When Barcelona were at their peak two or three years ago under Pep Guardiola, one of the things many enjoyed doing was to try and suggest just how Guardiola's side could be beaten. It became a topic that resulted in many debates and many articles and comments online. On the rare occasion they were beaten, coaches were often asked the secrets to their ideas and just how they managed to beat the team touted as the best side ever.
The same thing is starting to happen with Bayern Munich. And for good reason.
Analysing the first goal
Man City lose the ball in midfield, Ribery plays it right back to Neuer in goal so Bayern can recycle possession from the back.
A few small things to say about the picture above. The most noticeable change under Guardiola that Bayern have made (despite the fact he has made quite a few so far) is the changing of shape in midfield. Under Jupp Heynckes they played a 4-2-3-1 shape, meaning a '2-1' triangle in midfield. Under Guardiola the team shape has reverted to a 4-1-4-1, meaning a '1-2' in midfield. This means there is single pivot who has the freedom to drop off to receive the ball, play between the centre backs if need be and to make himself available without impacting the team elsewhere.
This brings an obvious improvement in build up play. When Bayern were playing a double pivot, with Kroos or Muller ahead between the lines, if one of the two holding midfielders dropped off to receive between the centre backs, then there could be a break in the system - this is what happened early on in the Champions League Final against Dortmund, where Klopp's side pressed high from the start, forcing Schweinsteiger to drop very deep and meaning Martinez was therefore outnumbered 2v1 in midfield when that happened. Such situations do not occur under this new midfield shape.
In the above picture, Dzeko and Aguero have pushed up to try and put pressure on the centre backs. Philipp Lahm as the single pivot has dropped between them unmarked, making it easy for Bayern to play out should Neuer choose that option.
The option Neuer actually chooses is Rafinha the right back. As was pointed out in the commentary on Sky, Rafinha was an outball for Bayern for much of the game. Nasri was often narrow, pinching in to help defend the middle, meaning the long switch of play was often available for the German side. Here again you can see the shape of Bayern's midfield - Lahm is deep between the centre backs, Kroos and Schweinsteiger are ahead of him in the middle of the pitch.
Rafinha has now progressed into City's half. There's a quite a few things to notice here but the main one is that Bayern transitioning down the flank means that City have a lot of players condensed over to one side. This isn't wrong of course - you have to defend the positive space around the ball. However what it does mean is that there is space elsewhere on the pitch. There are eight City players in this shot and just three Bayern ones. If Bayern move the ball out, they can penetrate elsewhere.
This is where having quality players makes the difference in a game. Normally the natural reaction of a full back in this position would be either to keep running with the ball or look to play it to Muller, either to his feet or in the space behind. City, playing a high line, see this option and actually look to play Muller offside as he makes his run in the second after this.
What Rafinha actually does though is not to move the ball forward at all. Instead he switches the play with a long pass all the way over to Ribery on the left hand side. This sort of play can go without comment quite easily during a match and yet the vision and composure to play this ball cannot go without praise. One pass has opened up the pitch to the negative space on the other side.
This is the result of the ball played. In the previous shot, space was condensed and with Muller being played offside by the Manchester City defence, there was effectively only two players in the game for Bayern. However one switch of play has created a 2v2 situation on this side of the pitch. And here's where the major point can be made. City aren't just defending a 2v2 situation against Bayern's left back and left winger. They are defending a 2v2 situation against the best left back in the world and one of the best 'wingers' in the world.
Notice the gap in the channels that has opened up through the switch of play. There is a big gap between Richards and Kompany in defence and between Navas and Toure in midfield for City. With Alaba on the overlap, this means Ribery has several options. He can choose to play a wall pass behind for his partner. He can run at Richards and create a 2v1 situation momentarily. He can cut inside and then play the pass for Alaba behind. Or he can cut inside and shoot on goal.
Ribery chooses the latter option. Navas allows him to go inside. Toure doesn't get across quick enough to close him down. Hart makes an error. Goal.
Why analyse this goal? After all if Hart had concentrated properly he would have kept it out.
The answer is because it highlights perfectly how many trade offs you have to make against Bayern Munich.
Go back to the start of it. Neuer has the ball at his feet. Aguero and Dzeko position themselves high up. Lahm drops in. Bayern now have a 3v2 situation here (4v2 if you include Neuer), making it very difficult for City to disrupt their build up. If one of City's midfielders goes with Lahm, then the other midfielder is left outnumbered by Kroos and Schweinsteiger in midfield, meaning Navas and Nasri have to pinch in. That leaves space for the full backs.
When Rafinha comes out with the ball under little pressure, City have to move over and compress the space in that area. Generally against teams, this makes it difficult to attack and the ball will either be lost or played backwards, allowing the defending team to adjust and recover shape. However, Bayern have such great quality in possession that even if there is a high level of pressure on the ball, they have the ability to get out of such a situation.
Here's where the problem of playing Bayern is really emphasised. The ball is played across creating a 2v2 on the left. City have just forced Bayern to stop progressing forward on the ball through their defensive work on the other side. And yet they are now having to shift across and defend without numerical superiority against players of the quality of Alaba and Ribery. Even if Ribery was to choose the 'safe' option of playing it back into midfield. City again have to adjust again and chase the ball.
That makes it very difficult to plan your tactics or strategy against them. If you press high up perfectly, they can still keep the ball (this will be even further enhanced when Martinez comes back in to play centre back), play behind or tire you out. If you play a low block, then you probably won't be able to get out and you'll become vulnerable to long shots from Ribery and Robben in the dangerous zone just outside the area. If your wingers pinch in, there's space in the wide areas for their full backs and Ribery and Robben. If your wingers mark the full backs, there's space in the middle to play passes inside between the lines. The list of measures and trade offs can go on for a long time.
When you're facing such a team, it's not a question of formation. It's not a question of 'parking the bus' or on the other side 'giving it a go'. There has to be a detailed analysis of their whole system. And then even the most forensic plan will still probably not work.
The comparison made at the start between this Bayern side and that Barcelona side was because really, most conversations about how you beat such a high quality team miss the point. There's never really a foolproof way to beat any team of such a high calibre. The thing a coach has to do is recognise the qualities within his own team, analyse the opposition and decide which trade offs will least affect the team in a negative way. Man City did a poor job of this and could have limited Bayern better than they did. But even then it would have been extremely difficult to get a result out of the game. Bayern will have harder games this season and will face teams who play better than City did on Wednesday. Despite that, it is still hard to look past Bayern being favourites to retain their league and Champions League titles.
What's sure is that it will be fun seeing how teams try to stop them