Quite arguably the most exciting tie of the Champions League’s first knockout round when the draw was made, the meeting of Juventus and Bayern Munich represented the coming together of two real European heavyweights. Both currently top of their domestic leagues and coached by a pair of excellent managers with big ambitions for their respective teams, there was real potential for an incredibly intriguing and exciting set of games between them – and after the first leg it’s fair to say that it’s lived up to those high hopes so far.
Because of the natures of the two teams, Bayern taking charge of the game from the off wasn’t really a surprise. The sheer extent of their control against such a good side perhaps was, though, and they completely dominated the first-half in Turin: not only having circa 70% possession but also, in true Pep Guardiola fashion, controlling space in just as masterful a manner as they kept the ball.
Bayern’s shape under the Spaniard has always been difficult to predict and decipher, but with no centre-backs in the starting eleven it was even more unorthodox (yet also even more interesting) than usual. Instead they had David Alaba and Joshua Kimmich in the middle of defence, Juan Bernat to the left of them, Philipp Lahm on their right, and Arturo Vidal as the lone pivot in what would conventionally be described as a 4-1-4-1 shape. The Juego de Posición principles were in full effect, though, and the variety of positions which these five players took up were the main things that enabled them to create superiorities all over the pitch.
Starting off with Vidal, the Chilean regularly dropped into the backline alongside Alaba and Kimmich to make more of a back three; pretty much always ensuring they had the spare man against Juventus’ two strikers in the Italian side’s 4-4-2 defensive set-up. This not only made circulating possession easier, but also meant that one of them – typically Alaba, but Kimmich did it too – could step forward and carry the ball in a vertical manner with ease.
That staggering of positions between Vidal and the ‘centre-backs’ established the early phases of their possession and gave them a constant route into the midfield zones. The role of the full-backs, then, was to overload the central areas, find gaps in the half-spaces, and to provide movements which could help Bayern’s three deep players turn their possession in deep areas into threatening attacks.
At times the narrowness of Juventus’ midfield four and the vertical compactness of the team as a whole made this challenging, but Bernat and in particular Lahm still had a decent amount of success. Guardiola often designates such a task to his full-backs (like in their 5-1 demolition of Arsenal in the group stage) and it meant they offered great support to Thiago and Thomas Müller in the middle of the pitch, the former providing yet more control while the latter made his trademark ventures into space which 99% of players would never see.
And yet for all that flooding of the central areas, they still had Douglas Costa and Arjen Robben on the wings to offer width and their incredible ability in one-on-one situations. These two almost exclusively hugged the touchline until receiving the ball, stretching their opposition to create a little more space in the centre and offering a route for diagonal switches of play. Most of Bayern’s play was still orientated towards trying to exploit the centre meaning the passes out to them were typically shorter distance ones, but the pair as ever, especially Robben on the right when he was against Patrice Evra, looked lively when they got the ball.
It was a real testament to how good Juventus have been defensively under Max Allegri, then, that they managed to hold Bayern off for so long against such relentless pressure. An unusually poor cutback by Robert Lewandowski to Müller (an opportunity initially created thanks a brilliant vertical pass by Kimmich to Lahm in the right half-space) gave Leonardo Bonucci enough time to clear the ball off the line in the 13th minute, and there were a few other less notable chances between then and the 43rd minute when Bayern eventually took the lead, but for the most part they just about coped.
They may have had no answer to Bayern’s constant creation and finding of the spare man, pressing extremely little and sitting very deep other than in sporadic phases, although as mentioned they did show good compactness in their 4-4-2 shape. The midfield quartet, from left to right, of Paul Pogba, Claudio Marchisio, Sami Khedira and Juan Cuadrado stayed together and made it more difficult for Bayern to play through them, and whenever the German side did manage that they were quick to turn and narrow the space between them and the defence.
Cuadrado also supported Stefan Lichtsteiner well against Costa, the pair doubling up and doing a good job to cope against the Brazilian who has been one of Bayern’s best performing players this season, while Pogba did the same though not quite to the same effect for Evra in their battle with Robben on Juventus’ left. Part of the reason for that was Lahm, the German’s continuous threat in the half-space causing Pogba to have to be incredibly wary of the ball going to both him and the dangerous Robben at the same time – not an enviable task for the midfielder to cover.
Their ball-orientation as a team was decent too, shifting from side to side and preventing the vertical passes which Alaba and Kimmich were looking to make from being too threatening. Bayern’s play as a result was perhaps a bit more pushed towards the wings than they would’ve hoped, where Juventus did well to prevent too many one-on-ones, though again they still dominated to great extent and built up possession superbly.
It wasn’t just with the ball that they controlled things though and, unlike the home side, Bayern counter-pressed with high intensity whenever they were tackled or misplaced a pass. Overloading in the centre so much meant that they always had bodies around the ball, and Juventus were continually outnumbered – leading to the Italian side being rushed into giving away possession and pinning them back even more. Guardiola’s team were slightly more man-orientated than usual, Lahm sticking extremely tight to Pogba in particular, with the French midfielder and the two strikers, Paulo Dybala and Mario Mandžukić, restricted from having much impact on the ball at all.
