Inside the SuperClubs: Guardiola's tactics alter Bayern Munich's identity
All week Planet Futbol will delve into the SuperClub that is Bayern Munich, covering the German franchise's celebrated past and present while profiling some of its legendary players and biggest names. This is the fifth part of the series.
Seven months after Pep Guardiola’s most painful moment as a manager, Bayern Munich’s 4-0 loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinals, Bayern looks stronger than ever. As Guardiola navigates the culture clash between Spain’s flowing football and Germany’s counterattacking game, he has built a team that won the Bundesliga in record time despite falling miserably in Europe last year.
A recent two-week span that included wins over AS Roma (7-1 and 2-0) and Borussia Dortmund (2-1) comprise the perfect microcosm of the team’s tactical evolution since humiliation in April. The recovery remains incomplete until the team faces a similar test this season, but it certainly is a much more Spanish team now, with decidedly German elements still irretrievably embedded.
Particularly in analyzing Bayern, traditional formation notation becomes useful only for understanding the foundation of a philosophy. Three or four numbers in a string only scratch the surface of Guardiola’s positional play. It all depends on the phase of play and opponent.
Play begins in the back, with center backs comfortable on the ball and an organizing midfielder who distributes precisely. A series of short passes aims to move opposition defenders and open spaces to bypass the highest lines of pressure.
As play advances, so do these farthest-back players. The center backs often stand inside the opponent’s half as Bayern creates overloads in attack. Under Jupp Heynckes, they were an average of 39.5 yards from their own goal, versus 44.1 yards under Guardiola.
Manuel Neuer, the best sweeper-keeper in the modern game, brings up the rear and ranges far outside his penalty area both in possession and to break up counterattacks. These daring movement patterns allow Bayern’s fullbacks to step up with the intention of supporting the attacking midfielders.
David Alaba usually plays in the back, and he has blossomed into the most multi-dimensional attacker on the team. A positional chameleon, Alaba’s ability to read the game, provide pressure at the right moments and complete penetrating passes makes his impending lengthy absence with a knee injury that much more devastating.
Guardiola likes to play with as many midfielders as possible. His fullbacks and wingers have similar qualities to his central players, and overloading the central channel is one of the immutable points in his coaching philosophy.
The creative midfielders are free to move and interchange, flowing with the fullbacks and wingers. The near-side wingers and central midfielders have a close relationship in combination play, always set up to play one-twos down the touchline.
When Guardiola took over, he recognized one key difference between Bayern and the Barcelona team he left: the Bavarians’ strength lies in wingers Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben, as opposed to the suffocating central triumvirate of Andrés Iniesta, Xavi and Lionel Messi.
As such, the fullbacks take their movement cues from the wingers and make runs to balance the team’s shape, rarely occupying the same vertical space. When the winger cuts inside, the fullback overlaps; when the winger stays wide, the fullback squeezes centrally. That dynamic relationship frequently intersects the “half-spaces,” so-called in one tactical theory gaining prevalence.
Half-spaces are derived from dividing the pitch into 18 zones — three spaces horizontally in each half and three channels vertically. The attacking half-spaces laterally border the central zone directly on top of the opposition penalty area (Zone 14).
The majority of goalscoring chances originate in Zone 14, but it’s also the middle channel that teams cover first on defense. The half-spaces maintain 360 degrees of ball-playing options but also share isolation possibilities that come with maintaining width.
These areas are difficult to defend because they sit in the spot between where wide and central players normally position themselves defensively. This creates confusion about how to mark a player in the awkward gap between lateral defensive zones.
Attacking the half-spaces allows Bayern to keep its overload in the middle, but it keeps play close to one-on-one specialists Ribéry and Robben, who roam the touchlines. As Bayern’s fullbacks push into higher spaces, it allows the creative midfielders to press higher in turn and support the target striker with runs into the penalty area.
