Bayern Munich made it two wins out of two in the Bundesliga with a hard-fought victory over Schalke 04 at the Veltins Arena. The hosts matched last year’s champions for the majority of the game, but the quality of Carlo Ancelotti’s men eventually shone through against tiring Schalke legs in the latter stages.
Schalke’s Compact Defensive Structure
Unsurprisingly, the key factor behind Schalke’s ability to keep Bayern out for the first 80 minutes was a coherent defensive game plan, impeccably executed by the players. Markus Weinzierl, the Schalke manager, deployed a man-orientated defensive system in which Schalke pressed high in the Bayern half and were able to nullify the visitors’ build up play. This move is likely to have been to counter Ancelotti’s use of his two #8s, where they both drop deep, goal-side of the opposition’s midfield line.
This tactic is mainly designed so that the two full backs can push high up the pitch, knowing that the two #8s are in deep positions to cover them. In turn, the two wingers are able to come inside into the half space or even the centre to provide better support to Robert Lewandowski. Of course, the biggest advantage of this is that Thomas Muller in particular is positioned in the half space, where he can make his intelligent runs into either the wide or central zone, causing major disruption to the opposition’s defensive organisation. However, whilst this may have worked against Bremen’s more passive, zonal defence, where vertical passing lanes were easily created in both half spaces, Schalke’s aggressive man-orientated system gave them access to press the ball high up the pitch whilst covering passing options effectively. As such, Bayern were unable to effectively progress the ball up the pitch.
The diagram above illustrates a common theme in Schalke’s pressing. Konoplyanka presses the deep #8 on the ball in his zone, whilst Howedes steps out to prevent a pass to the full back. Stambouli covers the pass to Ribery (and will actively man mark him if Ribery drops deep to offer for the ball), whilst Bentaleb is responsible for the other Bayern winger, Muller. Goretzka cuts out the passing lane to Alonso, and Sanches is either forced into attempting to find Lewandowski with a ball over the top, or recycling the ball backwards.
Naturally, the 5v2 in that deep area of the pitch does allow for easy recycling of the ball, and Bayern were able to comfortably circulate the ball across the pitch via the centre backs, but when the ball reached Thiago on the other side, Choupo-Moting was able to start the same pressing sequence again, only mirrored.
Bayern struggled to build against this press the whole game, and their most successful method of progressing the ball was a direct pass in behind Schalke’s defence. Lewandowski made several clever runs to facilitate this, starting next to Nastasic, before moving across and making a blind-side run behind Naldo. The passes often did reach Lewandowski, but never put him directly through on goal, instead playing him into a wider area. Schalke were always able to recover effectively and defend the threat by preventing Bayern from playing the ball inside. Below is one example of this situation developing.
With Schalke’s effective man marking and strong coverage of potential passing options in midfield, Sanches’ only option is a pass through to Lewandowski, who is beginning to make a clever run on the far right of the picture.
What Could Bayern Have Done Differently?
What Bayern needed to do better to beat this Schalke press was to have more active, coordinated movements from their midfielders. When playing against a team that is clearly man-orientated, lots of runs off the ball are needed to entice the opposition players to follow them out of position and thus create openings. Although Bayern’s midfielders did make movements off the ball, they were either not co-ordinated enough to take advantage of the gaps that arose, or were not regular enough to lead to a sustained threat. For example, Ribery regularly dropped goal-side of his marker, Stambouli, and the Schalke man subsequently followed. However, no one made a run to utilise the space that he had created. This process is illustrated below.
Ribery has made a run and successfully dragged Stambouli with him. However, no one fills the vacant hole in between the lines. Thiago can either come over and make a diagonal run, or Muller can make a horizontal run across the defence. This is just one example of a movement scheme that could’ve been made by Bayern. In reality, Muller and Thiago were always too far over on the other side of the pitch to make these particular runs because of Ancelotti’s emphasis on occupying the ball-far half space. This does present the advantage of giving Bayern excellent spacing across the pitch, but there needed to be more variation with the team’s positional play. For example, Muller should’ve been given the freedom of running across into the space, whilst someone else moved to occupy his position in the right half space. What tended to actually happen was that Sanches would try and find Lewandowski with a ball to feet. However, because of the increased distance the ball has to travel, the centre back marking Lewandowski has more time to react. They were therefore able to step out in front of Lewandowski and intercept the ball.
When Bayern were able to get in behind, it was usually as a result of some co-ordinated movement in wide areas, like in the example below.
Philipp Lahm makes a movement back towards his own goal, drawing his marker, Baba Rahman, with him. Muller sees the space that opens up behind Baba as a result and quickly makes the run. Thiago is able to play him in and the move results in a shot at goal by Lewandowski.
How Did Bayern Eventually Break Through?
As the second half progressed, it became clear that Schalke’s pressing was beginning to get laboured. The fact that Weinzierl felt the need to make a substitution just nine minutes into the second half showed how early Schalke’s fitness started to drop. As a result, Schalke were more than happy to drop into a compact, narrow 4-4-2 block in a deep position and defend their goal from there in the second half. This subsequently gave Bayern more opportunities to build attacks with greater ease.
Bayern also upped their own game after the break, with sharper passing and better combinations. Bayern mostly tried to build their attacks through the wings before crossing into the box. Alaba and Douglas Costa, who came on at the hour mark, made some particularly good combinations and were able to create regular crossing opportunities, one which led to Lewandowski missing an open goal from six yards, albeit with a bouncing ball. Muller and Lahm were equally impressive on the other wing, especially with Thiago regularly coming over to support; a triangle that created havoc against Werder Bremen two weeks ago. Schalke for the most part, however, contained Bayern’s crosses well and limited Bayern to half-chances.
A key factor to Bayern’s eventual victory was Bayern’s successful counterpressing throughout the game. Ancelotti’s men aggressively pressed after losing the ball, with one player running after the ball carrier whilst team mates looked to man mark the passing options in close vicinity. Repeatedly winning the ball back quickly allowed Bayern to sustain a high level of pressure on Schalke’s defence for the majority of the game, contributing to Schalke’s deterioration in fitness.
Schalke did manage to muster up some promising attacks of their own, however, and could’ve easily scored themselves. Huntelaar hit the bar with a fierce shot as a result of some excellent pressing winning the ball high in Bayern’s half, but Schalke’s main method of chance creation was also through crosses from wide areas. Choupo-Moting in particular made some excellent dribbles down the left flank, but rarely delivered a final product to create a good chance for his strikers.
In the end, Bayern broke through after Martinez was allowed to carry the ball into midfield and play a through ball to Lewandowski. The Schalke forwards did not adjust to Martinez quickly enough and provided no pressure on the ball, a fatal error when dealing with a player with Martinez’s vision. Naldo also unnecessarily sold himself trying to step in to intercept the through ball, possibly as a result of mental fatigue after a strong, but tiring, performance in the first 80 minutes.
Schalke were more than equal to their opponents and should be very pleased with their performance, but the match was ultimately 10 minutes too long for them to hold out. After Lewandowski’s goal in the 81st minute, Schalke threw players forward in search of the equaliser, and were picked off on the counter in stoppage time. Nevertheless, Bayern will accept that they found their match for the majority of their game and the signs are promising for Schalke, despite picking up no points in their opening two matches.