Right. The first post.
If you watched the two-legged Champions League semi-final clash between Pep Guardiola’s Bundesliga-winning, injury-stricken Bayern Munich and Luis Enrique’s goal-crazy soon-to-be La Liga champions, you’ll have noticed that while the unplayable South American strike-force of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar were causing all sorts of problems, they really were helped by some truly shambolic defending by Boateng, Benatia and Co. If it hadn’t been for the sweeper-keeper gimmicks of Manuel Neuer, they would have been truly embarrassed at the Camp Nou.
By the way, anyone who says Boateng has been one of the best defenders in Europe this season needs to remember that this is the same defender who couldn’t get into a Manchester City team. It is very easy to look good in a German national side with a midfield of Lahm, Kroos, Schweinsteiger, Khedira and the Bender twins screening the defence, and even easier when playing for Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga, with only 4–maybe 6–tough games a year. Clearly, Boateng couldn’t do it on a cold, wet, rainy night in Stoke. But I digress.
The first thing people say about Bayern’s 3-0 loss in the first leg is, “what was with the three-man defence?!”. I have not heard or read the words “tactical shambles” nearly as often as I did in the aftermath of that game. But I think that was far from the biggest problem with Bayern’s setup. Playing 3 men at the back, with two wing-backs, seems to make things a bit more compact in midfield (I do this on Football Manager, for example, except that I play with two wing-backs, two wider centre-backs, and one defensive midfielder playing as a half-back, basically the position Steven Gerrard played in for Liverpool during the nearly-glorious 2013-14 season. So you get the width from the wing-backs, with a ball-playing defender in the middle who also transitions into a ball-winning midfielder when not in possession, creating that added man in midfield, a strategy absolutely necessary to play against Barcelona).
Edit: Playing with wing-backs and a three-man central defense also crowds the upper middle-third of the pitch from Barcelona’s point of view (this is basically the hole in between Barcelona’s midfield and attack, or the area that Messi occupies. Guardiola wanted to crowd this area and suffocate Messi of supply, and time on the ball, and playing the wing-backs would allow the two central midfields (Lahm and Alonso, I think) to sit more centrally, and deeper. However, what Guardiola did not take into consideration was that Barcelona have become a potent counter-attacking force under Luis Enrique, and they used the speed of Neymar and Suarez to deadly effect.
So I get where Guardiola was coming from; what he tried in the first 15 minutes was CLEARLY an improvement to what Manuel Pellegrini did with Manchester City at the Camp Nou earlier in the season, playing a square 4-4-2 with Aguero and Dzeko up front. The complete lack of a proper defensive midfielder gave Messi all the time and space in the world to play in the inside channels and in between the lines, and in case you don’t remember what happened that day, ask James Milner.
But the problem with what Guardiola did was that it left his wing-backs too high up the pitch, and his three central defenders one-on-one with Barcelona’s front three. Furthermore, with Messi playing in the inside right channel, and dropping deep to receive the ball, Bayern’s central central defender (Boateng, I believe) got pulled closer to the LCB, leaving huge gaps between him and the RCB, which Neymar exploited. Look at the first chance that Suarez had, running on to Messi’s headed flick from ter Stegen’s pass, his shot eventually blocked by Neuer. What strikes me is how incredibly high Bayern’s defensive line was, as they looked to make the midfield space compact, and put pressure on Barcelona’s front three. Which brings me to my next problem with Guardiola’s system: the high line.
Over the years, Guardiola’s style of “tiki-taka” (Bayern don’t technically play the tiki-taka Barcelona did, but their transitions from defense to midfield typically involve quick, short passing moves) has become particularly easy to analyze and play against because of the way he has to structure his defense and midfield to facilitate said transitions. In order to be able to play the quick 5-10 yard passes from defenders to midfielders, the two lines need to be incredibly close to each other on the pitch, making the lower third of their setup highly compact. This also facilitates aggressive ball retention when they do lose it, which has been a defining characteristic of Guardiola’s teams.
Now, this compactness can be created by either dropping your midfield deeper, or pushing your defense higher up the pitch, the latter of which Guardiola does at Bayern (I’m assuming to prevent his forwards being isolated). And as we have seen, the high line has been punished on several occasions, most recently by Barcelona over the two legs of the Champions League semi-final. Theoretically, the best way to play the high line is to do exactly what Barcelona did, with fast attacking players occupying the inside channels, and offering options for a centrally-located creative player to find with defense-splitting passes. Again, Neymar’s three goals (one in Spain, two in Germany) offer the perfect example of this. Ironically, Guardiola succumbed to an identical strategy against Real Madrid in the second leg of the 2013-14 Champions League semi-final. Remember Cristiano Ronaldo’s first goal at the Allianz Arena, his 15th in the competition, which sparked that silly celebration?
Check out the 3:40 mark of this video. It shows Bayern chasing the game, with a very high defensive line. Benzema, the striker, drops into the inside right channel, carrying Dante with him, freeing up all the space in the world for Bale to run into behind the defense. After that, it is identical to Neymar’s first goal in the Allianz Arena, with Cristiano Ronaldo performing the same role as Neymar, providing the penetration from the left. Playing against the high line is theoretically that easy, and, given his seemingly inflexible tactics, it is not surprising that Guardiola has been found out two seasons in a row.
And this brings me to my point about Manuel Neuer’s role in this Bayern Munich side. Now, Neuer has always been quite an adventurous player, heading balls clear when he can catch them (the Stankovic goal in the Champions League), running outside his penalty area on occasion, and focusing on creating swift counter-attacks whenever possible. But his role became that of a true sweeper keeper (don’t ask me what “true” means, since Neuer is just about the inventor of the position) only when Guardiola arrived at Sabener Strasse. Now we see him doing all of the above on a much more regular basis, and even standing at the half-way line during Bayern corners, and–this is just ridiculous–making sliding tackles on the halfway line, with his own defenders behind him!
