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Bayern Munich reach near perfection in Eternal City

Bayern Munich's players celebrate in front of the travelling support at full-time. Photograph: Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images

Bayern Munich’s players celebrate in front of the travelling support at full-time. Photograph: Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images

Written by Chris Winterburn

Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4

Every so often you see something in football that makes your jaw drop, yet next to no words follow. FC Barcelona’s comprehensive domination of Manchester United in the 2011 European Cup final was one such occasion, as was Germany’s 7-1 victory over hosts Brazil in the semi-final of this summer’s World Cup. Last night Bayern Munich forced another such moment with their 7-1 victory over AS Roma at the Stadio Olimpico, a scoreline which nobody could have predicted.

It was by no means a surprise that Bayern Munich won, that isn’t the issue, it was clear before kick-off that Pep Guardiola’s side has a wealth of talent however this wasn’t a mismatch on paper. Roma, despite finishing second in Serie A last season, are perhaps, due to the exit of Antonio Conte at Juventus, the best team in Italy. Under Rudi Garcia, Roma have returned to Europe’s top table and can be considered, quite fairly, an elite team.

Bayern Munich, however were on another level in the Italian capital last night. It was quite captivating just how close the Bavarian giants came to reaching football perfection, a description solely reserved for Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team in more recent times.

Throughout last season Bayern Munich were impressive, winning the Bundesliga title, German Cup and reaching the last four of the European Cup. It is fair to say that in spite of all that success there was always a feeling that something just hadn’t quite clicked into place as yet, this is by no means a criticism of Bayern as adapting to a new coach, especially one as unique and demanding as Pep Guardiola, is always likely to take time.

Last night however felt to me like the line in the sand performance. The moment where Bayern have entered that sphere that most football teams are never able to, the sphere that Guardiola’s Barcelona reached between 2009 and 2011. Everything seemed to click into place.

Interestingly enough it was Roma who started the match the better with the hosts galvanised by Manchester City’s rather inexplicable failure to hold onto a 2-0 lead away in Moscow. A victory from Roma would have sent the Italians to the top of the group with qualification a serious possibility. Gervinho was busy running through the gap of Boateng and Benatia in Bayern’s back four and Rudi Garcia’s side were comfortable in possession inside their own half.

Of course this was just a five to six minute period but it looked as if we were in for a classic cagey, yet enthralling, European tie.

Then with what seemed like a flick of a switch Bayern turned things up a gear. Arjen Robben received the ball inside Roma’s penalty area and punished Ashley Cole for showing him inside to a shooting lane in the most emphatic way possible. Robben arrowed the ball past Morgan De Sanctis and into the far corner. This is the moment Pep changed the game.

The first shot of celebration on camera was between Guardiola and Neuer however it was more a case of Guardiola giving Neuer instructions. One of the keys to Guardiola’s success as a coach has been a quick pressing game and a high defensive line. Bayern’s defensive line had actually been uncharacteristically deep until the goal, to the visible frustration of Guardiola on the touchline, and it appeared that Neuer had been instructed to tell the defence to push up and thus start controlling the game as well as pushing further forward himself.

From this moment we saw a totally different shape from the visitors. Bayern’s defensive line pushed right up to the half-way line and penned Roma into their half.

Two of Roma’s most influential players, Francesco Totti and Miralem Pjanic were taken completely out of the game. This was the beauty of Bayern’s tactical switch. Roma now had no single outlet to retain possession or possibility to clear the ball and regain their own shape.

The only thing Bayern had to worry about was Gervinho nipping into the space between the two centre-halves and beating the offside trap however this is not a sustainable model of attack given the 50/50 nature of being called offside. Again another means of Bayern holding control.

Boateng and Benatia sat on the halfway line whilst Juan Bernat and Xabi Alonso pressed with speed and penned Totti and Pjanic into a small circle just inside the left side of Roma’s half, thus taking them out of the game completely. With Roma’s midfield bypassed, Bayern could solely focus on attacking and putting pressure on the two full-backs, Torosidis and Cole, who were both enduring nightmare performances.

