Bayern's winner and Real's away goal came from precisely the type of situations the two sides were trying to engineer.
This Tuesday night’s match played out largely as expected. As the home side, the impetus was on Bayern to attack and they did. Real, as is the norm for Mourinho teams playing away in the knock-out stages, aimed to defend deep and hit their opponents on the break in the hope of nicking an away goal.
If Real had managed to hold on in the final moments Mourinho’s pragmatic approach would have been vindicated. As it is, Bayern have the lead and Real have their away goal so to an extent both sides have reason to be optimistic heading into what is a finely poised second leg.
With the Bundesliga title now beyond them, Jupp Heynckes was able to leave Mario Gomez, Franck Ribery, Phillipp Lahm, and Toni Kroos out of the starting line-up for their weekend game againt Mainz. They all returned for this tie with Kroos favoured over Thomas Muller in the attacking midfield role. This move was largely expected as in the title decider against Borussia Dortmund Bayern looked disjointed and were better once Muller had come off and Kroos was moved forward from his holding role to take his place.
Bastian Schweinsteiger, having come through the full 90 minutes against Mainz after coming back from injury, started this game alongside Luiz Gustavo as the holding midfielders with Kroos playing in front.
For Real Madrid, Xabi Alonso returned after being suspended for the match against Sporting Gijon. His form has dropped and has appeared tired of late so the rest will have done him good.
Both teams lined-up in similar 4-2-3-1 formations with inverted wingers on both flanks. However, both managers used these similar formations in very different ways.
For Bayern the plan was to provide crosses for Gomez with the extra width being provided by the full-backs overlapping runs, especially Lahm. This is how Bayern created their winner. Although Gomezes main strength is his aerial presence, it was a cross along the floor rather than in the air which made the chance. In fact, Bayern’s first also came from a cross via a poorly defended corner which suggests that defending crosses may be a weakness of Real’s.
One interesting selection from Bayern was to play Kroos in the advanced playmaker role ahead of Muller. Kroos played deeper than Muller would have which gave Bayern an extra body in the midfield. This also withdrew him slightly from areas best guarded by Real’s holding midfielders. He linked attack and defence in a way Bayern have often failed to do of late.
As mentioned previously, Real’s main aim was to defend deep and try to hit Bayern on the break. What was curious about this was that Real’s forwards rarely tracked back. Aside from Angel Di Maria, who is energetic without the ball, they applied little pressure on Bayern when out of possession.
The plan appears to have been to station players high up the pitch, not only to make them targets for long diagonal passes from midfield in order to launch quick counter attacks but also, to try and pin back Bayern’s full-backs, Lahm in particular.
The theory being that the best way to counter Lahm’s attacking surges would be to play Cristiano Ronaldo on the left and give him no responsibility to get back and defend. This would check Lahm’s attacking instincts as he wouldn’t want to leave Ronaldo free. Lahm, however, is a world-class full-back and was able to deal with Ronaldo very well throughout the match and get forward too. It was, of course, from a Lahm cross which Bayern got their winner. Real’s full-backs by comparison were unadventurous and rarely crossed the halfway line.
Mesut Ozil was also given the freedom to stay up field and not track back. This being much to the liking of a man with the demeanour of a lethargic owl.
With Kroos deployed a lot deeper than Ozil, Bayern had a 3v2 advantage in the centre of the pitch which meant they retained possession better and won the ball from Sami Khedira and Alonso regularly.
In the league, where Real are more used to dominating possession, leaving players forward makes more sense but in a game were they don’t expect to monopolise possession these players should have tracked back and Real were made to pay for this oversight.
From a defensive perspective the plan may have failed but their goal came from precisely the sort of quick break Mourinho was trying to engineer. A quick break launched by a long first time pass.
Real’s goal may have come the exact situation Mourinho set out to create but leaving Ozil and Ronaldo with no defensive responsibility was risky and didn’t pay off by a margin of just a few minutes. Bayern’s extra body in midfield and the inward runs of both wingers meant Real’s midfield was over run and the untracked Lahm was always a threat. Bayern have the lead and Real have an away goal so both sides have reason to be optimistic heading to the Bernabeu.