Butterflies and Hurricanes: A close Champions League final that could have gone either way
Edward Lorenz’s discovery that a small change in his weather model failed to produce consistent results, proved to be a focal point in the history of Mathematics.
A negligible change in the initial conditions resulted in a massive change in the result. You might know it better as, the Butterfly Effect.
It could have been Neymar waking up with the Champions League trophy next to him rather than Robert Lewandowski. A small change in the sequence of events could have meant that the Polish striker was the one sobbing after the final whistle.
In a low scoring sport such as football, the result doesn’t frequently match the events. And for all the deserved hype around Bayern Munich, they could have lost the game.
Manuel Neuer failing to make one of his brilliant saves, or Kylian Mbappe managing to strike the ball better towards the end of the first half could have altered the scoreline.
Yet the future is always unknown, and according to the theory mentioned above. A different initial condition where PSG score one of these chances could have meant a different result for them or for Bayern. It goes both ways.
Bayern had chances as well, Lewandowski’s shot that hit the post could have gone in, or the header that was saved by Keylor Navas. In a game as close as this one, only inches made the difference and the result could have gone either way.
Here we are going to assess three tactical points that influenced the flow of the game.
For all the money spent since QSI (Qatar Sports Investments) took over, Paris Saint-Germain repeatedly failed to look like a cohesive unit in the late phases of the Champions League.
This time it was different. For once, PSG felt like a mature side where the individuals’ worth was less than the sum of its parts. Neymar and Mbappe were part of the pressing scheme against RB Leipzig and Bayern Munich. Teaming up with Angel Di Maria, Ander Herrera, Leandro Paredes and Marquinhos, the press was as cohesive as a Ralf Rangnick wet dream.
The scheme used against RB Leipzig hindered the progression of the German side, limiting their options on the ball. Against Bayern it was more of setting a pressing trap where Bayern play a certain ball thinking it’s safe, then PSG collapse.
Di Maria and Neymar were tasked with pressing Bayern centerbacks as Herrera marked the player dropping to assist — usually Thiago. This leaves Alphonso Davies entirely free on the near side of the pitch. That’s the trick, he isn’t. PSG want Bayern to play that ball, then collapse on the Canadian.
Before the ball reaches Davies, Marquinhos has already started his run towards the left back. Davies can’t push forward into space and combine with Kingsley Coman as a result. The ball eventually falls to Thiago Silva who restores possession for PSG.
Minutes after, the pressing shape of Neymar, Herrera and Di Maria is present. Neymar is making a vertical run here to prevent David Alaba from passing into Jerome Boateng and in preparation to press Neuer. Meanwhile Davies is completely free near the touchline.
Neymar’s angled run makes it tough for Neuer to play Boateng and with Alaba and Thiago taken out, he sees the free option of Davies.
Davies again looks free, but he isn’t because PSG are forcing that pass rather than reacting to it. Marquinhos is already set to make the run, not merely reacting to Neuer’s pass.
While the ball is in the air Marquinhos is running at Davies, making him uncomfortable. Davies’ header is odd and despite the ball going out before it reaches him, you can see that the nearest three players to him are Marquinhos, Herrera and Di Maria.
The snippets all look the same. Marquinhos is anticipating that pass into Davies who seems free, while Herrera, Neymar and Di Maria are pressing Thiago, Alaba and Niklas Suele this time.
Neymar again makes an angled run towards Neuer which limits his options to Alaba and Davies. A pass into Alaba is riskier here because of Di maria, so Neuer goes with the forced pass into Davies.
Thilo Kehrer is already moving forward when the ball is halfway through the air. As the ball approaches Davies it feels like the Canadian won’t catch it comfortably. Kehrer holds his position and collects. It’s noticeable again how the three closest players to Davies in case he receives the ball are Kehrer, Marquinhos and Di Maria. Kehrer wasn’t reacting to the ball, he knew Neuer was going to play this pass.
By now Bayern’s build up was hampered and PSG’s pressing denied Bayern total possession of the ball. It’s groundhog day for Neuer. Neymar making an angled run removing Suele out of the equation and Neuer again is forced either into a long pass into Davies or a short risky pass into Alaba. Without the time in top left hand corner you would have thought they were the same images as before.
Neuer goes with the Alaba option this time and the Austrian has Di Maria all over him forcing him into a quick pass into Davies. Before Alaba receives the ball Kehrer is already making his move towards Davies while signalling to Marquinhos to pick up Coman.
