Guardiola’s tactical shift spurs strong season for Bayern

When Pep Guardiola first arrived at FC Bayern Munich, the manager had just revolutionized football. His Barcelona team of 2008–09 won every trophy available and is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest club sides in history. However, he took over Jupp Heynckes’s side of treble winners, which will frequently be mentioned in the same breath as that Barca side. In a weak league where Bayern’s only real competition is from Borussia Dortmund, the expectation was set simply at Champions League title or bust. In his two seasons so far, he has not managed to accomplish that, and his two league titles there will always be marked with an asterisk. Coming in to the final year of his contract, which he is not expected to renew, the only way Guardiola’s tenure at Bayern would be considered a real success is if he wins the Champions League this season. He needed to make changes to his tactics, some personnel, and the mentality of the team in general to get there. With a 1–0 victory against Werder Bremen this weekend to make it 12 straight wins to start the season, it’s clear that Bayern is up for the challenge this season.

However, it’s not the run of victories and results here that matters. There has been a profound change in Guardiola’s philosophy this season. No more is his team passing sideways and lulling the opponents into mistakes. No more is Barcelona striker Lionel Messi using his otherworldly skills to create and score goals. The shift in tactics and playing style was exemplified by Bayern in their 5–1 thrashing of supposed challengers for the title Dortmund. Strikers Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski’s first goals of that game were both from long balls played by center back Jerome Boateng. It would’ve been unthinkable for a Pep-coached team to play those kind of balls prior to this season. What are these changes and which personnel have made this possible?

Guardiola’s transfer strategy has been questioned since the beginning of his Barcelona days. Striker David Villa and defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano qualify as the only undoubted successes he had as Barca manager, while at Bayern, only Lewandowski and Xabi Alonso come close. This season was no different, as the signings of Juventus natives, midfielder Arturo Vidal and winger Kingsley Coman, were considered unnecessary and not fitting his style of play. However, both of those players, along with the irrepressible winger Douglas Costa — signed from Shakhtar Donetsk — have been instrumental in helping him play a more direct game. Costa has arguably been the signing of the season because he has contributed the most assists in the Bundesliga while also being influential in nearly every single Bayern attack. Both Muller and Lewandowski have constantly commented on how much they’ve benefited from playing alongside him. While wingers like Frank Ribery or Arjen Robben, Bayern’s two superstar wingers, are prone to cutting inside and are going for goal themselves, Costa and Koman tend to cross the ball or look for a creative outlet like midfielders Gotze or Thiago in the middle. The results are clear — Muller has 12 goals already this season while Lewandowski has been going toe-to-toe with Real Madrid winger Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi’s legendary goal-scoring feats in scoring 16 goals so far. The effect has been so good that neither Ribery nor Robben have even taken the field this season, but their impact hasn’t been missed one bit.

The major tactical solutions have come in the formations Guardiola has chosen to deploy this season. A loose 2-3-3-2, it involves Boateng being partnered by David Alaba in defense, while Philip Lahm, Xabi Alonso and Thiago Alcantara make up the first midfield three. The front two has consistently been Muller and Lewandowski, while the trio behind has included players such as Costa, Koman, Gotze, Thiago, and Vidal. Youngsters like Juan Bernat and new signing Joshua Kimmich have also been given starts in the defensive midfield, and so has record signing Javi Martinez returning from a long term injury.

The squad available now to Pep allows him to modify this formation to his will and select exactly the players he needs for every situation. Take, for example, the game against Dortmund. Under Thomas Tuchel, this team has continued former manager Jurgen Klopp’s pressing methods, but in a far more controlled fashion and with a lot more emphasis on controlled possession as well. Pep recognized that his team would have a deeper sit than usual and would not see as much of the ball as they usually do. He modified the formation to a slightly more defensive 4-1-3-2, with Javi Martinez partnering Boateng in middle and Alaba and Lahm taking up more traditional full back roles. Coman was dropped to make way for the additional defender and the results on the pitch were startling. Bayern dominated from the start as Alaba and Lahm pushed in to make it a 2-3-3-2 again when in attack and provide support to Gotze and Thiago in attacking midfield. The space was completely cramped for Dortmund’s midfield, but Bayern’s nifty passers meant they were still able to make good plays.

Alonso and Boateng, excellent long-range passers, were given license to aim for Muller or Lewandowski’s frequent runs behind the opposition defense and two such balls resulted in goals. Gotze playing in an unnatural wide role meant Dortmund did not keep cover for him as he constantly drifted inside. However, as soon as he went wide again on the counter-attack, he had acres of space to work with and one such foray into this space on the right channel resulted in another Lewandowski goal. Pep’s team this season is not just finding the smallest weaknesses in the team and exploiting them as is expected, but they are adapting to the opposition strengths to the extent that even Plan Bs are being thrown out of the window. At one point this season, Pep indulged every football fanatic’s fantasy by choosing not to play a central defender when Boateng was suspended for a game and choosing to play a back three of Alaba, Lahm and Bernat instead. The result? A resounding 3–0 victory against one of the division’s best teams in Bayer Leverkusen and some breathtakingly beautiful football.

The freedom provided by this formation to the central midfielders — players like Alonso, Thiago, Gotze and Vidal — has allowed them to develop a style of play suited to break down teams playing any style. If a team chooses to press high up, the ball is quickly shifted to the wings, where Costa, Koman or Gotze wreak havoc in the space left by players too worried about chasing defenders. If a team sits deep, Gotze and Thiago have played some delightful passes between them to unlock defences with the creative powers they possess. If a team plays a possession based game, Alonso, Boateng and those like him have been picking out passes to the two strikers the moment they win the ball in defense. Given the high intelligence of nearly every single player on this team, it’s rare that they’re caught so severely out of position that the supposedly undermanned defense is caught out. Opposing managers have repeatedly talked about how currently they don’t even have a concrete game plan to beat this Bayern team.
Guardiola’s famous stubbornness, which once resulted in an icon such as striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic leaving Barcelona, has been loosened and his mind is working at its apex. On this form with this setup, and with players such as Ribery and Robben to still come into the team, it’s hard to bet against Bayern in absolutely any competition this season.