The Champions League has returned with a bang, but not for the same reasons as usual. We regularly see Spain’s top two teams and the English teams stroll through the first round of the knockout stage, but this year is different. Barcelona looked poor against Napoli; Juventus failed to have a shot on target against Lyon, and data lovers’ favourite team, Atalanta, absolutely walked over Valencia. The holders Liverpool managed to lose their first leg against Atletico Madrid; while Pep Guardiola managed to completely out-smart Zidane to take his Manchester City side into the second leg with a 2-1 advantage.
Manchester City’s victory was unbelievable, considering the XI that was selected. But for now, we’ll stick to the most interesting talking point which came out of the first group of games, being the impressive performances by the German teams. RB Leipzig, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund all won their matches against Tottenham, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain respectively, with a combination of the right tactics and player quality.
We’ll start with Bayern Munich, who disposed of Chelsea in such a comfortable fashion. When comparing the line-ups and the players available, it’s hard to even call this a challenge for the Bundesliga champions. Chelsea was missing their best midfielder in Kante, their best winger in Pulisic and Tammy Abraham wasn’t fully fit. Even though Bayern was still playing Alaba at centre-half, since Sule is out with a long term injury and Hernandez isn’t at 100%, the rest of Bayern’s team were first-choice.
Bayern took a straightforward route in this game, with the forward four very close together and was waiting from quick, long balls from the midfield. Thiago and Kimmich would consistently drop between the defenders and send a long ball straight to Lewandowski or Muller, with Coman and Gnabry close by to support them. This worked so well because Chelsea looked so disorganised, and Bayern playing quickly forced them to consistently make the wrong decisions. Coman’s early chance manifested thanks to Barkley losing the ball in midfield, and as soon as Coman receives the ball, Rudiger and Christiansen quickly run towards him, opening a one-two between the Frenchman and Muller.
Muller was by far the best player on the night. Repeatedly, he would look to receive the ball around the 18-yard box, to drag players towards him and open up space for Gnabry or Coman. The German ended the game with the most shot assists (5) and had some of Bayern’s best chances to increase that lead.
The other reason for Bayern’s dominant performance was their quick counter-attacks. Whenever Thiago or Kimmich would retrieve the ball in midfield, their first thought would be to look up for one of their teammates in space or making a forward run. If not, they’d play it back to the defenders and wait for the opportunity to arise. Bayern’s first two goals came from these same scenarios. Thiago recovers the ball and quickly plays the ball to a running Gnabry, who spots Lewandowski making a run into the channel. Gnabry passes the ball, but instead of shooting, Lewandowski smartly plays the ball back into Gnabry path, ultimately catching the Chelsea defence off-guard.Embed from Getty Images
As mentioned, Chelsea did play a weak line-up, and Bayern benefitted from that. Mount, Barkey and Giroud were occupying the same spaces throughout the game and made life so easy for Bayern’s defenders. Giroud did have some moments that did trouble an old Boateng and Alaba. But Chelsea’s lack of width enabled them to stay very tight and force Chelsea to create low-quality chances. It was reminiscent of the number of times Bayern played Arsenal and effortlessly beat them. Bayern loves playing London-based teams.
Let’s move onto Rasenballsport Leipzig and their 1-0 win at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. This was Germany’s most infamous club’s first game in the round of sixteen and demonstrated why they should be playing at this level every year.
Going into the game, some of the pundits made comments on the nickname Nagelsmann received when he broke onto the managerial scene; ‘Mini Mourinho.’ I still don’t know how he got this nickname, but I’m not too fond of it. Nagelsmann is the complete opposite of Mourinho in how football is played. Mourinho is completely reactive; aiming to neutralise the opposition and relying on his attacking players to figure it out for themselves. Nagelsmann looks to win the ball higher up the pitch, catching his opponent at their most vulnerable. There’s a lot of consistent patterns you’ll see in his teams. His Leipzig team is direct and able to attack with speed. The German tactician prefers the use of diagonal long balls since they can cause dysfunction with their unpredictability. Nagelsmann ensures his players know their roles in the team.