Kehrer pounces and retrieves the ball because Davies wanted to one touch back heel it. Probably in awe of the triple threat attack coming his way.
Thomas Tuchel’s pressing trap worked excellently in the first thirty minutes. It forced Bayern into a pass that PSG were already prepared for. Once Bayern played that pass, the trigger was on and PSG pounced.
Attacking the full back space
Prior to the game the only person who haven’t heard of Bayern’s high defensive line is probably my mother — she isn’t that into football unless Mohamed Salah scores.
It’s a risk/reward idea that needs an article of its own. Hansi Flick is aware of it and considering the arsenal of players he has upfront, the reward sometimes pays off. Just a Champions League trophy, nothing serious.
Yet as mentioned above it could have been different.
PSG were regularly seeking that ball behind Joshua Kimmich throughout the first half. That was fully encapsulated by Paredes’ majestic one touch pass into Mbappe.
PSG tried to reach Mbappe multiple times behind Kimmich and the only problem was the final ball. Here, Paredes finds Mbappe in the space and after some hustle and bustle Mbappe’s shot was blocked by Leon Goretzka.
Another situation here where Kimmich is noticeably high and the rest of the Bayern line isn’t, causes problems for the Germans. Marquinhos this time finds Mbappe in the space vacated by Kimmich.
Kimmich is way out of position, forcing Boateng to go out to face Mbappe. Neymar attacks the space between him and Alaba, then only a massively important save from Neuer denies the Brazilian.
The third example here is the origin of Di Maria’s shot that went over the bar. Kimmich is high up the pitch when Bayern lost the ball. The thing here is how PSG move the ball quickly to attack the space behind him. Paredes plays a one touch ball into Herrera…
…Herrera heads into the path of Neymar….
….Mbappe then flicks it with a single touch taking Boateng out of the equation….
Now Neymar is in possession and PSG are in a 3 v 2 scenario. It took them five seconds from their own penalty box and three quick passes to attack the space behind Kimmich who looks lost like an adult trying to learn Mandarin. Di Maria scoring would have been the cherry on top, but he didn’t.
PSG exploited the space behind Kimmich, not by any particular movement but by the quickness of their passes into that space before Kimmich tracked back.
Quick switch of play
A quick switch takes us to Bayern’s side of things. The discrepancy between Kimmich and Davies’ positioning presented an interesting wing play out wide. For the ball to reach them though, Thiago Alcantara’s touch was needed.
Bayern’s quick switch of play often presented them a slight advantage out wide. Similar to the previous section, it was the quickness of the switch before PSG organized themselves. Alaba here plays it into Serge Gnabry’s path.
With Mbappe far from Kimmich, a quick ball into Kimmich would have allowed the German a good opportunity to cross considering the space he has, but Gnabry was slow.
The main architect of this frequent switch of play was Thiago. Here, he switches the ball to the other side into Goretzka, while Kimmich is making a forward run.
Mbappe doesn’t have time to react due to the quickness of the switch. The inside positioning of Bayern’s forwards is also forcing the PSG defenders to position narrowly, leaving space out wide. Goretzka could have headed it into space for Kimmich, but he headed it downwards instead. An opportunity missed, but there was a pattern evolving.
Bayern’s most dangerous chances in the first half originated from this switch of play. Thiago took minimal touches then switched to the other side before PSG’s block moved horizontally. His pass into Davies here was the origin of Lewandowski’s chance that hit the post.
Then another one nine minutes after where Kimmich’s narrow positioning forces Mbappe inside, meaning a switch of play finds Thomas Mueller free on the far side. Another chance for Lewandowski to score that was saved by Navas.
The chances eventually turned into a goal. Kimmich’s narrow positioning was interesting throughout the game as illustrated by Michael Cox in his analysis of the game. The catalyst however was how Thiago quickly played the ball into Kimmich before PSG shifted across. In the build up to the goal it was this pass from Thiago into Kimmich that took out multiple PSG players.
Even after the goal, the switch of play was still occurring. Thiago again with a quick switch of play into Kimmich. Coman’s missed chance originated from this as well.
It was on. Quick and incisive. Thiago alongside Neuer were Bayern Munich’s best performers on the night. On the biggest stage they delivered and brought Bayern their 6th Champions League title.
It could have been different though, just ask Edward Lorenz.