Singling out one player can fully illustrate Bayern’s development as a team under Guardiola. Xabi Alonso’s pressing work in the midfield was surprisingly quick for a player not known for his speed. In his position last season was Toni Kroos, a player whom Pep Guardiola was hugely reliant on during that period. However one of Kroos’ weaknesses is his physical attributes, he isn’t an energetic midfielder and doesn’t have the tools to press quickly and then regain a shape.

His outstanding talents all come with the ball at his feet, which in a Guardiola team, may be too one dimensional to excel. With Alonso’s willingness to press came a tactic which took Roma’s midfield out of the game and allowed Bayern to show their footballing dominance in the form of seven goals.

An illustration of Bayern's effective high defensive line. Totti and Pjanic are totally cocooned inside the small red circle, outnumbered by the trio of Bernat, Boateng and Benatia. Alonso and Bernat's pressing work ensure that the pair have no time on the ball as well as forcing Roma deeper and deeper towards their penalty area.

An illustration of Bayern’s effective high defensive line. Totti and Pjanic are totally cocooned inside the small red circle, outnumbered by the trio of Bernat, Boateng and Benatia. Alonso and Bernat’s pressing work ensure that the pair have no time on the ball as well as forcing Roma deeper and deeper towards their penalty area.

What followed was a football team hitting their absolute peak and an opposition team having absolutely no answer. The shots rained in on De Sanctis’ goal and despite a drop in intensity in the middle period of the second-half, the final score could have read a lot worse than 7-1 from a Roman perspective.

Guardiola was keen to urge caution following last night’s result, claiming Bayern “must do better” before labelling the scoreline “an exception” however you would expect nothing less from a coach always in pursuit of total perfection. Last night we saw a football team with natural talent that we have been aware of for the past 2-3 years, however we saw the first real moment of total acclimatisation to Guardiola’s system and one which cannot be reversed and for the rest of Europe, that is indeed a worrying prospect.

Arsenal bow out as Atleti cruise through: Champions League Diary 12.03.14

Arsenal’s European adventure is over for another year following yesterday evening’s 1-1 draw with holders Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena. The visitors needed to overturn a 2-0 deficit from the first leg at the Emirates just over three weeks’ ago to progress through to the quarter-final stage for the first time since 2010.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was one of the bright sparks of Arsenal's display with the midfielder showing he could match the very best in Europe.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was one of the bright sparks of Arsenal’s display with the midfielder showing he could match the very best in Europe.

Last night’s match had a lot of similarities to the meeting between the two sides in Germany last year in that Arsenal were more than a match for the Bavarian giants and it was only the first leg result which really did the damage for Arsene Wenger’s side. Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey were obvious misses in the midfield but Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlain did particularly well in their absence.

Bayern Munich set up in what has become their traditional 4-2-3-1 system which can fluidly turn into a 4-1-4-1 formation with Thiago Alcantara a drifting member of both the holding midfield pairing and an attacking midfield four. Thiago, whilst impressive on the ball, had his influence on the match restricted by the running of Oxlade-Chamberlain in defensive zones with the former Southampton winger more than willing to track Thiago back into Arsenal’s defensive area to ensure the visitors did not become overrun courtesy of a numerical mismatch.

Schweinsteiger’s return to the starting eleven saw the much talked about Toni Kroos drop to the bench and there was a notable change in the variety and consistency of Bayern’s movement of possession without Kroos dictating the play. If anything the first half was where Bayern looked at their weakest, if you can really say that about this current Bayern side, in the midfield and if Arsenal had been a bit more gung-ho in the first half then maybe taking the lead would have been possible.

One of the interesting pre-match quotes taken from Pep Guardiola’s interview to promote Adidas Gamedayplus, was his suggestion that German teams in the past struggle to defend a positive first leg result in European competition, “When they are going to defend our result, to defend something, they are not so good, so I improve that since I am here.” This desire to improve Bayern’s ability to defend a lead was evident last night with the positioning of the Germans’ back four.

