How do you beat a machine like Bayern Munich?
The German giants are cruising through Europe, having not lost a single game since December 2019. Their development from a normal elite team to THE big favourite for the Champions League crown has gone under the radar.
In truth, they struggled in the first half of the season under coach Niko Kovac and even the Bundesliga title was in danger. Kovac was fired and Hans-Dieter Flick took over. Since then, the record German champions improved from game-to-game and slowly but surely got back their Mia san Mia winning mentality.
Not even the coronavirus pandemic could halt their hot streak. Players like Thomas Müller, Robert Lewandowski and Serge Gnabry are enjoying their best season ever and with Alphonso Davies they have one of the biggest surprises of the season in their ranks.
The 8-2 thrashing of Barcelona made the last critic believe that this Bayern team are unstoppable on their way to the title; their form too good, the characters in the team with Joshua Kimmich, David Alaba or Manuel Neuer, too strong.
Paris Saint-Germain are the last team that could stop them and some even favour them because of their fast strikers, coupled with Bayern's tendency to play a high line. But will that be enough to beat this well-oiled unit?
1. They don't have dribblers
This Bayern team is good at many things, but they certainly don’t have the best offensive dribblers in their team.
Even Serge Gnabry just averages 1.2 successful dribbles in this Champions League campaign. Thiago and Alphonso Davies are their most dangerous players in that area but especially Thiago tends to go past his opponents rather in build-up than in the dangerous areas.
If the game is static and their players have no space to accelerate, they hardly offer a threat in a 1 v 1. Knowing this leads to the following do's and don'ts.
2. Stay compact
If Bayern comes at you with bodies and pace, you have no chance. Their decision-making in the final third is too good and they are too clinical in front of goal. They will exploit every open space you give them and it’s up to PSG to not allow them any.
Despite their improvements under Flick, Bayern still find it hard at times to break down compact defensive lines that shift well. One of the reasons is that this Bayern team is full of extremely press-resistant players. The likes of Thiago, Alaba or Kimmich hardly make a mistake under pressure.
So instead of trying to press them too much, PSG should remain in their shape and keep bodies behind the ball, especially on the wings, where Bayern likes to create overloads with their many position switches.
In the above example, Jerome Boateng passes to Alaba, which should invite Gladbach’s right-sided winger to press the ball.
However, this would leave Bayern’s left-back, Lucas Hernandez, open, which means Gladbach's winger chooses to back off and retain the compact shape.
In this shape, Bayern can hardly progress the ball as Gladbach covers all possible forward passing options.
3. Prevent one-two’s
Instead of dribbling the ball, Bayern use another effective method to go past their opponents: playing countless one-twos.
Leon Goretzka and Thomas Müller are always starting runs into the box from deep and if you don’t immediately pick them up, they are gone. They then like to play chipped passes over the defence, which is hard to defend against if you aren't prepared for it. PSG’s defensive line needs to anticipate these one-twos early and then drop back to clear them.
Goretzka passes to Lewandowski and continues his run into the box at pace. Instead of dropping deeper to prevent a chip over them, Lyon’s centre-backs decide to pressure Lewandowski which opens the space behind them.
Lewandowski chips the ball into the open space into Goretzka’s path...
… who now has a big scoring chance.
4. Be flexible in the build-up
While Bayern’s pressing went running under the radar in the past, it can now be described as the best in Europe together with Liverpool.
Despite having a lot of press-resistant players in their own team, PSG shouldn’t stubbornly try to outplay Bayern’s press and a mixture is key. If you refuse to play a long ball over the top at times you will sooner or later make a mistake and concede a goal, as happened to Barcelona.
If you go long every time with no big target man up front you lose control of the game and help Bayern build a momentum. PSG should be confident enough to play out of Bayern’s press when there is space but also be not shy to play an ‘exit-ball’ to absorb the pressure and give Bayern’s back-line uncomfortable moments, particularly with their high line.
In this example, Ter Stegen played a short pass to his defensive midfielder (red arrow) which ended in a turnover and a big chance.
Bayern tend to press centrally which leaves space on the wings and 1 v 1 in the last line. Ter Stegen should have chipped the ball either to his left back to force Kimmich to push forward and open the space behind, or played a long ball to Luis Suarez who finds himself in a 1 v 1 against Alaba.
5. Double-team the wings
Bayern produce a constant threat on the flanks, with Davies and Kimmich pushing forward and overlapping their wingers. Especially on the left, they remind you of the peak Bayern team under Pep Guardiola where they constantly hurt their opponents with the Ribery/Alaba pairing.
While Davies is the more direct player, Kimmich on the right likes to drop behind Gnabry to receive a lay-off and cross the ball – which is similar to the role of Henderson at Liverpool. To minimise the risk, PSG need to double-team on the wing. This requires a high work-rate by their midfielders and wingers who constantly need to support their wing-backs.
Thiago switches play to Alphonso Davies. Lyon is missing width in the centre…
Which brings Davies into a 1 v 1 situation. Lyon’s central midfielder spots the situation though and helps his right back.
They now have a 2 v 1 against Davies, which forced him into a bad cross and a turnover.