What happens when two teams renowned for their high-pressing game get a chance to fight fire with fire? Tonight’s UEFA Super Cup match looks set to provide an answer after Bayern München and Sevilla both employed an aggressive pressing strategy last season, overwhelming opponents on their way to lifting silverware.
For Bayern, the catalyst behind their eye-catching approach was Hansi Flick, who took over as interim coach last November and by April had done enough to earn a three-year deal. As Thomas Müller explained in the lead-up the UEFA Champions League final, Flick gave the squad a message on his very first day which contrasted with the more defensive mindset of predecessor Niko Kovač. “I want us to take the risk,” the former Hoffenheim coach had said. “I want us to press forward with courage. I want us not to have fear about having a stable defensive line.”
He was quickly proven right. Pushing high up the pitch brought Bayern chances, and in last season’s Champions League they recorded an unsurpassed 44 shots within 15 seconds of turnovers. They likewise prevented teams from finding their flow, with Flick’s side second only to Ajax in terms of time given to opponents before each defensive intervention (8.01 passes on average). From front to back, the sheer work rate of the German champions’ forward quartet reverberated positively throughout the team.
England manager Gareth Southgate was among the many observers struck by the spectacle. “So many times, the back four were protected because of the front of the team overloading areas and winning balls high up the pitch,” he explained. “I’ve never seen a team as compact, particularly in the [quarter-final] against Barcelona – front to back so compact. And that looked a high risk, but the defence were happy to deal with that. That collective press and their organisation were really impressive.”
Bayern have players who have gelled together for a long time in a 4-2-3-1 formation, both for club and country. They also have individuals with the profile to play a pressing game, starting with goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and his ability to defend the space behind the high line. That was evident in the first half of the final against Paris Saint-Germain, when Neymar delivered a ball behind Bayern’s defence for Kylian Mbappé to chase. With superb anticipation, Neuer was able to reach it early, midway inside his half, before Mbappé could get close.
In addition to their focus, selflessness and athletic powers, Bayern’s players also displayed tactical flexibility during the knockout phase. “When I saw the [semi-final] against Lyon, you could see the starting positions and the movement were very different than against Barcelona,” said Belgium boss Roberto Martínez. “I think the coach gives them a real discipline in terms of their starting positions and then it’s almost a freedom within that structure. Against Lyon, it was a bit more specific to play against a back five.”
As for Sevilla, much of their success in the UEFA Europa League was the fruit of full-backs Sergio Reguilón and Jesús Navas occupying high starting positions, and being given free rein to push further up when opportunities arose. With Éver Banega providing relief in front of the central defenders, those opportunities came often. And when Banega did drop, Fernando was released to support Sevilla’s attacking play, almost as an auxiliary forward. Together with Joan Jordán, they had all bases covered.
The Spanish side’s high defensive press was borne out in their statistics, with their phases of possession starting, on average, 39.4m from their own goal – the second highest in the competition. Crucially, they were able to sustain this high press (37.5m) in the final against Inter Milan. “It’s a very energy-consuming way to play, if you keep on pressing, especially when the games are coming thick and fast,” said Jarmo Matikainen, a UEFA technical observer. “You’ve got to be impressed with how Sevilla were able to adapt game by game and use this high pressing strategy as a structure in the final.”
For such an organised, distinctly harmonised movement to work in such conditions, Sevilla needed more than just 11 players schooled in the system – and coach Julen Lopetegui had exactly that. The additional toll of playing three knockout fixtures in the space of 11 days in the final tournament may have prompted his substitutions for the final half hour of the semi-final win against Manchester United. Without altering the shape and mentality of his team, he replaced Lucas Ocampos and Youssef En-Nesyri with Munir and Luuk de Jong. The latter supplied the winning goal about 20 minutes later and thus earned a starting place for the final, where he pounced again with a double.
That timely injection of energy enabled Sevilla to wrest control back from United without changing their strategy – a strategy that they have clearly mastered. “Sevilla had the full package,” added Matikainen. “The difference, very often, is that teams who are able to bypass that high press are able to play out even under high pressure. To do it collectively, everybody needs to be ready for it.” In the end, none of their opponents could offer a solution. But whether Sevilla are ready for a taste of their own medicine against Bayern – and vice versa – we shall see.