Real Madrid travelled to Germany to take on one of their most storied European adversaries. It almost seemed inevitable that this matchup – the most frequent in Champions League history – would occur if either of the two teams are to lift the trophy in May. On the hunt for an unimaginable and legacy defining three-peat, the reigning Champions arrived in enemy territory almost at full strength (Nacho being the only player sidelined due to injury).
Bayern Munich weren’t as fortunate as Alaba, Vidal, and Neuer were all suffering various injuries. While the menacing keeper hasn’t stepped on the field all season and as such didn’t alter Jupp Heynckes plans too much, the former two have been vital pieces of the team this season whose absences would be critical.
True to his recent selections and favoring his hot hand, Zidane left both Bale and Benzema off the starting line-up. The Welshman has been relegated to a substitute role since the round of 16 but Benzema’s benching was slightly more surprising. Despite sitting out the second leg against Juventus, it wasn’t expected to happen again and perceived as a one-off. The Spanish giants were configured in a 4-5-1 formation.
Bayern Munich replaced Alaba with Rafinha and started with a midfield pairing of James Rodriguez and Javi Martinez. Robben and Ribery were stationed in the wings with Muller occupying a second striker role behind Lewandowski.
Aggressive pressing from each side disrupts buildup
Zidane and Heynkes both identified possession and construction of play from the back as a core aspect of each other’s system. They elected to counter-act this with aggressive pressing from the start of the game that disrupted buildup play. Real Madrid’s press was led by Ronaldo and Modric in alignment with their 4-1-3-2 shape (off the ball) – a clear pressing trigger would be when a Bayern Munich player would receive the ball while facing their own net. Bayern’s pressing was slightly less intense but accomplished the same objective as could be evidenced by the number of long clearances.
A side effect of pressing as much as both teams did was the overcommitment of players (especially the midfield line and fullbacks who were sucked in and/or baited by CBs and wingers dropping deep). This left huge holes at the back which needed to be covered when midfielders were stuck in the final third and could be easily bypassed by a simple ball.
The overcommitment forced Ramos to step up constantly in an effort to secure the space between the lines. This required him to make risky interventions and tackles that could easily go wrong. And indeed, what could go wrong was shown in Bayern’s fist goal as Ramos was caught out beyond the halfway line.
Another notable adjustment (on Bayern’s side) that occurred was James Rodriguez dropping deeper after Robben exited the field with an injury. The Colombian formed a base with Javi Martinez that improved ball retention and controlled vertical passing.
Bayern Munich dangerous on set pieces
The hosts had a visible height advantage against a comparably shorter Real Madrid. Both Benzema and Bale on the bench took out two tall players that support defensive phases during set pieces.
Zidane almost paid for this as Real faced a barrage of Bayern corners and freekicks when the latter was on the ascendency. Part of it was fortune and individual performance on the day but it’s undeniable that a big reason why Bayern dominated in the air was certainly the height difference between both teams.
Isco’s lack of production on the wings
The reconfiguration of the team and line-up presented several challenges for chance creation. This made the weight of each attacking action that much more significant. Ronaldo was isolated as a center forward and received little quality service.
Furthermore, Real Madrid’s wings were not nearly as prominent as they normally are as Isco did not combine with Marcelo as well as he could – a stark contrast to when Ronaldo plays on the left. The dynamic of the match eliminated the midfield from play and instead required adept transition offense which Isco couldn’t provide because of questionable decision-making.
Zidane introduced Asensio at half-time and the difference was almost night and day (as a side note: Isco had also been less supportive defensively than Vazquez). The young Spaniard is a fantastic counter-attacking player and has a great understanding of timing and space when moving in transition. Real Madrid’s go-ahead goal was counterattacking 101 and there are some doubts that Isco in Asensio’s shoes would have been able to carry it out just as well.
Heynckes plays his Ribery card
Much like how Robben was a constant menace and nuisance in last year’s semi-final, Ribery was an irritable thorn in Real Madrid’s side for the whole game (particularly the second half). Tactically, there wasn’t much that was being exploited in the system Zidane devised and so beyond the option of naively man-marking the French player (which wasn’t done) – there wasn’t much that could have done to stifle Ribery’s threat.
He was a class above on the day and Bayern’s biggest chance creator. His dribbling and touch were difficult to handle and he was able to generate key passes and shots once inside the box. Fortunately, the central defenders and overall conservative structure helped shield Navas (although he was still required to make two amazing saves) from the onslaught.
Overall balance of play
The feeling most fans had based on the eye-test was that Bayern Munich were clearly on top and the “better” team in the sense that they created more chances. However, it wasn’t nearly that black and white. Despite the Bavarians indeed manufacturing more clear-cut chances – they weren’t more structurally sound than Real Madrid.
It was a case of them translating open play opportunities into shots better than Real Madrid could. The Bavarians were vulnerable in transition and could have been punished more severely on another day. While it’s absolutely fair and accurate to conclude that they had better chance creation, the difference in tactical success wasn’t as big as the shots and xG stats suggest. Individual performances played a huge role in how the match turned out.