City outmanoeuvred by Guardiola’s mini-generals
Germans seemed to be playing eight-man midfield
Bayern Munich’s Thomas Muller goes past Manchester City’s Joe Hart to score during their Champions League match at the Etihad Stadium. Photograph: Reuters
Well, there’s something you don’t see every day. If there were some chastening lessons for Manchester City in the course of one of the more complete 3-1 home defeats you are ever likely to see, there is perhaps some consolation too in both the extent and the nature of Bayern’s superiority in the decisive opening hour.
Franky, there were lessons here for everyone as Bayern produced an alluringly controlled exhibition of football from the near-future. If there were some who questioned what Pep Guardiola could do to refine this team the answer was here at times. Bayern’s midfield, headed up by Thomas Muller in a roving lone striker role, was irresistible. This was Bayern, but a little more so. If the success under Jupp Heynckes was based around the imposing rhythms of that thrummingly high spec midfield, this was never likely to be diluted under Guardiola, who in his wonder years at Barcelona finessed the idea that football is a sport of midfielders, the best teams comprised almost entirely of a collection of strolling mini-generals.
This is the thing about Bayern: they don’t just want to score more goals than you: they want to out-muscle, out-pass, out-run you right through the centre of the pitch. An opposition isn’t simply beaten: it is Bayerned. As was the case here.
City were at times entirely Bayerned as as for long periods the European champions seemed to be playing a de facto eight-man midfield, with both full-backs imperiously pushed on and the revolving central bank of red shirts pushed right up on to City’s defence.
It is an approach City themselves have employed successfully, most recently against Manchester United, who were dominated in midfield through relentless movement and a sense of telescopic athleticism almost entirely absent here.
The contrast was stark, as Bayern’s midfield did to City’s midfield what City’s midfield had done to United’s, depriving them of the ball, moving into space with a fearsomely well-grooved sense of purpose, and without ever seeming hurried out-muscling a midfield that had looked pretty much un-musclable against the English champions two weeks ago.
This was City’s fate in the first half here with Yaya Toure in particular bypassed. Toure remains a coveted presence, a great clanking Iron Man of a midfielder. Here was an opportunity for the Premier League’s own Gulliver to stand up to the Bayern machine, and perhaps to prey on a slightly less tigerish midfield deprived of Javi Martinez.
Fat chance. It was startling to see the Ivorian so clearly outmanoeuvred. Plus there was a Guardiola-flavoured surprise further forward as Muller – attacking midfielder, scruffy-haired wanderer and self-coined “Space Investigator” – started as a central striker. He was the outstanding player on the pitch here, a gloriously intelligent player and a standard bearer, for all his gawky height of grain over brawn at the highest level. It was one of those sudden bursts into activity that helped to create the space that led to Bayern’s first-half goal.
With Gael Clichy drawn inside by Muller’s spin, Rafinha had time to find Franck Ribery with a crossfield pass. His shot was well struck but Hart should have saved it. Bayern do not need a goal’s start, but here they were presented with a floppy-wristed goalkeeping welcome basket.
City drew breath amid a familiar sense of red-shirted suffocation, accompanied, as if to rub it in, by repeated chidings from Guardiola on the sidelines, Bayern’s manager demanding an ever higher passing tempo. To City’s credit they resisted, gaining something of a foothold in the match either side of half-time and pulling a goal back near the end though Alvaro Negredo.
But it was Muller who killed the game on 56 minutes with a horribly simple goal. This time it was the space between Clichy’s ears the Raumdeuter chose to investigate, making a diagonal run past City’s left-back, who watched him go, and nudging the simplest of long passes past Hart. For City there was no disgrace in losing to this Bayern team, who may or may not retain their European crown but who presented at the Etihad a clear sense of a champion team whose strengths have been if anything sharpened and refined.