Bayern’s 4-1-4-1?

So Friday night at the Allianz arena, and after a rather extravagantly choreographed opening ceremony, the new German season was under way and all eyes were on last season’s treble champions Bayern Munich, but more to the point, Pep Guardiola’s Bayern. How then would arguably Germany’s finest team since Bayern Munich of the 1970s fair under the meticulous eye and iron fist of one of the most sought after and respected coaches of today, Pep Guardiola?

There wasn’t much surprise in the starting line up for Bayern, perhaps that being a surprise itself to some, as the team lined up similar to Pep’s 4-1-4-1 formation as being used in pre season thus far. Personnel wise, new signings Mario Goetze was unavailable with a hamstring tear along with the flu stricken Thiago Alacantra. Mysteriously Luis Gustavo did not even appear in the squad as speculation grows over a move away.

Manuel Neuer wore the gloves with the near perfect quadruplet of Philipp Lahm, Dante, Jerome Boateng and David Alaba making their first competitive appearance as a unit for the season. Bastian Schweinsteiger played alone shielding the back four while Tony Kroos played slightly ahead flanked by Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery and partnered with Thomas Muller completing the midfield four, with the familiar sight of Mario Mandzukic up top.

I had my eye out for any team traits that were synonymous with Pep’s old Barca.  High pressing, a high back line, a false nine and ball playing centre backs were the notable staples of the all conquering Barca side but my expectations specifically were that the aforementioned traits, many of which Bayern already employ would show themselves in an evolved form within this Bavarian model.

With one game gone of the league its obviously impossible to say this performance will be reflective of Bayern for the rest of the season,  but there were clear signs of those evolutionary expectations holding true.

Out of possession, Bayern pressed and harried in a small packs as they did so wonderfully last season, however there was a sense of discipline on display on Friday as visitors Mönchengladbach showed composure and adventure in the opening ten minutes and ventured frequently into the Bayern half. On such occasions, Bayern players, all of them, tracked back into their own half, marking zonally and applying sustained pressure. Gladbach’s main threat on the night came from the impressive Patrick Herrmann but any time he was able to find some space he was soon doubled up on and shown inside.  From set plays, Bayern marked zonally which at times proved to be ugly for last season but there were no major scares in this game. The defensive unit, marshaled by Dante was excellently positioned through the majority of the match moving in unison up and down. Bar one or two counter attacks from the visitors, the unit did its job. The line usually contained a minimum of Dante, Schweinsteiger and Boateng with quite often one of Alaba and Lahm. The wingbacks would take measured bursts forward allowing the other sided player to hold back and drop in defensively if required.

Schweinsteiger’s role in front of the back four was multi faceted depending on the situation but was certainly even more defensively minded than last season. Out of possession, he would drop into the back line in between Dante and Boateng and form a back three while the wing backs Alaba and Lahm recovered positions to form a back five. Within possession, he was the first point of call for building play from the back as well as the initiator of defence to attacking transitions. This was usually through playing short passes in front but quite often he would act as a quarter back spraying cross field balls out into wide areas. Though Schweinsteiger is the more natural suited player to this role, the purchase of Thiago does put his place under pressure. He will need to continue to register excellent pass completion rates such as his 92% if he is to see off the challenge of Thaigo and perhaps Martinez.

It was interesting to note that Tony Kroos never veered behind Schweinsteiger as he was given the responsibility to create as well as press from the centre. Last year it was Martinez who had this role while Kroos played the furthest forward of the three in central midfield, almost like a no.10. However, the variation in his role this season is less ‘free’ and more centrally confined involving a more disciplined zonal protection of the centre, almost protecting Schweinsteiger, when off the ball. As shown in his comparison of action areas from this game to last season’s home fixture vs Dortmund, in one of his standout performances, his involvement in wide areas and even the penalty area is minimal. Something that was a staple of his season under Hyneckes. Martinez’s introduction for Kroos with less than 15 minutes remaining perhaps best showed off Guardiola’s luxurious squad with Martinez coming on to perform the same role maintaining that central zonal positioning, but with a more defensive agenda than an attacking one. Perfect for closing out games but Martinez will want and expect to be more involved than just cameo appearances from the bench after his stellar campaign last year.

The energetic Thomas Muller isn’t as easy on the eye as his other teammates but is certainly one of the most effective. His positioning off the ball caught my eye as he was an ever present force both up and down the field. Most notable difference from last season was his taking up of very advanced centre forward positions with Mandzukic in the penalty area. This was something he would do to great effect with late runs last season, but at times in the game it seemed he was very much part of a two man strike force.  His base positioning from the right as was the case often last year was perfect as he would ghost into the centre from the wing, but it was very much the reverse here as his predominate positions were far more central with positions on the right being taken up as a means of variation.  As well as his forward positioning, his tracking back into central midfield and the right fullback zones as mentioned previously was a noticeable in that the amount of dedication he put into these cover runs. Though this facet of his game was present last season also, the difference in discipline and consistency was clear to see.

The attacking variation of the defensive players was something that was impressive also. Clearly the wing backs have been a big part of Bayern sides for a good few years now but the current pair seem to have a great understanding not only with each other but with their wide forwards also. The overlap was mixed in with the far more frequent slight underlap, as Bayern looked to continue their domination of the opponents half particular from the centre. However it was not just the wingbacks venturing forward to provide attacking options, Boateng usually from the right and Dante from the centre would carry the ball forward while the wingbacks would tuck inside and provide support to the wide forwards Robben and Ribery.

In seasons gone by Bayern fans opinion of both Robben and Ribery was not exactly favourable but last season the two wide men were among the stars of the show with Ribery’s excellent ability to provide through balls from cutting in and Robben’s natural knack of picking up such balls with his runs inside from wide. This combination played out exactly for the first goal with Ribery clipping the ball diagonally from the left into the centre where Robben met it almost telepathically you felt. The ability however, of Manzdukic to link up with the two mentioned wide forwards was impressive too, with the two alternating and combining to come and play alongside him, at times forming a two, three and four men attack, including Muller, with Kroos supporting behind.

So though it may say 4-1-4-1 on the tin, there’s certainly a whole lot more to it than that. Defensively, the team looked more disciplined and able to sustain pressure and transition with variation. Offensively the team was full of rotation and purposeful zonal positioning. The additions of Goetze and Thiago pose questions, and it will be interesting to see where exactly they are deployed within that carefully crafted central midfield area. It was suggested by some that the only way this team can go is down. After all how do you build on near perfection? Maybe this is a sign of that question being answered.