Bayern Munich took the lead in the home leg of their Champions League quarter-final tie against Real Madrid, but following the sending-off of Javi Martinez, they succumbed to the added pressure and lost 2-1. That will make things tough for the German outfit in the return leg, but one of the more interesting features of the match was how both teams, in a general sense, aimed to operate in the same fashion.
Neither side looked to play too much through the middle, and they instead focused their attentions on the flanks. In some ways, that probably wasn’t too surprising. After all, when there’s talent like Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo populating those positions, why wouldn’t their respective managers try to make use of it?
In Bayern’s case, Carlo Ancelotti was particularly keen to hit the right-hand side. His players attacked down that side of the field a substantial 43% of the time, and Robben was the key reason for this. After a blistering display against Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga last weekend, he came into this game as a man in form. The Dutchman’s trademark cuts infield were so good, and so perfectly executed, that Thomas Tuchel’s men simply couldn’t stop them, even though there was no mystery about what was coming.
So Bayern went back to Robben against Real. The Bavarian club tried to find him quickly, switching the play out towards the right whenever possible in a bid to allow Robben to go one-on-one against Marcelo. This worked pretty well for the most part, it must be said, especially in the first half. The former Chelsea man had a big hand in the opener, feigning to cut inside before pushing the ball towards the byline and firing a cross into Marcelo’s feet. The resulting corner made its way to the far post, courtesy of a well-weighted delivery from Thiago Alcantara, and Arturo Vidal slammed it in with a belter of a header.
Not too much later, Robben swung in a cross of his own for Vidal, but despite another solid connection from the Chilean, his radar was off on this occasion. Nonetheless, it was yet another indication of Bayern’s gameplan along the right side: get it to Robben and let him decide what to do next. Sometimes that involved using the onrushing Philipp Lahm and sometimes it didn’t, but as always with Robben, there was a sense of skill and dynamism to his play.
On the other side of the fence, meanwhile, Real Madrid were trying to do something similar. They were looking to move things quickly towards the flanks when they had longer spells of possession, yet the destination wasn’t always the same. They weren’t so much looking for their wingers as they were trying to find their fullbacks, and again, this had to do with a combination of style and personnel.
Whereas Robben is a tricky winger who likes to stay high and wide before dribbling his way into promising positions, Madrid’s wingers are different. Bale and Ronaldo are power forwards, players who like to use their speed, strength and aerial prowess not only to counter-attack but also to lunge towards goalscoring locations in the area. This means Bale and Ronaldo aren’t going to be the guys sitting high and wide on the outside, and because of that, this duty instead fell to Dani Carvajal on the right and Marcelo on the left. The Madrid fullback pairing therefore launched into final third wherever possible, aiming to support their team’s attacking play by providing width.
You could see this countless times throughout the course of the second half, but perhaps the best example arrived in the lead-up to Madrid’s leveller, where Casemiro quickly punched a forward pass both out to right-hand side and into the feet of an advancing Carvajal. The Spaniard followed up with a driven cross into the path of Ronaldo and the superstar didn’t disappoint from there, keeping his shot down nicely to equalise.
This, in effect, was how the game went. Two teams trying to use the wings, but doing so in different ways. There was a real evenness to this contest until Martinez found himself removed after a second yellow, and while it was in some ways a shame to see the 11-on-11 battle cut short, it was at this point that Madrid started to go to work. They shuffled the ball from side to side at a ferocious speed, all with the intention of using width to dismantle a shorthanded Munich defence. In this sense, they took their gameplan into hyperdrive by placing an even greater emphasis on whipping possession out towards the fullbacks, and after creating chance upon chance in this fashion, they eventually hit the lead.
This time, Madrid moved the ball out to Marcelo on the left, and with Marco Asensio now on for Bale, there was another passing option nearby rather than a big, powerful winger darting into the area. Asensio soon received possession after an intricate little passing chain along the left, and once he saw Ronaldo making a run from the far side, he swung a low cross into the teeth of goal. The Portuguese then stabbed it home from close range, and at that point in time, he had essentially finished the match.
It was 2-1 and Madrid were a man up, and Bayern had little to offer in the way of resistance. In truth, the German unit did well to keep their opposition to a one-goal lead, and they now at least have a chance of reversing the deficit ahead of the second leg.
In fact, that game could well be played in the same way. Both sides should again look to the flanks for inspiration, but Bayern will be likely to do it through Robben on the right while Real will look towards their fullbacks in order to get their star wingers closer to the centre. Neither approach is superior to the other, it’s just about personnel and execution. In the first leg, Real Madrid did it better, even if Martinez gave them a massive helping hand.
In the second leg, though, Bayern will be determined to make up for the loss, and hopefully that should bring about an even more exciting contest between two teams trying to do the same thing, just in different ways.