It is admittedly quite entertaining to watch, even though I am not a fan of the riskiness and disrespectful nature of this tactic. However, one must keep in mind that Neuer does not do this because it is fun, but because it is an important element of Bayern’s tactical setup (contrast his role with Bayern to that with the German national team, for which he exercises restraint to a certain extent). So one must analyze the sweeper-keeper role in the context of Bayern’s tactics.
While I feel Neuer is one of the three best goalkeepers in the world, and will be for the next 6 to 7 years, I think he gets into that list solely on his excellence in traditional aspects of goalkeeping: shot-stopping (he made some truly stunning reflex saves against France in the 2014 World Cup, probably the only time I have seen a goalkeeper present a psychological barrier in addition to a physical one), distribution (his long throws remind me of Peter Schmeichel), kicking, one-on-ones (again, psychological barrier), command of area etc (you can see I am a Football Manager player, as I’m rattling off all the technical attributes for goalkeepers). He does not actually need to do all the sweeper-keeper nonsense to qualify as one of the greatest of all time, and in fact, I will go so far as to say that it would be much better for Bayern Munich during Pep Guardiola’s reign if Neuer completely stopped being a sweeper-keeper.
Why, you ask?
I feel this way because I think Guardiola relies way too much on Neuer’s excellence at sweeping up loose balls played behind the defense. The high defensive line is clearly the Achilles’ Heel of Guardiola’s tactical philosophies, and his fixation with it is fueled by Neuer’s presence; having the German charge off his line allows Guardiola to ignore a major tactical flaw, and this needs to change. And not because it is inherently a risky tactic, and Neuer will make a mistake while charging out of his penalty area sooner rather than later. On the contrary, if Guardiola continues to operate with a non-existent defensive system, his teams will continue to be found out by direct, penetrating, counter-pressing tactics, and his keeper will continue to be exposed to one-on-one situations (or even two-on-one situations, due to the penetration from both inside channels, as seen in the Ronaldo and Neymar goals I’ve mentioned), and that is never ideal, since no matter how great a shot-stopper Neuer is, you can never rely on a keeper to save every single attempt (consider, for example, the fact that Neuer was beaten at his NEAR POST twice in the two games (Messi’s first goal in the first leg, and Neymar’s second goal in the second leg; this proves that even the greatest keepers are fallible, and must not be exposed by their defense under any circumstances, if it can be helped).
Also, the effect of the sweeper keeper can be countered, and negated, by the most intelligent and adaptable of players. Consider the first leg, against Barcelona. Messi put Neymar through on goal with a lofted, heavily hit pass, but Neuer charged forward, making a long clearance (see 6:04 of the following video).
On another occasion, Suarez was sent clean through against Neuer, but by a heavy pass, which allowed the keeper to head the ball clear.
But Messi quickly learned from this, and when he set Neymar through on goal for the 3rd goal of the game, he played the ball directly to Neymar’s feet, and on the ground as opposed to in the air, thus removing the possibility of a heavy touch from Neymar allowing Neuer to clear. This put Neymar through one-on-one against a hapless Neuer, and he scored to make it 3-0. Barcelona used this adaptive tactic to great effect in the second leg as well (two of Barcelona’s 5 goals over the 2 legs came from Messi headers; who would’ve thought?!), with Suarez and Neymar in two-on-one situations against Neuer for both goals.
Edit: One more thing about Neuer charging out of the penalty area, and how Barcelona adapted their play (especially in the second leg) to negate this aspect of his play. Using basic mathematical principles of length, it is easy to see that Neuer charges out a lot more to deal with balls straight down the middle of the pitch, as opposed to balls played into the inside channels on either side. This is because they are diagonal to his position in the penalty area, thus presenting longer distances to run. For both of Neymar’s goals in the second leg, the defense-splitting balls to Suarez were played in the inside right channel (and close to his feet, as discussed), making it impossible for Neuer to charge out. Darwin would applaud.
Basically, I think that if Guardiola stays at Bayern beyond the duration of his current contract, he will have to look at alternatives to the role Neuer currently occupies, the sweeper-keeper. Not having the safety net presented by the German would force Guardiola to rectify his tactical errors, albeit with adaptations that would possibly make his swift passing game more difficult to implement. I see this as absolutely crucial for Guardiola if he is to win the Champions League, seeing as he will have to play aggressive counter-attacking teams like Madrid, Barcelona and Chelsea, and also if he is to every manage in the Premier League, where teams like West Brom and Crystal Palace would absolutely love to play against his current setup.
This is why I think Mourinho is by far the greatest manager in the world. He understands how to analyze opponents’ strengths, and adapt his system to nullify them. Think back to the 2-0 win Chelsea secured at Anfield towards the end of the 2013-14 campaign, in a game known for Steven Gerrard’s unfortunate slip. His defensive line was so incredibly deep, and compact, that the counter-attacking force of Sturridge, Sterling, and Suarez had absolutely no space to work with, and the likes of Coutinho and Gerrard were given no space behind the defense in which they play passes. Liverpool resorted to crossing the ball from deep, and the likes of Terry, Cahill, Ivanovic and Matic lapped them up all day. It was an absolutely brilliant tactical and psychological dismantling of the pillars upon which Liverpool had built the foundations of their footballing style.
So while Guardiola may not like the idea, maybe he should take a leaf out of Mourinho’s book.