There have been plenty of debates, discussions and opinions about Bayern Munich this season in the world of football. This is not merely for the fact that Bayern won the treble last season with a dominating performance but also to analyze how new boss Pep Guardiola will handle this squad that looked unbeatable. After some initial hiccups that werenai??i??t helped by injuries to key players, Bayern under Guardiola have started to look like their usual selves, stamping their authority and winning by large margins. Even so, the Bayern of 2013-2014 donai??i??t seem to have quite reached that aura of invincibility they enjoyed under Jupp Heynckes last season.

Bayern with the double pivot last season

Bayern with the double pivot last season

Bayern Munich already had the attacking flair and the impressive wing play of Ribery and Robben when Jupp Heynckes took over the side from Louis van Gaal, two seasons back. But with a fragile defense and not too imposing a midfield, Bayern were quite susceptible to leaking as much as they scored. Heynckesai??i??s regime saw the addition defensive players like Jerome Boateng and Dante to strengthen the backline, while a key improvement he brought about was to strengthen the midfield and give them the responsibility of dictating the play. Schweinsteiger alongside new acquisition Javi Martinez, both known for their technical ability on the ball and reading of the game, formed a midfield wall that was difficult to penetrate and through which Bayern could propagate attacks. Sitting in front of them in the midfield triangle was either Kroos or MA?ller,Ai??both of whom possessed the vision to pick out teammates whilst also contributing healthily in controlling proceedings in the middle of the park.

Guardiola came in with a reputation of not preferring to play a striker (the false nine approach) and sticking to the so called philosophy of Tiki-Taka. The Tiki-Taka involves holding on to the ball, choking sides, while emplying quick interplays and clever through balls to breach defenses. Despite expectations of a similar approach to be applied, Guardiola has done well to adapt his tactics according to the team, Bayern have so far taken the field in a 4-1-4-1 which fundamentally one might argue is similar to a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3. When one of the central midfielders of the 4-1-4-1 is pushed back to support the lone pivot, it essentially becomes a 4-2-3-1 while both midfielders falling back on either side of the pivot gives one a 4-3-3.

Guardiola uses the inverted triangle in playing a single pivot with two advancing midfielders in front of him while wingers Ribery and Robben have the liberty to either hug the touch line or cut inside to play a more central role. Full backs Alaba and Rafinha/Lahm provide the width to the attack with their little interplays with the wingers and crosses into the box and unlike Barcelona, the central striker does play the role of a classic forward, holding the ball up for his teammates and running the channels. Just like in Heynckesai??i??s system, the pressing game when not in possession plays a key role in containing sides. But the Guardiola system has some key aspects that are quite different from that used last season.

Bayern on the defensive under Guardiola

Bayern on the defensive under Guardiola

Under Heynckes, Bayern had a high pressing game that utilized a compact midfield driving the opposition to the edges of the field. The pressing ensured the opposition did not make much progress on the pitch and also induced mistakes while trying to pass the ball centrally. The Guardiola pressing game is more aggressive in the sense of not just keeping the opposition on the wings but also winning the ball back from the opposition and keeping it.

Bayern on the offensive under Guardiola

Bayern on the offensive under Guardiola

Full backs Alaba and Rafinha/Lahm definitely have had a lot more license to bomb up the pitch under Guardiola in support of the attack. Its not uncommon to see David Alaba high up the pitch alongside Ribery and at times cutting inside of the Frenchman to provide the element of surprise. Bayernai??i??s game against CSKA Moscow was a perfect example in which Alaba was largely playing as a left sided midfielder and his chipped pass to find Robben was a pure delight. With the full backs often found high up the pitch, the center backs move wider to cover the flanks while the pivot slots in between the two center backs to effectively form a 3 man backline with Bayernai??i??s formation resembling a 3-4-3. The single pivot who plays the role of the modern day libero has a crucial role in Bayernai??i??s tactics. The single pivot has the responsibilities of a deep lying ball distributor, a focal point to which players can pass back and the sole defender for much of the central portion of the pitch when his side is on the offensive.

Herein comes the crucial portion of retaining the balance between the attack and the defense. With the pivot moving back in defense, one of the central midfielders is ideally expected to drop into the hole created by the pivot while the other plays the attacking midfielder role. But with emphasis on ball possession and quick interplay (the so called tiki-taka), the two central midfielders are often found in the opposition half rather than in the middle of the pitch covering the hole in midfield. This aspect has certainly left Bayern very susceptible to quick counter attacks by teams that have a bit of pace in the spearhead of their attack and quick wingers. Guardiola has used Toni Kroos and Bastain Schweinsteiger in the role of the box to box midfielder but considering the attacking mentalities of the both and the high pressing of both midfielders to win the ball back, oppositions have often found a gaping hole in Bayernai??i??s midfield that was nonexistent last season.

Guardiolaai??i??s persistent use of skipper Lahm, arguably one of the best right backs in the game today says quite a lot in retaining aforementioned balance during the offense. Lahm dubbed by Guardiola as ai???the most intelligent player in my careerai??? perfectly fits the bill of playing the high energy, quick thinking and technically gifted role of the pivot. Despite the gradual return of players from injury, the Spanish gaffer has continued the use of skipper Lahm in the role purely based on his positional sense, his reading of game and his sense of responsibility. In recent games, Lahm has been moved to this position when defending leads to simply shut out the possibility of quick counter attacks.

To put it in a nut shell, much of Guardiolaai??i??s set-up of 4-1-4-1 is centered on how his pivot and his retreating midfielder position themselves during the sideai??i??s offense and defense. His box to box midfielder has the dual responsibility of aiding the attack as well as keeping track of the opposition attacking midfielder while the pivot has the crucial role of patrolling the defensive half of his side.Ai?? Hence player selection for the two roles becomes important for Guardiola’s system to perform efficiently. Skipper Lahm and Javi Martinez fit the job descriptions to slot into the pivot role. Martinez may not have the pace of Lahm but does have a good positional sense and reading of the game to play the role. The role of the retreating midfielder is tailor made for Schweinsteiger but Guardiola has to ensure the player knows the responsibility of the role. Thiago Alcantara might have been brought in to fill this role as well while Gotze/Muller/Kroos assume the attacking midfield position.

The news of Bastian SchweinsteigerAi??being ruledAi??out for the rest of the year due to surgery on his ankle will certainly come as a big blow to Guardiolaai??i??s plans. With Thiago also still on the treatment table, Kroos and Martinez look to be the only viable options for the retreating midfielder role. This could certainly mean Gaurdiola using Lahm in the midfield for some time to come.

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