs Inter Milan 2010), or a clash of similar styles (Bayern vs Barca 2015). These intense matches are also brought down to the brilliance, or lack of it from a group of players or the manager, such as Barcelona’s front 3 against Guardiola’s high line at the Camp Nou, or Laurent Blanc’s decision to park the bus at Stamford Bridge in 2014, both of which backfired.
However, it’s difficult to remember any Champions League Tie which has been severely affected by so many 50/50 tactical and personnel decisions by both managers, players and even referees- decisions which seemed foolish at the the time only to be hailed later on, or vice-versa. Allegri’s decisions to sit back in Turin, sub off Morata for Mandzukic and his inability to field an injured Dybala seem to have prevented a cool Juventus victory. Guardiola starting Benatia, telling Ribery to stay central and benching Thiago also seem to have spared Juventus a thrashing.
Guardiola played a 4-1-4-1, although most attempts to label the real formation he adopted will fail- Bayern’s system was never constant. David Alaba and Phillip Lahm started as full backs, while the error prone Medhi Benatia was given the nod alongside Joshua Kimmich. Xabi Alonso was the deep lying playmaker, while Arturo Vidal played right in front of him, with forays forward. Douglas Costa started on the right, while Franck Ribery drifted into the center as well. Muller and Lewandowski played up front.
Max Allegri also opted for multiple formations, as Juventus changed their formation when they had (4-4-1-1/4-4-2), and didn’t have (5-4-1), the ball. Bonucci, Barzagli and Lichsteiner essentially selected themselves, but Patrice Evra got the nod at left back. Juan Cuadrado played on the right side of midfield, while Khedira, Hernanes and Pogba completed the midfield along with Alex Sandro who got the nod as a wing back. Alvaro Morata started up front.
By no means did the Catalan send out an incompetent side, but his selection and instructional errors nearly contributed to Juventus’ first half dominance as much as Juventus themselves did. Here are the list of 50/50 decisions which went completely wrong-
Selection of Medhi Benatia
The Moroccan struggled as he has since arriving from Rome for a hefty fee, often unsure and hesitant in decision making. He was out of position for both of Juventus’ goals, and was understandably hooked for Juan Bernat at half time, as Guardiola looked to prevent what would have been a disastrous result for his own career, as well as Benatia’s.
Just why Benatia was selected in the first place is an easy question to ask in hindsight, but I termed it a “50-50” decision for a reason- Guardiola had few alternatives. He could’ve started a central pair of Joshua Kimmich and David Alaba, but both could’ve struggled against a battering ram in Mario Mandzukic (although it’s worth noting that he wasn’t fit enough to start). Despite his poor form, Benatia was still a center back by trade, and represented a safe option in a match which Bayern didn’t even need to win if they defended well enough.
Benatia in the middle pushed David Alaba to his natural position- left back.
Franck Ribery Drifts to the Center
Perhaps Guardiola was looking to exploit his Austrian left back’s offensive prowess when he played him in his favorite position. And perhaps that’s why he instructed Ribery to continously drift into the center alongside Muller and Lewandowski when in possession. Make no mistake- Ribery’s starting position was on the left, but rather than looking to isolate Stephen Lichsteiner for 1v1 situations, Ribery simply moved inside. Tactically, this only helped flood the Juventus box.
While in theory Ribery’s central positioning should’ve freed up space for forward runs for Alaba, in reality it barely helped. Juventus’ positional discipline meant that Bayern lacked any attacking threat down the left during the first half.
Guardiola asking his winger to tuck in and full back to dart forward is also the opposite of what he did when he first arrived in Bavaria. Before, he would play his full backs (Lahm, Alaba) as central defensive midfielders, lookin to free up space for Robben and Ribery against their respective full backs. Quite why he betrayed this system is anyone’s guess.
Douglas Costa over Kingsley Coman
With Dutch maestro Robben injured, Guardiola had to pick between one of the signings of the season (an out of form one, that) and an in form, mercurial young talent. Guardiola opted for experience once more, and selected Douglas Costa on the right. While his decision was eventually vindicated- Costa provided the cross for Bayern’s first goal- it was made to look terrible in the first half. This was, in no small part, due to how Max Allegri lined up Juventus.
Allegri did go for some textbook tactics when taking on this Guardiola side. His players pressed high during the opening minutes to expose Bayern- a weakness of the Catalan’s Barcelona as well- and formed a deep 4-5-1 or 5-4-1 off the ball. Juventus didn’t sit back entirely either, which cost them in Turin. However, the manner in which Allegri neutralized Bayern’s wing play was simply fantastic.
On the left, Allegri played both Alex Sandro and Patrice Evra- both left backs, but Sandro a more attacking one. Evra doubled up as center back at times, while Sandro functioned as a wing back off the ball and a wide midfielder off the ball. Allegri clogged this area with two defenders by trade, and they helped stop Douglas Costa- as seen above.
The right side was patrolled by the experienced Stephen Lichsteiner and brilliant Juan Cuadrado. Guardiola’s decision to play Ribery more centrally meant David Alaba’s overlapping runs would define Bayern’s offense on their left, and the presence of the former Chelsea man stymied this threat. Most of Alaba’s passes were to Xabi Alonso as a result.
