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Tactics: Why Pep Guardiola’s Misuse Of The High Defensive Line Cost Bayern A Place In Two Champions League Finals

Pep Guardiola Bayern Munich
Head coach Pep Guardiola of Muenchen reacts during a friendly match between Karlsruher SC and FC Bayern Muenchen at Wildpark Stadium on January 16, 2016 in Karlsruhe, Germany.

After Bayern Munich’s historic treble in 2013, pundits and the public proclaimed that things would get even better for Die Roten from there on out.

After Jupp Heynckes’ retirement, Bayern were able to snatch up one the best coaches in world football to help guide them to more silverware, Pep Guardiola.

While there was much hype to his appointment, Guardiola has not been able to repeat what Jupp Heynckes did in his brief 2-year stint at the club, reach a Champions League final.

While many wonder why the Spanish coach has not been able to get over the semi-final hurdle, the tactical blunder he committed was his misuse of the high defensive line he implemented to help Bayern’s pressing strategy.

There were two games in consecutive Champions League semi-finals that his high defensive line was exposed, Real Madrid’s 4-0 victory at the Allianz Arena, and Barcelona’s 3-0 victory at the Camp Nou.

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At the Allianz Arena, Guardiola decided to use two central midfielders to control the play as well as push his full-backs up the field to congest Real Madrid in their own defensive half. As usual, Bayern held the lion’s share of possession. But only having both Tony Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger pushing up the field to congest Madrid, when they lost the ball, Bayern’s center-back partnership was ruthlessly exposed by Madrid’s front three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, and Karim Benzema. Guardiola put on Javi Martinez, a true defensive midfielder, in the second-half, but were already down 3-0. Having a defensive midfielder on right from the start would have helped Bayern defensively in preventing and stifling Madrid counter-attacks.

The second reason why the high line failed in this match was the miscommunication between the full-backs and the wingers. Pep Guardiola demands his full-backs to get high up the field to help get the ball back for his side. However, it only works when the offensive wingers also do their part on the defensive side. Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery didn’t have the same defensive discipline as they had under Jupp Heynckes. As a result, Philipp Lahm and David Alaba were caught out of position with no defensive cover countless times during the match, with Madrid’s wing play taking full advantage of it.

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At the Camp Nou in 2015, it was much of the same. Bayern again played without a defensive midfielder to protect the back-line from counter-attacks. That responsibility was bestowed on Xabi Alonso, who is without a doubt, the last of a dying breed, a deep-lying play-maker. Alonso is only useful with the ball at his feet when the play is in front of him. When Bayern were pushing for a vital away goal late in the game, they were caught out numerous times, with Alonso unable to stifle the play in the middle of the pitch. A player like Javi Martinez would have been useful in this situation.

Bayern were also exposed on the wings, with the full-backs caught too far up the pitch with the wingers unable to cover them defensively. This was most evident after Bayern went down 1-0 in the 77th minute. They could have set up shop to keep the result at the time, but the search for a vital away goal made tie slip away from Guardiola’s grasp.

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Certainly, putting in the right personnel and drilling his wingers in covering the full-backs defensively could have made the difference in both matches.

Pep Guardiola’s insistence on keeping a high-defensive line with the wrong personnel has prevented him from reaching a Champions League final, something that is expected from the Bayern board upon his arrival.

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Will Guardiola learn from his mistakes in what is to be his last season in charge of Bayern Munich? Only time will tell if he is given one more chance at rectifying what happened in consecutive Champions League semi-finals.

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