The defensive line held a very tight shape and pushed up no further than the edge of the centre circle when Bayern had the ball in and around Arsenal’s penalty area. There was absolutely no risks being taken by Bayern in terms of defenders pushing up to try and win the ball back quickly and the only real breach of the hosts’ defences was Oxlade-Chamberlain’s incisive run before being fouled midway through the first half.

Oxlade-Chamberlain’s performance was one of the numerous positives Arsenal can take from yesterday evening. It was reminiscent of Jack Wilshere’s performance against Barcelona in February 2011 when the then nineteen year old put in a sterling display against the world’s finest midfield and really proved he could mix it with the best. Whilst there was not much in creating clear chances from Oxlade-Chamberlain last night, such was the strength in Bayern’s defensive line, it very much showed he was more than capable of competing with the best and being on par with the Bayern Munich midfield on the biggest stage.

One of the areas where you felt Arsenal might have a chance was on set pieces, yes whilst Arsenal are not renowned for their aerial prowess the inclusion of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, both excellent headers of the ball, gave the Gunners a chance. However Arsenal were simply caught between a rock and a hard place due to being up against the most physically domineering goalkeeper in recent memory. If the ball was played in flat, looking for a flick on at the near post it was too easy for Neuer to muscle players out of his way and collect whilst if the corner was played further away from Neuer, past the penalty spot, the header could not pick up enough power to test the German number one with a prime example of this being Koscielny’s header in the second half.

Bayern Munich looked to have killed the tie completely when Schweinsteiger put the home side ahead with a controlled finish from inside the penalty area after some impressive work from Franck Ribery on the left hand side however Arsenal levelled just minutes after through Lukas Podolski after a collision with Philipp Lahm allowed the Arsenal striker a free run and strike at Neuer’s goal.

Try as they might for the remaining half hour, Arsenal could not muster a real crack at Bayern’s goal despite some good possession of the periphery of Munich’s penalty area as once again the Bavarian defence held firm. Arsene Wenger bemoaned the decision to award Bayern Munich a penalty in injury time, when Laurent Koscielny felled Arjen Robben, claiming the Dutchman “is very good at getting the maximum of nothing and he is a great player and as well a very good diver,” however Lukasz Fabianski stopped Thomas Muller’s spot kick.

Arsenal now only have the Premier League title race and FA Cup semi-final to concentrate out but with the squad likely to improve in the summer and with the two performances against the continent’s best this season there is hope for Arsenal’s European campaign next year.

In the second match of the evening, AC Milan travelled to the Vicente Calderon to try and overturn a 1-0 deficit from the first leg against Atletico Madrid. Things did not get off to the best of starts for the Milanese giants as Diego Costa put the home side in front after just three minutes with a clever volley. Milan levelled through Kaka just before the half hour and a short spell of control followed for Seedorf’s charges however any real hope of turning the tie around was destroyed just before half-time when Arda Turan’s strike from outside the box took a wicked deflection into the Milan net.

Kaka battles with Atletico's Miranda during last night's Champions League clash.

Kaka battles with Atletico’s Miranda during last night’s Champions League clash.

All the momentum from Milan’s comeback was taken away and the team struggled to put the wind back into their sails in the second half, Mario Balotelli was particularly disappointing as rumours about his future in the fashion capital of Italy continue to make headlines. Further goals from Raul Garcia and then Diego Costa late on condemned Milan to a 5-1 aggregate loss and the end of their run in the Champions League for this season. The real worry for Milan is that sitting in tenth place, a whole twenty points of AS Roma in third, all but ensures that this will be their last action in Europe’s top competition for at the very least a full season.

This evening Manchester City look to succeed where Arsenal failed by overturning a first leg 2-0 deficit at the Camp Nou however with both teams suffering embarrassing defeats at the weekend this could well be a nervy affair. The return of Sergio Aguero will however give even the most pessimistic Manchester City supporter a glimmer of hope of a quarter-final birth. Bayer Leverkusen will be very much in damage control mode this evening as they head to Paris on the back of a 4-0 defeat in the first match.

