Barcelona and Bayern Munich were both expected to win the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal ties and both failed to do so, drawing 1-1 on Tuesday evening. Their adversaries -- Atlético Madrid and Manchester United -- both executed their gameplans well, but they were aided by dubious team selections by their opponents.
Cesc Fabregas and Thomas Müller probably shouldn't have started for their respective teams, and it was no surprise when the adjustments made after both players were subbed off led to goals for their teams less than five minutes after they exited the pitch.
Pep Guardiola and Gerardo Martino deserve some criticism for their team selections, but every manager chooses a bad lineup occasionally, and these two aren't serial offenders. Their initial lineup decisions were wrong, but they should be praised for being willing to make the obvious changes at crucial moments in the game.
The Müller problem
The 'false 9' role was popularized by Francesco Totti and Luciano Spalletti's Roma teams, but perfected by Guardiola and Lionel Messi at Barcelona. Pep has done a good job of easing Bayern into his philosophy, making sure not to sacrifice too much of what made them great over the last two seasons while he implements a more possession-based style, but he has tinkered with the center forward's role quite a bit. Müller and Mario Götze have gotten runs as a false 9, but the first choice man has been Mario Mandžukić.
Because he's good at dropping deep to pick up the ball and distribute, in addition to being 6'2 and a very good header of the ball, Mandžukić is the perfect player to transition Bayern from what they used to be into what Pep wants them to be long term. And he's clearly interested in continuing on this path instead of turning Götze or Müller into a full-time poor man's Messi, since Bayern have signed Robert Lewandowski -- basically a slightly better version of Mandžukić -- for next season.
But, for some reason, Pep opted for Müller up top. It didn't make a lot of sense, given that United were expected to defend deep, but not quite pack the midfield. Additionally, first choice fullbacks Patrice Evra and Rafael were unavailable, so Bayern were going to have a lot of opportunities to win one-on-one battles down the flanks and get crosses into the box. They actually did that pretty frequently, but despite his height -- 6'1 -- Müller is very mediocre in the air. He had no chance to win aerial duels against Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.
Bayern fans were understandably confused about Müller's selection.
Yo why didn't Mandzukic start— rekordmeister (@_rekordmeister) April 1, 2014
After the game, Jamie Jackson of The Guardian penned a column where he extolled the virtues of Müller in the false 9 role and how he exemplifies Guardiola's ideas about how his team should play. The added emphasis is mine.
The man preferred to Mario Mandzukic as Pep Guardiola's "false No9" was constantly busy, drifting in and out of the classic centre-forward's berth to make the extra man in midfield his coach so loves. The sight of Ferdinand marking Müller, then having to drop off as he ran into pockets created by the constant movement of team-mates, offered a microcosm of the Guardiola philosophy.
Ferdinand dropping off is, in fact, the exact opposite of the result Müller's movement was supposed to produce. Jackson would have been correct in his analysis if Manchester United had any intention of winning a possession battle against Bayern, but they were doing exactly the opposite. They were happy to let Bayern have possession all match while they sat in their shape and looked for opportunities to play the ball to Danny Welbeck in space. Because United's defenders weren't chasing Müller into midfield, there was no space for players to run into. And even if there was, Müller was looking to help his team keep the ball more than he was to pick out runs into the box from Toni Kroos, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben.
The way Müller played at center forward is only effective if the opposing team is chasing him or trying to win a possession battle, or if Bayern is sitting on a favorable result and wants to kill off the game. He certainly wasn't helping Bayern to score a goal, given how United were playing.
Eventually, Müller was removed for Mandžukić. Three minutes later, Bayern Munich scored off an assist from the Croatian, who did something Müller wasn't doing for his team by heading down a cross for Schweinsteiger to smash into the top corner.
Now Bayern fans are left to wonder how much more smoothly this tie would have gone had he played from the start.
The Cesc problem
When he's on form, Fabregas is vital for Barcelona and one of the most versatile attacking players in the world. He can operate as a deep-lying playmaker, an advanced playmaker or a false 9, and he's proven to be equally adept in all three roles. But he's been in poor form, and his inclusion in Barcelona's team necessitates pushing two superior players out of their best positions -- assuming Xavi is healthy and/or not dropped from the squad.
In order to fit all of Fabregas, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Neymar into the same team, the latter two players need to be shifted into roles they don't play when Fabregas doesn't start. With Fabregas in the advanced playmaker role, the usual advanced playmaker, Iniesta, moves to left forward. That moves Neymar from the left to the right. Positions are less important to a team as fluid to Barcelona than they are to other teams, but the starting positions still matter and have a significant effect on the game.
Fabregas' inclusion went over about as well with Barcelona fans as Müller's did with Bayern supporters. As the second half wore on and Barca went down 1-0, just like Bayern did, it was equally obvious what substitution needed to happen for Barcelona to get something out of the game.
If the Alexis sub isn't for Cesc, I'll just... sigh despondently, I guess.— FCB News&Negativity (@cynicule) April 1, 2014
Sure enough, Alexis Sanchez came on for Fabregas in the 68th minute and slotted into the right forward spot. That moved Neymar to left forward and Iniesta into Fabregas' spot, as the most advanced midfielder. Three minutes later, Iniesta and Neymar combined for Barcelona's equalizer.
And Barcelona fans get to wonder the same thing as the Bayern fans. What if they had gone with this team selection from the start?
Knowing when to keep it simple
Guardiola and Martino are both serial tinkerers who are excellent at making big adjustments -- both from season to season and from game to game. They have general philosophies that they adhere to, but neither is an ideologue. They can make adjustments to suit their personnel and to counter what they think their opponents will do, but those adjustments always fit inside of their framework.
On Tuesday, both managers made extremely similar mistakes. But what makes them good managers is that they were able to recognize that their original gameplans hadn't worked out as expected, and that they needed to go back to their most predictable (and most reliable) set of attackers. And, because they're both good managers, they're going to hit on these unorthodox decisions more often than not in the future.
It's likely that both managers would have been hailed as geniuses if their team selections achieved their purpose and exploited a weakness in their opponents, and there will come a time when they are. Martino and Guardiola will, at some point, pick lineups that make little sense to fans when they're released pre-match, then go on to win a match based on a brilliant tactical adjustment that no one saw coming.
These selections didn't work out, but it won't stop Guardiola and Martino from trying things like this again. Especially since they know they have reliable adjustments in their back pockets.