After a convincing 2-0 win over Pep Guardiola’s former side Barcelona to mark his arrival at the treble-winning Bayern Munich, the Bavarians now sit one point clear at top of the table, undefeated, without surprise. The Catalan has already stamped his mark on the Bundesliga side within a few months, impressively indoctrinating his possession-based ‘Tiki-Taka’ style with fierce execution.
Guardiola arrived as one of the most sought after managerial free agents in football and with huge expectations. The most commonly asked question that was whispered and thrown around punditry offices alike was can he repeat the success that Jupp Heynckes worked so hard to accomplish? This will be one of Guardiola’s greatest tasks and will see him bombarded both with criticism and praise.
So far in Guardiola’s anticipating campaign, a single defeat arose after the thrilling German Super Cup. Bayern’s greatest rivals in recent years left the pre-match tunnel with more than a point to prove, after many viewed them as wounded animals, lowering their necks after finishing second to Bayern in every competition they faced them in.However, Die Schwarzgelben, or Borussia Dortmund as they are most commonly recognized as, thwarted the Bavarians 4-2, pulling the European Champions back down to earth with a mesmerizing performance of sheer brilliance. The 4-1-4-1 that Guardiola decided to carry on with from pre-season into the Super Cup game has been tried and tested most notably in the Telekom Cup and also against Catalan Giants Barcelona.
Guradiola’s Use of the 4-1-4-1 Formation
A 4-1-4-1 on paper is extremely similar to a 4-3-3 with wingers slightly deeper, but also the formation itself is predicated on maintaining the all-important midfield triangle that is imperative in Bayern’s previous 4-2-3-1 and of course the 4-3-3. One of the most key elements with this formation is the tactical flexibility in that with single swaps of players, the 4-1-4-1 can immediately transition into a 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-1-1, or even a 4-4-2 if the need arises. This maneuverability and ability to transition in and out of formations to combat the opposition’s plays is imperative to reacting quickly and effectively.
With Heynckes’ 4-2-3-1 seeing Schweinsteger drop between center-backs in possession, this job will undoubtedly be carried through to Guardiola’s side as the German international is exactly the player it seems to make the 4-1-4-1 midfield orchestrate beautifully. His defensive and offensive games are so complete that it doesn’t necessarily require the two central-midfielders to be possession-oriented.
The Use of Thiago Alcantara and the No. 6
After Thiago’s controversial arrival, the Spaniard was utilized in a No. 6 role the entirety of pre-season as well as the Super Cup, dropping in between center-backs, filling in for the absent Schweinsteiger and providing a constant option in central zones. Thiago dictated play from deep and even provided width on both sides of the pitch when Kroos was dropping deep to cover for the former Barcelona youngster, providing that much needed rotational play that is key to Guradiola’s game and formation. Thiago was also sublime by passing long stretching full-backs whenever play became too narrow and overloaded in the center, very similar to a 2010/2011 Xabi Alonso role under Mourinho.
The rotational midfield trio of Bayern’s game, (a defensive midfielder and two central midfielders) was always going to be key to giving them fluidity going forward in numbers as well as unpredictability in attack. Thiago unsurprisingly ventured forward a number of times whenever the opportunity arrived, with Kroos providing cover subtly moving deep, similar to a pairing of Xavi and Busquets.
However, the lack of a center-forward at Bayern able to drop deep to accumulate numbers such as Messi for Barcelona is far from a worry, as Thiago’s explosive runs from his supposed holding midfield role provide a suitable option; his technical stability, eye for a pass, and quick feet see the youngster flourish in these situations. These pockets of runs into dangerous positions when possession is resumed in midfield can even see his role being dubbed as a ‘False 6.’ Another leaf of Pep’s genius? Perhaps.
Takeaways from the City Game
This new formation orchestrated from Guardiola also sees a lot of doubling up from left-mids (whose role is to work vigorously down the channel with little play centrally) and left-backs, most notably Alaba, who played a fantastic game both in the Super Cups against Chelsea and Dortmund and again against Manchester City in the group stages of the Champions League.
The young Austrian was superb working down the channels in unison with his left sided partner, often doubling up and stretching right-backs out of position while players like Shaqiri or Ribery drift inside and make vertical runs that were met by the perfectly weighted pass of the left-back. During these plays which were switched by the excellent Thiago Alcantara or Phillip Lahm from the right side of midfield, Bayern shined incredibly bright.
Against Manchester City, Alaba played a huge role along with his left-sided partner Ribery, doubling up with the Frenchman who shined in 1v1’s. Such plays were achieved by Alaba’s overlapping runs that pulled Richards out of position, creating an awkward situation for Navas who tucked deep to halt Ribery. Navas, being an out-and-out right winger, was out of all sorts in a 1v1 and failed time and time again, which eventually led to the opener where Ribery’s thunderous effort was too hot for Joe Hart to handle.
Soon after, Guardiola’s philosophy of center-backs being stretched saw Dante throw forward a perfectly weighted ball from the halfway line into the path of Muller’s beautifully timed run to make it 0-2, which nullified any hopes of City seeing themselves back into the game. However on the 60th minute, Bayern’s repeated transition of countering hard and fast whenever the ball was won in the opposition’s half was carried out with fierce perpetration as Robben unsurprisingly led the offensive transition and defeated the lethargic City with his much criticized right foot.
Bayerns triumvirate of Muller, Ribery and Alaba on City’s right channel was causing massive overloads that were incredibly difficult to negate due to the Blues’ 4-1-3-2 formation, and as a result, Pellegrini’s men were reluctantly forced into defensive duties in which they were abysmal in.
After just months, the Catalan genius Pep Guardiola appears to have already stamped his philosophy deep in the Bayern ranks, carrying on his possession-based style, his aggressive pressing game, the use of a rotational midfield, the implementation of the goalkeeper being used in almost a ‘sweeper’ position, and many other plays.
Under his leadership, Bayern have trampled over some top sides and emerged the only Bundesliga side to remain unbeaten in the league as of now. So far, Bayern in the offensive phase is predominantly orchestrated from the left and right flanks with Guardiola at the helm. No doubt that the further he continues his predicted dominative reign, the stronger Bayern Munich will grow.