“Brave United,” is how it was described. Brave, I suppose, because Manchester United had the cheek to score at the Allianz Arena and scare Bayern Munich into life. Incidentally, the quick-fire assessment of Arsenal’s draw in Bavaria last month couldn’t have been more of a contrast.
David Moyes once again did what he does best. United were well drilled, had men behind the ball in a game where they knew they’d see very little possession, and utilised the pace of Danny Welbeck as the point of attack.
Bayern have been sloppy in the past few weeks. In fact, even before clinching the Bundesliga title, they didn’t quite look up to scratch. They were winning, but not convincingly. What we saw from Bayern over the two legs against United – lots of possession, lots of excellent team play but no end product – was the theme of a number of their games leading up to this tie with United.
That Bayern lost their last league game against Augsburg, ending their 53-game unbeaten run and any hope of going through the league season unbeaten, speaks of the mentality of those who are already champions. They’re not a poor team; the Bundesliga doesn’t distort how good Bayern actually are, and we’re far from overhyping them as the best in Europe. But Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona lost games against lesser teams, both in La Liga and Europe. It also shouldn’t be underestimated that retaining the Champions League is extraordinarily difficult, even for teams who have reached the heights of this Bayern and the famed Barcelona of a few years ago.
On Wednesday night, Bayern needed a kick up the rear that perhaps even Guardiola couldn’t offer. They needed to be scared into taking action, because as long as the game was level at 0-0, it would have continued as very much a bore draw. It more than likely would have prompted an angry mob to question just why this Bayern Munich team are considered as great as many claim them to be. It would have been an attack on the Bavarians and on German football as a whole. How good are they really if the worst United team in decades, who have lost to just about everyone in England, bar Arsenal, can limit them to back-to-back draws?
So as “brave” as United were, Bayern were simply better. Patrice Evra’s wonder goal not only woke up the home side, including the manager, it proved just how effective Guardiola’s tactics could be once his team turned on the style.
On paper, Bayern lined up in a 4-1-4-1 formation. It was anything but. Philipp Lahm, thought to be redeployed at right-back, joined Toni Kroos in the midfield. Guardiola’s approach, as always, was to flood the midfield, provide passing options for the player in possession, and not allow the opposition the opportunity to break out.
In the final third of the game, Bayern were devastating. Boredom had clearly crept in, the kind of boredom we saw from them against Arsenal at the Emirates. It’s been described as sterile possession; teams, generally Guardiola’s, who pass back and forth but do nothing with the ball. Far from the truth. Sterile possession is the game’s best form of defence, the period where players can take a breather and launch at the opposition by pressing and winning the ball back.
But it wasn’t until United thought something could be gained that Bayern really came out to play. Evra’s goal was the shock that woke up the home team, but it was also the act which forced Moyes’ team to discard the defensive mindset they’d adopted going into the game. The delirious celebrations broke the defensive continuity. When the game became stretched, when it became end-to-end, Bayern put it to bed.
Greater competition forces a bigger response from Bayern. Evidence, the most obvious of which, can be seen in Bayern’s dominance of Manchester City at the start of the season, only to lose from a winning position in the return fixture when Guardiola’s team had already won the group stage.
Wednesday night’s game was also a reminder to Guardiola and to onlookers that the Catalan’s work in Munich is far from over. Eradicating the lazy mindset that has crept in is a must – certainly before the semi-final first leg.
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