Mandzukic's versatility the key to helping Bayern quell Juventus threat

ZonalMarking.net's Michael Cox uses FourFourTwo's StatsZone app – now FREE and featuring data from the UEFA Champions League – to run the rule over Bayern's Croatian striker... 

Tactically, we’re experiencing the era of universality – players are expected to perform tasks previously only demanded of teammates in very different positions. The best modern football sides start their attacks from the back, and begin their defending from the front – Barcelona have taken that concept to new heights, but Bayern Munich are arguably the best exponents of this in the 2012/13 season.

Bayern’s tie with Juventus was supposed to be the closest of the round – instead, Bayern were utterly dominant in the first leg, and take a 2-0 lead to Turin this evening. The midfield performances of Luiz Gustavo and Bastian Schweinsteiger were highly impressive, but the starkest contrast between the two sides was upfront: whereas Antonio Conte surprisingly selected a combination of Alessandro Matri and Fabio Quagliarella, who were both removed early in the second half, Bayern deployed a lone striker, Mario Mandzukic.

The Croatian has been the revelation of the European season, evolving from a decent goalscorer at Wolfsburg to a prolific all-rounder at Bayern Munich. This is where the ‘universality’ aspect comes in. In the first leg, Mandzukic was the standout player by doing almost everything…apart from a striker’s traditional job, scoring goals.

Mandzukic’s display was particularly impressive because he was used on his own against a back three. Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini are three of the competition’s best centre-backs, but Mandzukic was happy to work all three simultaneously. He particularly enjoyed drifting right to receive long passes, battling Chiellini in the air – and his mobility was underlined by the way he received possession in a variety of lateral positions across the pitch.

He was also involved in a succession of aerial battles, which resulted in an extremely high number of fouls given to either side:

But Mandzukic’s true value was predominantly in his work without the ball. As Juventus tried to build from the back, Mandzukic led the pressing. He often received support from the three attacking midfielders i– Thomas Muller, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery – but sometimes he was fighting on his own, forcing Juve’s back three (and Gianluigi Buffon) into a succession of poor passes. As the Italian champions conceded possession cheaply inside their own half the newly crowned German champions piled on the pressure.

Equally impressively, when Juventus did manage to play out into midfield, Mandzukic got himself back into a deep position, keeping Bayern compact. If the ball was returned to the back three, they found it difficult to play through midfield again – and Andrea Pirlo had particular problems. Muller and Mandzukic both pressed him, forcing the playmaker into his worst pass completion rate of his Juve career. Replacing his defensive performance from Bayern’s 3-1 win at Arsenal, Mandzukic made tackles and interceptions close to the halfway line.

Then, there was Mandzukic’s impact in the box. However, the Croatian was actually more useful in front of his own goal, clearing crosses at the near post, than when trying to beat Buffon – none of his three attempts caused significant problems.

Mandzukic will play the same role tonight, and while Juve must be alert to his goalscoring threat, their primary concern will be working the ball past him from defence. A great deal of Juventus’ passing depends on the back three and Pirlo – if they’re unable to enjoy freedom throughout the second leg, Bayern will surely progress to the semi-finals.

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