Now that Bayern’s return to a 4-2-3-1 formation is formal and complete, it is time to examine why it is so successful and how Pep Guardiola added triangles of death to it. Something that fans should relish as the team launches a fresh treble charge.
First, a quick note on that renewed formation with two central midfielders. The first time I noticed it actually was during the Club World Cup in December, when FCB fielded a hybrid that still kept some elements of the previous 4-1-4-1. Many positions swaps, but adding the extra man in the middle to support Philipp Lahm’s work as defensive midfielder.
But it remained undeclared, as if it was necessary to save face. A full and declared return to the club’s preferred formation took place on 23 February against Hannover.
What didn’t change
The system does preserve some of the influence of previous coaches Louis van Gaal and Jupp Heynckes. Besides putting Bastian Schweinsteiger back in central midfield, the pressing game has returned to what it once was.
The centerpiece of it is defending right after losing the ball, as seen on the graphic on the right. Some call it counterpressing.
When losing possession in the opponent’s third of the pitch, the designated striker and attacking midfielders are required to put immediate and intense pressure on the new ball carrier. They block passing lanes in front of him and run towards him from the back, so that he hears footsteps. With a good challenge for the ball, this normally forces the guy to try a risky pass that should be easy to intercept, as he didn’t have enough time to adjust.
When the ball location is very low, pressing becomes a bit more classic, with players going forward to pin the opponent in his own half and prevent quality passes.
As if this were not enough, more team defending is provided by wingers. As highlighted in a previous analysis piece, Arjen Robben showed the way by tracking back against Schalke. He and Franck Ribéry did a lot of that in the second half of 2012-13. With great success.
The triangles of death
Now, going back to the formation that Bayern used during its most successful season ever doesn’t mean doing so without changes. Footballers are mobile and they can follow instructions to change their game. As I was hoping, Pep Guardiola took the 4-2-3-1 and molded it to his style.
Some call it tiki taka. I’d rather call it triangles of death. Unlike at FC Barcelona, the targets are mainly the wingers (Ribéry and Robben) as well as the striker instead of a false nine. Unlike at Barcelona, it is not a pure ground game since the air game of Mario Mandzukic weighs in the balance.
The triangles are different from what we have known in the past. Instead of deploying its players in wide positions to stretch the defence, the coach overloads the middle to outnumber opponents. It is a clear trend and is best illustrated with this FourFourTwo graphic from the Schalke game.
Notice how Schweinsteiger and Kroos, the central midfielders, hang around in the middle. You should also notice how Mario Götze, the designated left winger, has an average position very near striker Mandzukic. Defenders often go wide. Everyone can move around as the ball gets passed. The specifics of this deployment are precisely why so many fans have confused the new 4-2-3-1 with a 4-1-4-1 with two banks of four sandwiching two midfielders.
How does this translate on the pitch? A first screenshot against Freiburg tells the story.
Let’s forward to the game against Hannover, a week later.
On to the Schalke game. There are numerous examples, but I chose a tigher situation to illustrate how triangles can even work in tighter space when there are two defenders in the middle of them.
You can even go back to games against Manchester City in the Champions League to see a further example.
Last but not least, the most famous example against Gladbach. Lahm was surrounded by triangles. He was able to make any play.
It doesn’t take a football genius to realize how hard it is for opponents to defend against this kind of system. They are outnumbered by elite players such as Toni Kroos. Die Bayern look for that final, killer pass for a scoring chance such as this one against Arsenal. Even when they do have their triangle…
Does this mean that FC Bayern is turning into FC Barcelona 2.0? No. Although I would like the air game to be as strong as last season, the team has kept an air game. Most famously displayed when crosses by David Alaba and Rafinha have met Mandzukic’s head.
On set pieces, this hairy guy called Dante has also contributed to the air game.
You know me. I’ll finish this piece with a worry. As brilliant as Bayern can be with its passing, its high line of defence exposes it to individual mistakes and long passes. One little mistake by Javi, and Bastian Schweinsteiger had to run back deep against Schalke.
Likewise, losing the ball in the final third of the pitch could expose Bayern to an accurate long ball and force Manuel Neuer to make a save. But when you average 70.6% possession and 88.7% passing success during a season, it is a risk you can afford to take.
To all naysayers who said that I was wrong to request a return to a 4-2-3-1 while saying that it could be adapted to Pep’s style: I told you so.