They can then be in position for knockdowns on crosses, on which Bayern prey as much if not more than the initial service into the box. If an opponent clears haphazardly, the second runners pounce.
This cluster of advanced players also comprise the first pressuring line, designed to stop counterattacks at the source through immediate chase and pressure. The six-second defensive rule is another tenet of Guardiola’s philosophy, perhaps easier to execute with more athletic German players and certainly more vital in a Bundesliga where every team counterattacks dangerously.
Another measure of protection against counterattacks is the single organizing midfielder, Xabi Alonso. In his first year, Guardiola often reverted to a double pivot of two defensive midfielders despite his desire to play with one; Bayern was more comfortable playing with two in front of the center backs, a holdover from Heynckes’ two seasons.
Philipp Lahm’s unexpected affinity for the position provided an intriguing option for Guardiola, but he’s not quite as defensively capable as Alonso or Sergio Busquets. Guardiola played the position and turned Busquets into a world-class player there at Barcelona.
The No. 6 is the most important role in Guardiola’s philosophy, the linchpin of the system. Alonso’s central presence and ball-winning ability allow the center backs to split and fullbacks to push higher. Alonso drops to distribute from a deeper spot, but also to cover the resulting gap in the back line.
He frequently completes the highest percentage of passes on the team, as well as lingering near the top of each competition’s chart. While Alonso’s prowess on the ball is easy to appreciate — his 204 touches on Sept. 27 against Köln broke the Bundesliga record — he also offers a security blanket defensively.
Another new player, Robert Lewandowski, marks a slight change in Guardiola’s most advanced player as well. He plays as more of a target than false 9, although his mobility has been impressive, and he still covers plenty of ground.
Lewandowski still interchanges with Ribéry and Robben on the wings, and Thomas Müller plays almost as a second striker off his shoulder. Guardiola initially tried to mutate Müller’s natural forward skill set to become the team’s primary playmaker, resulting in this year’s hybrid. He and Lewandowski can occupy three or four defenders as Bayern builds out of the back. That provides space for the wingers and Mario Götze, who moves to balance Bayern and unbalance the opposition.
Bayern has no shortage of game-changing individuals, who are vital in providing the necessary moments of brilliance to dismantle the low defensive blocks they commonly face. Within a superb team structure, these players shine.
The next challenge for Bayern is to thwart the counterattack that caused it so many problems last season. It’s a risk with a system predicated on getting numbers around the ball to dominate in possession, and it’s a major cultural difference that Guardiola has marked for adaptation.
Counterattacking is part of German players’ DNA, as hardworking yet tactically aware footballers. Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund provide the stiffest tests, but Bayern has shown new ability, as in its 2-1 league win over Jürgen Klopp’s men on Nov. 1.
Bayern remains susceptible to being pressed, especially if players advance too early when building out of the back and leave others isolated in poor areas, and could still defend set pieces more efficiently, but Guardiola has balanced the team in transition moments. The addition of Alonso and a renewed emphasis on high-pressure defending provides equilibrium with a bludgeoning attack.
The spirit of enterprise and risk in the team is voracious, starting from the manager and filtering through the squad’s ultra-competitive mentality. The seven players on Germany’s 23-man roster at the 2014 World Cup personified the new Bayern philosophy, paired with their pre-existing qualities to make them unstoppable in Brazil.
Guardiola’s biggest accomplishment in his first year was overseeing the marriage of Germany’s ruthless, machine-like directness and his own fluid positional play. With Guardiola’s fingerprints, die Mannschaft lifted the trophy, scoring 18 goals and conceding just four.
That comes from the manager’s lack of fear, eschewing it in favor of all-out attack. His constant quest for perfection continues this year, as does his willingness to adapt and evolve.
Last year’s Champions League exit only rejuvenated Guardiola’s desire to create a successful team in Munich that is undisputedly his in terms of style. Observers of his process will be left with more tactical revolution to digest, but the obsessive Catalan will have already moved onto his next conquest by the time they dissect it.