Following Pep Guardiola’s spectacularly exciting reign of tactical innovation and evolution of Juego de Posición, Bayern Munich decided to appoint Italian manager Carlo Ancellotti as the boss. Perceived as a manager focused more solely on the priority of winning, rather than his predecessor Guardiola, who many claim at times overexperimented and even complicated things. So far under Ancellotti, Bayern have begun to get the job done and no more, more often than they did so under Guardiola. In the pursuit of perfect, Guardiola made a few costly mistakes, whilst his successor Ancellotti is often more sensible and won’t experiment overly, rather allowing his focus to remain on winning, no matter how narrow or ugly it may be.
As expected, Manuel Neuer is Ancellotti’s goalkeeper. Lahm is usually the right-back for Bayern this season, though Rafinha has also played there at times, as well as Kimmich, usually when Lahm is playing in midfield. Boateng and Hummels are most likely Ancellotti’s first choice central defenders, though Javi Martinez has mostly partnered Hummels due to Boateng’s injury. Alaba has featured at CB, though is definitely seen primarily as a LB by Carlo. Juan Bernat has made a number of appearance as left back.
Xabi Alonso seems to still be seen as a starter for Bayern as 6 despite his noticeable drop over the last year or two. Kimmich, Vidal and Thiago have also featured as Ancellotti’s main pivot, though the three of them, alongside Renato Sanches and Thomas Muller, usually take up the other two midfield roles.
Frank Ribery has most often been the starting left winger, with Brazilian Douglas Costa the right. Arjen Robben seems to be beginning to take a starting spot on the right wing following his return from injury. Lewandowski is the main striker.
Poor Halfspace Occupation
As arguably the best area of the pitch in terms of proving efficient connections with other zones, the halfspaces have become somewhat neglected by Bayern this season.
In what Bayern hope to consider progressive possession, the halfspaces are initially used in slightly deeper areas of the field, as they are quite often easiest to access, both in terms of length/distance of movement required and frequently seen weak spots of opposition pressing. More frequently the left halfspace but also the right, is an area where Bayern often look to start their possession from. Frequently Thiago will drop from his left interior position into a deep left halfspace position. The reasons for halfspace usage in deep build-up are clear and have been spoken about in detail on Spielverlagerung, as well as being briefly explained a few times on my site here. Despite the benefits of the halfspace however, Bayern’s players other than Thiago don’t make use of them as much as they perhaps should. Alaba is often horizontal, or even behind Thiago when he receives here, meaning a pass to the wing is usually useless. Alonso doesn’t make many movements away from deep in the centre, and in these situations usually can’t do much more than Thiago could in terms of passing. Vidal, Renato and Kimmich are more defensive focused 8’s and remain deep in the other halfspace rather than offering an option within or between the opposition block. The wingers don’t make many movements to receive from Thiago here and stick close to the touchline as an out-and-out singer rather than drifting into a receiving position between lines, and Lewandowski remains on the last line. None of the above mentioned provide viable support to the halfspace here, especially in terms of vertical progression.
From here, we see pretty heavy reliance on individual actions in order to allow Bayern to progress. Thiago will use his press-resistance to beat the initial press, and then attempt to penetrate the block by using a diagonal dribble. This is an unclean and inconsistent build-up method, though one Thiago is often forced to take upon himself due to Bayern lacking a capable receiver between the lines. The alternative, which is used if Thiago is in a bad situation, is for the Spaniard to play a simple pass to the full-back, who will then adopt the individual responsibility of making an inwards diagonal dribble. Though it varies depending on the opposition’s touchline pressing, this second approach is generally a more efficient approach to progression.
By dribbling inward diagonally, Alaba forces a horizontal shift from the opposition who prepare to defend the area Alaba is headed towards. As this shift is made, the focus moves away from defending the wing, where Alaba previously was, to defending the other, seemingly more realistically accessible areas of the pitch. This means Bayern’s left winger doesn’t have heavy defensive focus on him situationally. He will from here attempt to find an open receiving lane from Alaba, within the spaces the opposition shift is momentarily neglecting. Alaba will attempt a line breaking pass into the anger who will likely have made an inverted movement. Using ‘against the grain’ is actually one of the few, slightly unique features of Bayern’s game this season. Despite this, their reliance on using it and Thiago’s dribbling to progress from good halfspace positions is inconsistent to rely on.
Another phase where Bayern often fail to occupy the halfspaces efficiently is in the final third at almost the very last stage of an attack.
When the opposite winger is in a strong crossing position, Bayern will quickly load the box in numbers and prepare fully for firstly the cross itself, then a potential press if the cross is unsuccessful.