Leipzig was outstanding against Tottenham, but they shouldn’t have been allowed to be that good. The first half was a story of Tottenham giving Leipzig the time to transition at their own pace, with Ampadu having the time and space to send long balls into the wingers and full-backs to quickly move the ball into the final third. The only time I even noticed Tottenham try to press was when you’d see one of the wide central-midfielders run to quickly close down Angelino or Mukiele, which cause problems too. It left one of the forward players open to receive a through ball or a quick pass to their feet. It was a very classic Mourinho performance in a knockout game; begging that opposition wouldn’t punish them for their passive defending, and hope their forwards could do something to win the game.Embed from Getty Images
I can sympathise with Mourinho with the number of players he was missing with injuries, but Nagelsmann faced issues as well. Granted, they weren’t as high-profile as missing the likes of Kane or Son; however, any team missing Upamecano, Konate and Orban, Leipzig’s starting centre-halves, was going to be weaker. Nagelsmann had to play Klostermann and Halstenburg, two full-backs, in a back-three alongside Welsh youngster Ethan Ampadu, who’s barely kicked a ball on loan at Leipzig.
What was most problematic for Tottenham was the speed in which Leipzig was transitioning. Nagelsmann’s players were hitting the ball quickly into the front three, or using Sabitzer and Angelino’s excellent dribbling ability to take advantage of the space a defensive Tottenham team were giving. It was the most dominant 1-0 victories in recent memory, with Leipzig arguably deserve more than the single goal they bring back to Germany. Werner had an excellent chance in the first half, while Schick had a couple of fantastic opportunities to sink any hope Tottenham had of advancing to the next stage.
Part of me did expect Leipzig to struggle in this game. They’ve been second best in most of their top of the table clashes on the domestic scene. They did face a lot more shots in this game than expected, but that was because they had their away goal. They weakened their press in the final half-hour of the game, with stakes in the league remaining. My worry for Leipzig in the second leg is how they’ll approach it. Mourinho has nothing to lose in this game, meaning Tottenham have to attack away from home. Does Leipzig allow them to and hit them on the break once space appears, or bring the game to them again? It’ll be fascinating to see.
And last but certainly not least; Borussia Dortmund managed an imposing 2-1 victory over one of the favourites, Paris Saint-Germain. Lucien Favre nailed his game plan for this season-defining fixture. He attempted to thwart Tuchel’s ambitions for the season through attacking down their flanks, which are covered by the defensively poor Larvin Kurzawa on the left, and Thomas Meunier on the right. Dortmund was pressing high up the pitch, aiming to win the ball and counter-attack exceptionally quickly, putting PSG in uncomfortable positions. Dortmund was helped by the sheer quality of their forward line, with Sancho finding space all around the opposition third and Haland’s speed and power being too much for the PSG defenders to handle at times.Embed from Getty Images
You could easily write off Bayern and Leipzig’s wins to inferior opposition; teams who were missing key personnel and were always going to struggle. But Dortmund’s win was different and helped prove a point to why the German clubs have been the most impressive. One area that PSG will always get criticised for is their mentality. Why do they always look so good in Ligue 1 and in the group stage, but ultimately falter when facing teams in the knockout rounds? This same point was brought up yet again after this game. Dortmund was prepared and stuck to their game plan, while PSG looked overreliant on their attacking stars to bail them out of trouble again. A lot of this goes down to the newly found competitive nature of the Bundesliga this season. Last season, Dortmund did manage to take Bayern pretty far into the season, but that was because Bayern’s misfortune, instead of Dortmund deserving it. Dortmund responded to their second-place finish through adding experienced guys like Hummels, Brandt and Hazard; and extra additions in Haland and Can arriving in the winter. Not only have Dortmund had to go up against Bayern in the league, as per usual. But RB Leipzig took steps forward in challenging for a title; Borussia Monchengladbach had a solid start to the season, and Bayer Leverkusen have even stayed pretty close to the top of the table. Dortmund had struggled in December, which forced a change to the 3-4-2-1, to help keep the team less vulnerable at the back, while getting the best out of Hakimi, Hummels and Sancho.
The more significant point is Dortmund had to make critical acquisitions and changes to their system to improve the team, and they wouldn’t have noticed those issues had their domestic opponents not exposed them. PSG do not have that kind of luxury. They are so far ahead of their domestic opponents in every regard that it can be challenging to have systems and new ideas adequately tested, to know if they would work against better opponents.
This is the main reason to why the three Bundesliga clubs have looked so good in this year’s competition. The overall improvement in the opposition they face has forced German teams to improve in every regard on the pitch. There are more games where the big teams have to extensively prepare for, to certify their credentials for the title. Dortmund’s expensive pursuit for the title; Leipzig and Gladbach picking up the most promising coaching talents in Europe, and Bayern going back to what made them so good is not only good for themselves, but it keeps their opponents on their toes.