Cuadrado was extremely key both offensively and defensively. A midfielder off the ball, he would tuck into Juventus’ zonal marking- and whenever the ball reached David Alaba, he would rush to intercept. Cuadrado did this very well, minimizing Bayern’s attempts to spread the ball out wide. On the ball, the Colombian played as a forward next to Alvaro Morata- and his brilliant moves led to 1 goal and nearly forced another.
By employing disciplined markers in wide areas, Allegri forced Bayern to play the ball into the middle frequently, which often resulted in nothing, as Juventus had 3 central midfielders along with 3 center backs at most times. Even when they played the ball wide, Bayern often found themselves crowded out.
Offensively, the brilliance of Alvaro Morata, Paul Pogba, Juan Cuadrado and even Alex Sandro – along with Medhi Benatia and Manuel Neuer’s errors- meant Juventus carried a constant threat.
Having recognized his errors, Guardiola moved quickly to fix them, and looked to gain a threat in wide areas as a result. Allegri on the other hand attempted to close out the game, but in the second half it was the Juventus manager’s decisions which went wrong, while Guardiola seemed to have made the perfect substitutions.
Bernat on for Benatia
The Moroccan’s evening had been pathetic, and David Alaba assumed the mantle at center back. Juan Bernat started at left back, and while the spaniard isn’t as versatile as Alaba, his offensive runs are arguably more incisive. Given the situation, Bernat was Bayern’s ideal left back.
Indeed, as the half progressed, Alaba’s pace and composure on the ball also benefitted the German Giants in the middle. While he didn’t provide Aerial protection like Benatia, his general tactical awareness was far superior to the man who he replaced. This helped prevent more mazy dribbles from Alvaro Morata.
Of course, adding a more attacking full back was only half the solution. Bernat completed part of the puzzle, but Bayern still needed Franck Ribery to dribble in wide areas.
Ribery Instructed to Stay Wide
With ‘the Ribery as a false 9’ experiment failing miserably, Guardiola then asked Ribery to play as wide as possible- the polar opposite of his role in the first half. Ribery now metaphorically hugged the touch line, as he was always stretching Juventus with his positioning.
The French winger’s change of position forced Stephen Lichsteiner- who usually tucked in- to stay wide as well. Ribery attempted more crosses and take ons as well. This was the situation which Guardiola usually looked to create in his first two seasons at the Allianz Arena, and a return to these “roots” has served him well. In the first half, neither Robben nor Ribery were drinking at their full back. Now, at least one of them was performing in their usual position.
Additionally, Bernat’s improved distribution (compared to Alaba) meant Bayern had a small, but tangible, presence on their left.
Coman on for Alonso
Possibly the most important of Guardiola’s decisions, as Coman’s introduction completely changed the nature of Bayern Munich’s attack.
Firstly, Coman provided an additional outlet for balls out wide. While previously it was Douglas Costa against Alex Sandro and Patrice Evra, it was now an even game of 2 on 2. Coman played the role of touch line-hugger on the right side, often the subject of through balls.
Next, Coman freed up plenty of space for Douglas Costa. While Costa struggled against dual full-backs, Coman’s presence out wide allowed him to cut inside and roam centrally, after the former Juventus man’s runs created space. Indeed, Costa’s performance after Coman’s introduction was his best in 2016.
Multiple Bayern Munich goals were created by some form of the Coman-Costa combination. The first in particular saw Coman distract a marker before pulling the ball back for Costa, whose cross resulted in a goal. In this sense, Bayern’s approach was largely primitive in the second half, as they sought to hoof long balls into the box for goals.
Allegri Error- Mandzukic for Morata
On the face of it, it was an opportunistic substitution. Bayern Munich’s players were tiring in their pursuit for goals. Alvaro Morata was running out of steam. Alaba and Kimmich were ill-equipped to deal with an aerial barrage. Mandzukic was strong in the air, had a high work rate and offered more than an exhausted Morata regardless. Simone Zaza? He had some pace, but was no Mandzukic.
It’s hard to fault Allegri here. Many managers in Allegri’s shoes would have done the same, but Thomas Muller’s goal minutes after Mandzukic’s arrival, as well as Muller’s stoppage time equalizer proved that Juventus needed an offensive outlet, not a battering ram. With Bayern dominating the match, Mandzukic’s aerial threat was rendered useless due to the lack of service.
It was truly a game of 2 halves, as Juventus dominated the first half tactically and Bayern Munich did just in enough to be considered better in the second. Momentum, of course, is no false thing and Bayern used it to cruise to victory.
Small decisions influenced the match, as Allegri’s decision to throw his Croatian striker on instead of Simone Zaza seemed fatal. The absence of crucial players on either side (Robben, Boateng, Dybala, Marchisio) could have prevented one or the other from seizing the game- although it’s surprising that Guardiola didn’t use his game changer in Thiago earlier. Thiago provided creativity from central positions, which only Mario Gotze could arguably do.
Ultimately, this tie was filled with beautiful coincidences and was a testament to Champions League football. Both legs were mirror images of eachother, with Bayern showing us what Juventus could have gone on to do had their been an additional half an hour in Turin.