Those 45 minutes were one of the finest demonstrations of positional play that Bayern have executed under Guardiola, and it was fitting that they eventually scored just before half-time through Müller. After helping to crowd Khedira off the ball on the edge of Juventus’ half, Vidal played a pass through for the German forward to spin behind the midfield in the right half-space. He then played it out wide to Robben, who got to the by-line and crossed the ball towards Costa at the far post; the Brazilian acrobatically keeping it in play while simultaneously providing a cutback into Müller, the master of finding space in the box. He calmly stroked the ball home past Gianluigi Buffon, giving his side the lead which they deserved going into the interval.
It was a very different story for Juventus in an attacking sense though of course, and to make things worse they were forced into a change during half-time – Hernanes coming on for the injured Marchisio in the midfield. They did at least start the second-half in a more promising manner, Dybala and Mandžukić looking more active, but nothing really came of it and play continued much like it was in the opening 45 minutes.
That is until Bayern extended their lead in the 55th minute through Robben, anyway. It was a swift counter-attack which led to them scoring this time, Thiago doing excellently to control the ball, beat his man and play the pass through to Lewandowski. The Polish striker held the ball up, opting not to pass to Müller just ahead of him and instead finding Robben who was making a support run from deep on the right. His pass put the winger very wide inside the box, but, in typical trademark fashion from the 32-year-old, Robben cut inside onto his left foot before firing home to make it 0-2 to the away side.
Rather than maintaining their control and seeing the game out as you’d expect from Bayern after taking a two-goal lead however, there was a fairly sudden shift in momentum around the hour mark. The intensity of their pressing went down, as did their ability to circulate the ball, and Juventus, rather carelessly on the Bavarian team’s part, were gifted a route back into the game.
Allegri’s side do deserve credit themselves for getting into the match again of course, instead of just focusing on Bayern’s errors, and it was their enhanced level of pressing which enabled them the greater access to the ball which they needed to create chances. Much like Bayern in the first-half they began to take up a more man-orientated form of press, Dybala and Mandžukić now being given support from all of the midfield line who pushed higher and helped to disrupt the away side’s build-up play; they hadn’t done that at all in the first-half.
Improvements in their own ball retention also helped. The two centre-backs Andrea Barzagli and Bonucci were very useful in that regard, not delaying when they had the ball and helping to initiate attacks quickly, while Hernanes was similarly swift to distribute possession and keep things ticking. Their asymmetric 4-4-2 shape in possession was more evident too, with Cuadrado making runs forward on the right flank and Pogba drifting towards the centre of midfield from the left – allowing Evra to push forward from left-back and provide the width on that side (they had a very similar attacking shape in their win away from home against Man City in the group stages).
They didn’t establish any form of dominance themselves, but the game becoming open was exactly what they would’ve wanted at this point. Now they were able to attack Bayern’s makeshift defence, and it was that vulnerability of Kimmich at the back which resulted in the first goal that Juventus scored.
Playing in an unusual role for him, the young German had performed very well up until that point. But after misjudging and failing to redirect a hopeful pass from Cuadrado on the right away from goal, he was punished when Mandžukić was quick to react and fed the loose ball through for the lively Dybala to run onto – the Argentine taking it into his stride before coolly slotting past the onrushing Manuel Neuer.
Now only 1-2 behind, the fans in the stadium became livelier and the Juventus players similarly continued to do so. First Cuadrado had a very good chance created for him by Mandžukić after the striker did some good pressing work to dispossess both Kimmich and Vidal, then Pogba curled one narrowly over in the aftermath of the resulting corner that Cuadrado forced. Bayern meanwhile continued to have problems winning the ball back, their half-hearted and not particularly coordinated pressing attempts being easily bypassed, while they struggled to keep the ball against Juventus’ own closing down.
A few substitutions occurred then. First Stefano Sturaro replaced Khedira for Juventus, then they brought Álvaro Morata on for Dybala; Mandžukić presumably staying on, despite playing quite poorly in comparison to him, due to his enhanced aerial ability being a threat against the opposition’s very short backline. Bayern also made a change to try and rectify that weakness of theirs, Bernat being taken off for Medhi Benatia, though it felt a little bit in vain when Juventus scored just two minutes afterwards.
It was however the Croatian striker who helped to create the goal in the 76th minute, Mandžukić hooking a pass over the top towards Morata after some good work by Pogba to get the ball back in Bayern’s half. Morata then headed the ball towards the middle of the box, and his fellow substitute Sturaro latched onto it before Kimmich (who was too slow to react) to equalise. Another defensive error from Kimmich, unfortunately for him, but again it was overall a good performance from him in such an unusual role.
There were no real developments in the tactical state of the game after the equaliser, the rest of the game playing out as the previous 15 minutes or so had done, but Franck Ribéry, slowly being brought back into the team after a spell out injured, did come on for Costa on the left wing. He looked sharp and provided Bayern with a little bit more impetus in the closing stages, something that didn’t reward them with anything though will be a nice boost ahead of the second leg.
After throwing away a two-goal lead Bayern will be disappointed not to have won the game and be in a stronger position ahead of the return in Munich, but Guardiola was very happy with his side’s performance for the most part and he certainly has a right to be. They were utterly brilliant in the opening hour and, even after painfully giving up that lead, two away goals gives them a lot to feel confident about going into the game at the Allianz Arena. Juventus meanwhile should just be glad to still be in the tie – but their hopes are also very much alive. This game was a hell of a lot of fun, and you can fully expect the next one to be exciting as well.