Does Real Madrid’s Crushing of Bayern Munich Mark the Death of Possession Football?

The Allianz Arena was the stage for the 22nd meeting between these two illustrious sides, with Bayern looking to overturn a one-nil first leg deficit in Madrid eight days prior.

The lineups were as expected, but the inclusion of both Muller and Mandzukic suggested that Guardiola wanted to be more direct than he had been at the Bernabeu. Real Madrid could count on the devastating pace and skill of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, despite fears that both wide men would miss the match.

Tiki Taka vs. Counter Attack

From a tactical standpoint, the match wasn’t particularly different from proceedings at the Bernabeu. Bayern controlled possession and Real held a medium-to-low defensive block looking to counter. Although, it must be said that Bayern did launch a few long balls into the box as well as looking for out balls to one of Ribery and Robben when they had to defend.

That all changed when Ramos scored the opener, with Bayern reverting to their default blueprint this season of keeping the ball and patiently waiting for an opening. This suited Real Madrid perfectly, who probably came into the tie expecting to have very little of the ball anyway.

Sweeper Keepers, High Lines and Vertical Compactness

Aside from Bayern’s monopoly of ball possession this season and ‘false’ fullbacks, the other characteristic that has come to define their play in Guardiola’s first season is the ‘sweeper keeper.’ Granted this isn’t the brainchild of Guardiola, after all many sides who play a high defensive line do have goalkeepers that are comfortable on the ball, ready to charge out to sweep after the ample space behind the back four.

And this sweeper keeper role was put under the magnifying glass in the first half on a couple of occasions. The first was when Benzema was almost played in behind the Bayern back four with a diagonal ball, Neuer was proactive and read the danger but his headed clearance fell straight at Bale who could only volley over the bar.

As an aside, the other interesting nugget from that play was that Bale essentially had time to control the ball and (mis)hit his volley, with little pressure from the Bayern midfielders, which has certainly fueled the argument that Bayern have dropped off substantially since lifting the Bundesliga two months ago.

The other instance where Neuer’s sweeper keeper role came under the spotlight was when another ball over the top was read well but the clearance was misplaced by Germany’s no. 1. The ball fell straight at the feet of Ronaldo. The Portugese, though, couldn’t quite keep his shot on target.

These two plays showed us that Real moved both vertically and horizontally – but in these examples more the former – as a unit with cohesion. The pace of Bale and Ronaldo (and Di Maria too – often forgotten among los galacticos) ensured they would be as close as they could be to Benzema after the initial ball over the top, reducing the gap between midfield and attack which effectively made it easier to start pressing high up the pitch.

Bayern’s Defending from Set Pieces

There were three goals from dead ball situations in this match, so while not exactly paying credence to the idea that it was set pieces that decided the game, it does go some way in explaining why the second leg had the same pattern as the first leg but with a much more emphatic scoreline.

Real Madrid effectively put the game to bed with Ramos’ double within four minutes of each other. To many it was quite surprising that Bayern were so poor with their defending, from these two plays in particular. The problem however was not that there were men unmarked during these plays, but rather that Bayern didn’t attack the ball but chose to defend the space. This was something Pep’s Barcelona did (and still do), but that is because the Catalans are not the most physically imposing side in the world.

“Taca la Bala” – or attack the ball – is what Helenio Herrera, who won everything with the Grande Inter of the 60s as well as FC Barcelona, used to tell his players. It’s a bit of weakness with Guardiola’s sides from set pieces at least.

Conclusion

This match was the supposed final nail in the coffin for ‘tiki taka’ and possession-based football. While, I certainly don’t agree with that, I do think it highlights the need for flexibility, which is completely lost in the dichotomy between possession vs. counter attack. The kind of flexibility Ancelotti has shown all through this season.

This time last year, I (and everyone else on the planet) were wooing at Bayern’s demolition of Barcelona. How quickly things change. Guardiola’s only failure this season has been his desire to remodel an *almost* perfect side into his Barcelona.

It’s common knowledge that tiki taka (d)evolved into a more defensive game towards the end of Pep’s time at Barcelona, and that was because he knew his team weren’t great defensively without the ball. So they would hog the ball to avoid their opponents scoring; the addage “if they haven’t got the ball, they can’t score” comes to mind.

This Bayern team, however, is a juggernaut, physically they are much more like Real Madrid than the tiny, nimble Blaugrana figures. Pep didn’t need to change their style of play that drastically to win everything again this year.

The thing with a coach like Guardiola though, is that he’s always looking to improve, which is why Jorge Valdano dubbed him the Steve Jobs of football. And he will have to evolve his current philosophy to counter the more direct style of play that is engulfing the game now, in a post-tiki taka world.