With such a focus on the preparation of a potential press, this leaves Bayern neglecting other possibilities than a cross. From a wide-halfspace position, connecting with the underloaded side is a commonly used attacking option in order to generate qualitative or spatial superiority to create in the final third. By lacking anyone in the opposite halfspace, connections with other areas of the field are difficult, meaning around only half of the pitch can be used situationally.
Risky Structure of Backline in Possession
As many high-possession-rate teams around Europe do, Bayern Munich’s centre-backs split into wider positions, usually in either halfspace early phases of possession. As well as having the benefits it is implemented for, the structure and it’s surroundings has also cost Bayern.
Before looking at the issues of Bayern’s structuring here, we must firstly understand why they use it.
Seen as the strongest team in Bundesliga, Bayern often face pessimistic opponent’s with a damage limitation mentality, defending in a deep, narrow block, willing to let Bayern have possession in unthreatening areas. By placing the centre-backs in wider positions, and usually the guys ahead of them occupying more zones, this forces the opposition block to defend a wider space, becoming more stretched. Ultimately, this should open up spaces which are too large to be covered by shifts and make the previously compact block penetrable.
As the centre-backs drop into wide positions, the centre in the last near to their goals is temporarily vacated. A pivot, from a midfield position, should drop into this central position for two reasons; 1)provide strong connections with both sides from the centre 2)provide stability and defensive cover in a key offensive space for the opposition. The first reason is one Bayern have generally managed to avoid getting by without it being a great issue. Their use of diagonal passes to the switch sides despite bypassing the centre in phases where it is not occupied is effective, though if the diagonal lane is cut, Bayern do have some trouble in making switches. The second reason has troubled Bayern more so out of the two however. Using Thiago and Vidal as the two deeper midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 is a significant reason why there hasn’t been consistent occupation of the central space in the backline when the CB’s split. Thiago works best in between lines or opposition blocks, from the left halfspace and his dropping movements don’t occur so often and can’t be relied upon. Vidal is primarily a box-to-box player and prefers to offer only some movements from within midfield positions, rather than adopting a key central role in build-up. This has seen Bayern’s centre-backs split, only to leave a great space in the centre of the backline which no-one moves into.
In the case of a turnover, Bayern can be extremely exposed in what most would consider the key position to defend. Any quick and efficient counter-attack which focused on central play would most likely make it through this central space as Bayern’s wide CB’s simply wouldn’t be able to recover such a big distance in time to defend. This was evident in Rostov’s first goal in Russia, when Bayern lost 3-2.
Chance Creation…Or Not?
The final third is one area where Pep Guardiola’s team’s have not had issues in creating good situations for themselves, which result in clear chances and lots of goals. Since the Catalan boss’ departure, Bayern’s chance creation has hindered.
The wide areas are ones where Guardiola place heavy focus on chance creation, as he seen wingers Arjen Robben and Frank Ribery as Bayern’s “unstoppable guys”, alongside bringing in Douglas Costa and Kingsley Coman to aid with the quality on either wing. These wingers were often paired with full-backs in situations of numerical superiority, though the wingers were also often given their chance to remain 1v1 on the wing in situations of qualitative superiority. Ancellotti, though at times placing heavy chance creation responsibility on the wingers, seemingly does not trust his wingers in creating good situations for themselves, particularly 1v1, as he often places another player in close support of them in the offensive phase.
In the above scenario it is clear that Juan Bernat has been instructed to support Ribery high up on the left wing, creating either a 2v1 or 2v2 situation. Ancellotti’s lack of trust in Bayern’s wingers in 1v1’s often leads to slow, predictable situations on the wing, due to the structure and circulation strategy requiring the wingers to be supported, usually by full-backs, before moving onto the wing. These extra seconds spent waiting for a second, or even third, player moving over to support the winger, give the opposition valuable time to shift and prevent an overload, or prepare to defend behind the first defender.
Conceding only nine goals in sixteen games, an average of less than a goal conceded per game, it is clear that Bayern’s issues do not lie defensively, but instead in the cleanliness and efficiency of their use of the ball. The flaws in their possession game have a knock-on effect on the final third, which also in itself has major decencies, despite possessing such quality individually. Against the deep blocks of a few teams, notably Atletico Madrid and Rostov in the Champions League, Bayern’s attacking game has really been exposed. Goals have frequently came from counter-attacks, which seems to be the only phase where Bayern’s attackers get the freedom of a quick attack without being slowed down by weak tactical instructions.
Going into the the second half of the season, where Bayern are likely to defend more, with tougher games in these five months than the previous, perhaps Ancellotti’s side will appear stronger, even if not always in full control, as their conceding of space and poor progression is masked by defensive strength and efficient counter-attacks.
One thing for sure though; Bayern miss Pep and dare we say it, Pep perhaps misses Bavaria.