By Jonathan Wilson
About a month before Borussia Dortmund beat Real Madrid in the semi-finals of the Champions League, their coach, Jurgen Klopp, was asked how his side had twice come out on top of games against Jose Mourinho’s team in the group stage. Easy, he replied: shut down Xabi Alonso and everything else follows.
He must have regretted being so open when Dortmund faced Madrid again, but the principle held true. Xabi Alonso is the player who sets Madrid’s rhythm: the majority of moves flow through him. So Mario Gotze harried him every time Madrid had possession and, when Dortmund got the ball, rapidly trotted off to overload on one flank or the other with Ilkay Gundogan advancing from deep in midfield to monitor Alonso.
Bayern Munich don’t play in quite the same way but their shape is similar to Madrid’s and they have a tendency to play through Javi Martinez. Logic, then, would suggest that if Gotze had been fit, he would have performed a similar role on Martinez to that he performed on his fellow Spaniard Alonso. With Gotze ruled out with a muscle injury, it seems most likely that Marco Reus will move into the centre with Kevin Grosskreutz taking his place on the left.
Gotze is also excellent at pulling wide from that central position to create triangles with the winger and full-back on the flank and that is something Reus must try to emulate, not just for the creative opportunities it offers but for what it may do in unsettling Bayern’s attacking full-backs, Philipp Lahm and David Alaba.
They will have a difficult task anyway with both sides operating with attacking full-backs and wide men who cut in – Alaba and Franck Ribery against Lukasz Piszczek and Jakub Blaszczykowski on one wing, and Lahm and Arjen Robben against Marcel Schmelzer and (probably) Grosskreutz on the other. But it will be made that much harder by the knowledge that Reus is looking to drift behind them every time they go forward.
But that’s all assuming Klopp goes with a 4-2-3-1, his usual formation. Both sides use a 4-2-3-1, both press high up the pitch and look to retrieve the ball early, and both look to dominate possession.
Their respective styles could be described as a more muscular, more aggressive form of tiki-taka. The difficulty, of course, is that both teams can’t control possession.
Bayern, who have been second to Barcelona in possession and pass completion stats for the last two seasons, adapted when they played Tito Vilanova’s side, sitting deeper and playing more on the break. Given recent form, it seems likely that Dortmund, for all their success in pressing Madrid to distraction, will be the ones who cede ground in the final.
Certainly that is the pattern of meetings between the sides this season. Dortmund did play with a 4-2-3-1 in the home draw between the teams earlier this month, but that was very much a phoney war, with the title race decided and neither coach wanting to give too much away before the Champions League final.
Far more relevant is the game before that, a DFB-Pokal match in February. Then, as in the league meeting in December, Klopp seemed to decide that meeting Bayern shape-for-shape, style-for-style would be to play into their hands. Bayern, after all, have won the title by 25 points this season; their squad is stronger and so in a straight fight they are likely to prevail.
In the cup clash, Dortmund were more disciplined, and noticeably more restrained in their pressing. This time Grosskreutz handled Martinez – albeit from a deeper position than Gotze would in a 4-2-3-1 – and Bender picked up Kroos. The problem then, though, was that Bastian Schweinsteiger – and Martinez to an extent – without a central creative midfielder to worry about, were able to push forward, as, surprisingly, did Dante from centre-back. Bayern controlled the first half and, although Dortmund came into the game more as they began pressing in the second, they were still fortunate only to lose 1-0.
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Kroos is currently absent through injury, meaning Thomas Muller will play centrally on Saturday. His ability to find space is vital to how Bayern play, the factor that sets their fluidity in motion. Mario Mandzukic, the central striker, is not as technically gifted as his Dortmund counterpart Robert Lewandowski, but his energy is extraordinary and he will constantly be pulling wide looking to use the space behind the full-backs when they advance.
The way Robben and Ribery operate on the flanks has arguably been Jupp Heynckes' greatest triumph this season: neither are necessarily known for their discipline but both have been persuaded to track the opposing full-back – largely because Kroos’ emergence and the signing of Xherdan Shaqiri mean there are enough options to see them dropped if they didn't follow instructions.
So twice Klopp has tried 4-3-3 against Bayern and twice it hasn’t worked, leaving midfielders untended. Given how well the system worked against Real Madrid and given how Dortmund have had the better of clashes against Bayern (a weaker Bayern, it’s true) in recent seasons, the temptation must be to go back to a 4-2-3-1 – and that means that Reus, trying to replicate Gotze’s role, will be the key figure.
There is a strange sense of destiny behind Dortmund after their astonishing quarter-final victory over Malaga and they are certainly dangerous enough to spring an upset, but Bayern finished 25 points clear in the league and Gotze’s absence makes them even stronger favourites.