Written by Chris Winterburn

Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4

Pep Guardiola keen for Toni Kroos stay and hopeful of Bayern progression

As the 2013-2014 season progresses one of the transfer rumours which simply won’t go away is one involving Bayern Munich’s metronomic midfielder Toni Kroos. Kroos, whose contract in Bavaria is up at the end of the 2014-2015 season, has been repeatedly linked with a cut price move to Manchester United this summer with the German midfielder desiring a wage similar to that given to Bayern Munich’s other stars.

Pep Guardiola spoke about tonight's match with Arsenal and his desire to keep Toni Kroos to promote Adidas Gamedayplus.

Pep Guardiola spoke about tonight’s match with Arsenal and his desire to keep Toni Kroos to promote Adidas Gamedayplus.

Despite words from Franz Beckenbauer alluding to the fact Bayern Munich will not be held to ransom by one player, and that the club will therefore not break its wage structure to keep one player happy it still seems as though a re-signing with Bayern Munich is the most likely outcome for Toni Kroos, especially when you consider the recent endorsements from manager Pep Guardiola with the Spaniard believed to desperately want to keep the midfielder at the club.

“Toni played awesome but not just in this game [vs Arsenal], the whole season. We had a lot of problems at the beginning of the season in our midfield because we had a lot of injuries and I hope he maintains this level until the end of this season.”

With the long-term fitness of Bastian Schweinsteiger not clear after a run of numerous injuries of the past two seasons, and with Pep Guardiola possibly having the long term plan to utilise Javi Martinez as a central defender, as he wanted to when he was in charge at FC Barcelona, there is very much a key place in the midfield belonging to Toni Kroos. Obviously there is competition for places in the Bayern Munich squad with such an array of talent in all areas but if you were going to look at the most important players, the spine of the team if you will then you have to include Toni Kroos in that.

The former Hansa Rostock youth midfielder is so centric to what Guardiola has thus far accomplished at Bayern. It was always impossible to improve on a treble winning season, however the real task for the two time UEFA Champions League winning coach was to make Bayern a sustainable entity, to improve them in areas which ensured they could challenge for the top honours every season without relying on individual brilliance, and he has done that. Kroos controls the tempo of Bayern’s play from either a deep position or a position further up the field as we saw recently against Schalke, where he made 142 passes in a 5-1 victory. Furthermore, as Guardiola states, he was tremendous at the Emirates just under three weeks’ ago working as a calming presence and moving the ball into good areas to take control away from Arsenal following the opening ten minute spell.

Kroos’ goal was an example of his individual brilliance, a perfectly struck shot which started off going way wide of the left hand post and somehow curled into the top corner. A true sign of how good the strike was is how goalkeeper Fabianski clattered into the post in an attempt to keep it out and was still somehow nowhere near it.

Guardiola was also discussing this evening’s tie with Arsenal with the current holders of the Champions League being two goals to the good after the first leg in London.

“We will be respectful, because in knockout games when we play against Arsenal or other teams, all of the people around the world think Arsenal know they are out of this competition already. It’s not true. I’m pretty convinced of that.”

Guardiola finally gave a closing word on how he is looking to change the traditional German approach to knockout ties when you have a lead to defend,

“Bayern last year took a better result than this year so 1-3 is better than 0-2.The Deutschland culture for the mentality, they are so good when they are aggressive, when they are going to look for something, to take something. When they are going to defend our result, to defend something, they are not so good, so I improve that since I am here.”

This is definitely one of the areas I mentioned earlier where Guardiola can improve the team to give this current Munich squad long-term sustainability at the highest level.

“Pep Guardiola was speaking to promote adidas Gamedayplus, bringing together the best of the UEFA Champions League in one place. To find out more visit adidas.com/gamedayplus or join the twitter conversation @adidasfootball”

Written by Chris Winterburn

Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4