A UEFA Champions League semifinal can never be easy. Real Madrid has faced such a challenge in the last three years and failed to move on to the final, when FC Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund woke us up from our dream of conquering the long-desired Décima at the same stage.
This year, it is Pep Guardiola's Bayern Munich the judge that will determine if we deserve to travel to Lisbon on May 25th, and it is reasonable to think the difficulty is bigger than in our previous attempts. The authority displayed by the Bavarian squad throughout the season is totally out of question, but they are not unbeatable, as we have seen recently.
If Real Madrid is balance, Atlético is intensity and Barça is -or was?- possession and control, Bayern is versatility, as our friend Ryan Cooper from Bavarian Football Works has already commented. Supported on some principles that refer back to Guardiola's masterpiece in Barcelona, this season's Bayern Munich is no longer last year's winner-of-everything, but a similarly terrifying team.
Bayern dominates. That is, basically, what they have been doing since August. They normally have the ball, dictate the tempo of the game and win. But what makes them so frightening, in my opinion, is they have been doing it in many ways. Week after week, Guardiola has changed his lineup and the system and, with very few exceptions, the outcome has been positive for them. Thus, guessing a lineup for Wednesday's game is quite difficult, but I have taken the risk to predict this one:
Or, at least, this is how they would look like in UEFA's graphics and when they are defending. When they get the ball, however, they would look like a bit more like this:
The origin of this scheme is in their quarterfinal second leg against Manchester United. With Javi Martínez and Schweinsteiger suspended and Thiago injured, Bayern's only pure midfielder was Kroos. However, Lahm has been surprisingly used as a midfielder this season with great performance, and Alaba plays this role in Austria's National Team, so using them in central positions makes sense. Besides, no matter how weird the position of the fullbacks is, if you erase the names, the picture will look familiar.
Bayern's offensive potential is tremendous. All of their midfielders and strikers can get a goal out of nowhere, and their collective mechanisms are extremely fluid. Mandzukic can be fixed upfront to take care of the last shot as the great finalizer he is, but he is also showing a clever trend to fall to the wings, dragging a centerback to open lines for the wingers or the advanced midfielders inside the box. Ribéry and Robben mix their out-in and in-out movements in an unpredictable manner, and Alaba and Lahm seem to clearly read their intentions, so that Bayern ends up, inevitably, with seven men fencing the rival's box and a great variety of options to conclude their move with a shot.
Their defense, however, is not that strong. Their centerbacks can stand a physical fight against a tank-striker, but they struggle against mobile ones. Besides that, they are not particularly fast and tend to make one or two serious mistakes every game, which don't usually suppose a big deal thanks to Neuer, who was injured ten days ago but is fully recovered right now, or to the rest of their team, whose control of the ball and fast recovery prevents their opponents' strikers even from entering their side of the field.
How does one overcome that? As Arsenal, Mainz, Wolfsburg or Borussia Dortmund have shown, the best way to do that is with a really intense pressure, concentration and a bit of luck. The main drawback of using Lahm and Alaba in these central positions is that they are not really good at turning around. Bayern will try to build the usual centerback-Kroos-Lahm/Alaba-Schweinsteiger circuit to ellaborate their attack, but to do that, Lahm/Alaba will receive the ball facing their own goal, will need to turn around to look at Schweinsteiger and then give him the ball, and they are not fast at doing this. If you are able to press these six men (yeah, it's quite hard) in such a way that they have to pass the ball really quickly, they'll only have two choices: either take a risk or throw a long ball to Mandzukic. If they lose the ball there, they are not good at stopping fast transitions, so a chance is created.
Is this good for Madrid? Well, as you may have already conjectured, the BBC trio is possibly the finest weapon to attack Bayern, but their lack of defensive work may disable us to conduct a correct pressure on Bayern. As we saw when we tried to implement a similar plan against Barça in Bernabéu, Modric and Di María needed to go too far from Alonso, and there was a lot of space behind their backs. Bayern does not have Messi, that's right, but Götze, Ribéry and Robben can cause us the same trouble he did, so we'll need to work harder than that day if we want to move on to the final.