Yesterday, defending Champions League winners FC Bayern took on England's Manchester City in the most fascinating matchup of the tournament so far. The German side proved themselves the world's best by traipsing through the tournament last year, and only improved in the offseason. They brought on Pep Guardiola, who managed Barcelona from 2008-2012, when they were hailed by many as the best team ever. They also bought Mario Götze and Thiago Alacântara, creative midfielders whom many of the best teams in the world lusted after, and who can't play their way into the Bayern starting lineup.
City want to be the best in the world, and they've spent well over half a billion pounds on players alone since 2007 to do so. But they haven't done anything in continental competition, and results this year against Premier League teams like Cardiff City and Aston Villa raised eyebrows all over the world. Yesterday's home stand against Bayern was deemed a litmus test—a chance to see, after another nearly £100 million offseason, a 4-1 beatdown laid upon Manchester United, and a couple of flukey losses, how close they really are to their goal of being crowned best team in the world.
It turns out that they're not that close.
FC Bayern are almost perfect. They're undefeated in the Bundesliga, have only been held scoreless once out of their last 73 matches, and rarely even concede. Most teams on their best day wouldn't beat them. But City are different. The English side boast some of the best players in the world, and they're so deep that their second 11 could challenge for Europe in the Premier League. That's why they always finish near the top of the table. But as impressive as excelling during the torturous, 38-match domestic season is, this is a completely different challenge. (Look at Liverpool, for example, who finished fifth in the Premier League in 2005 but won the Champions League, or Chelsea in 2012, who finished sixth but somehow outlasted FC Bayern in the tournament final.) The Champions League is won on tactics and matchups. To beat a squad as good as Bayern, everyone has to perform, from the players on the pitch to the manager. So the match was lost for City before the first whistle.
Bayern have been playing in the 4-3-3 with which Guardiola revolutionized the game half a decade ago, while City generally employ a 4-4-2. The home team started forwards Edin Džeko and Sergio Agüero up top, and selected Yaya Touré and new signing Fernandinho to play in the center of the park against Bayern's midfield trio of Toni Kroos, Bastian Schweinsteiger and captain Philipp Lahm. Generally, the spine of City's lineup is their strength, but by sacrificing a central forward to drop another man in the midfield, Bayern outnumbered City. When building up play, the Germans always had an extra man free as a release valve from the back line, or to collect the ball and switch the ball to either wing, or to bomb forward and join striker Thomas Müller in the attack on the counter. Even more important than that, though, is the defensive advantage an extra man in the midfield affords.
The 4-4-2 is most effective when teams can get the ball wide to their wingers. The two strikers then essentially have one-on-one matchups against opposing center backs, which can be exploited with good service from outside. But a team that uses a 4-3-3 wants to cut off the outside. Often, their wingers will sit wide on the outside backs, forcing the ball inside toward the central midfielders, where the 4-3-3 has the distinct advantage. What made Barcelona so terrifying, and what we're seeing now from Guardiola's Bayern side, is their pressure. They press as a team hard and high up the field to force turnovers and funnel the ball toward the center. Whenever City's midfielders got the ball, wingers Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben collapsed, essentially compressing and choking the midfield between their back four and attacking players like a vise. With Džeko and Agüero pushing up against the Bayern defenders instead of dropping deeper into midfield for support, City never had a chance, and Bayern dominated possession. It only took them seven minutes to score, when right back Rafinha played a diagonal ball across the pitch to Ribéry on the left side of the pitch. City right back Micah Richards did not pressure the ball, so the Frenchman cut inside on his right and unleashed a shot which beat keeper Joe Hart from 25 yards.
It was a soft goal that Hart should've saved, but at half, Bayern led 1-0.
City were still in it when the clubs switched sides, but the scoreline didn't tell the whole story. Bayern looked completely and utterly unbeatable, both mesmerizing and horrifying to watch. Bayern have been one of the most consistent, effective teams in the world over the past few seasons, but Guardiola's short, dynamic tiki-taka passing style at Barça was seen by some as the ultimate realization of what soccer could be. The Spanish kings were built for it, and their core players like Messi, Xavi, and Andrés Iniesta were raised from childhood to play and perfect the style. Guardiola has implemented the style at Bayern, partly by electing to go with two attacking midfielders and an anchor instead of a slightly more conservative and more common 4-2-3-1. This way they have more players pressuring higher, but they also have an extra player available to link up with the front three. This isn't Barcelona, though. Guardiola inherited his players, who were handpicked by a different manager who employed different tactics. So what you actually get now with players of this quality is versatility, fluidity, the ability to switch styles within a single match, or half, or possession. That's how Bayern got their second goal in the 56th minute:
After possessing along on the left side, center back Dante received the ball and lifted his head, saw Müller, and found the forward with a perfect diagonal ball over the top to spring the striker free. What tiki-taka does is suck players in. If you pause the video when Dante receives the ball, you can count 15 field players in the frame. City dropped off, collapsing inward to mark the seven Bayern players around the ball. This left Dante free to pick out the perfect pass to Müller. It's almost unfair that a defender who has this in his locker gets to pass it to Müller, who moves without the ball better than virtually anyone else in the sport.
Müller drifted wide of City left back Gaël Clichy, who was watching the ball, completely impervious to what was going on on his back shoulder. Müller tiptoed along the offside line behind Clichy, who was so focused on the ball he completely lost track of his position on the pitch. He expected Hart to claim the lofted pass, but instead it fell to the feet of the striker, who dribbled the ball past the keeper into the net.
Just three minutes later, Bayern completed the rout to make it 3-0 with a goal off the counter.
Fernandinho tried to carry the ball out of the back, but dribbled directly into Bayern's trio of midfielders. Toni Kroos picked his pocket, and because the Germans pressed high, Robben was already available on the right to start the counter. The rapid winger dribbled himself, setting the center back up with a touch to his favored left foot, before cutting back to his notoriously weak right and beating Hart near post.
It was the worst in a day full of bad errors for Hart, but the goal was only made possible by Bayern's pressure and new look 4-3-3.
The Germans took their foot off the gas, and 11 minutes before time, substitute City forward Álvaro Negredo scored a nice goal to pull one back. In the 86th, City almost made it 3-2 when, after Bayern defender Jerome Boateng was sent off for his second yellow, City's David Silva smacked the crossbar with the ensuing free kick. But 3-2 would've been an almost offensive result for a team who dominated the match from the second they stepped on the field.
If you like soccer, then watching Bayern is porn. Sado porn, maybe, but that stuff comes in the black bag, too. They're a different class, already the world's best and conducting tactical alchemy to further distance themselves from the pack. City—more expensive, talented, and ambitious than any other team in the Premier League—were throughly outcoached and outplayed. Just as we're not sure what the Cardiff City loss tells us about the Citizens and their hunt for silverware this year, there's not a whole lot to be gleaned yet except that they are nowhere near good enough, top to bottom, to supplant the best team in the world. But who is?
Photo Credit: Associated Press