Bayern 0 – 3 Bayer: A Tactical Analysis
This article written by Pepe Salazar
Today’s tactics weren’t as different as many people seem to think. The main change was the switch from a 2-3-5 on attack, to 3-2-5, with wingbacks instead of wingers, in an attempt to try to stop Leverkusen’s wingbacks.
Rather than a tactical problem, Tuchel’s mistake was dumber: Squad selection. The same tactics, with a different squad, might have been better or at least not as humiliating.
If the idea was a back 3, it was the perfect chance to play Upamecano, Kim and De Ligt as CBs, and Maz and Guerreiro as wingbacks. Instead of this elite back line, we saw lots Upamecano as a CB / RB, Mazraoui as a RWB / RM / RW and Boey as a LB / LWB / LM / LW … and then both switched positions. It was just too much.
Playing Boey out of position in his first match as a starter was absurd. Tuchel “went for it”, took the gamble, but the bet was completely misplaced and contradicts what he’d been doing. He should have trusted his usual formation and squad. His tactics.
Today Tuchel should take the blame, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the individual performances were very poor. This is still a squad full of elite, super expensive players that should do their job better. We also have to recognize that it’s not just that Bayern was very bad, Leverkusen played better individually, collectively, and tactically. They deserve the win, they nullified Bayern by being better in every possible way.
Either way, let’s try to understand how Leverkusen nullified Bayern tactically, especially when Bayern tried to build up. This feels like dissecting a frog that was my pet.
Mirroring base formations, different tactics, on one side, an ideal squad selection, on the other, a failed gamble.
Leverkusen nullified Bayern’s attack right from the build up. They always kept a diamond structure surrounding Bayern’s midfield. They didn’t need to press much, rather, just wait for the mistakes. Since Musiala and Sané rarely dropped deep to help, and Goretzka didn’t participate much in the build up either, the team’s weight fell on Pavlović, who was surrounded by Leverkusen’s forwards. Xhaka stepped up front which further complicated things. Kane tried to drop deep to help, but this didn’t make much of a difference since Leverkusen kept a numerical advantage in the midfield either way.
Bayern also tried building up in a makeshift 4-4-2, with either LWB or RWB and either Sané or Musiala covering the wings. This didn’t work for the exact same reason as the 3-2-5; Pavlović and Goretzka were left alone, their teammates far away, no one helping, everyone remaining static. If this was an instruction, it was a terrible one, if this was just due to laziness, even worse. They also tried to “stretch” Leverkusen, but they were happy to leave Upamecano (as RB) unmarked, and preferred to overload the middle of the pitch, which made it impossible to connect with Kane, Sané and Musiala.
Bayern also tried a 3-1-5-1 a-la-Nagelsmann, which didn’t work either, again, for the exact same reasons as the other build up formations. No tactical maneuver will work if the opponent keeps numerical superiority, especially in the midfield. Bayern’s midfielders were very poor today. This shape lets us see not only how disconnected Bayern’s defense, midfield and attack were, but also how compact Leverkusen was.
This is going to be a quick one since Bayern didn’t create chances, despite some long-possession periods. Leverkusen was happy to let Bayern keep the ball, and was even complacent with letting some players go unmarked. This really says a lot about what Xabi saw; Upamecano as a RB? Is anyone threatened by that? This is just a single example, and Leverkusen certainly wasn’t threatened at all.
Bayern switched possession from their usual 2-3-5, to a more conservative 3-2-5. These shapes are OK, they are used by teams like City or Liverpool, but creating numerical advantages and making key passes or dribbles is essential to make things work. A formation is just that, a formation. Here we can see that Kane tried to drop deep and help, creating situational 3-3-4 shapes that made no difference at all.
Bayern tried creating a triangle with Kane, Musiala and Sané, with Goretzka pushing through the left half space, but they weren’t able to even complete a single 1-2 pass or break the low block once.
Bayern’s biggest tactical flop today was in the build up. That’s it, and it was enough to keep the team from creating chances, let alone, scoring. On defense, things were a bit different, since the team was, tactically, not that bad, but individually, they were at their worst of the season. Two of Leverkusen’s goals came from individual errors by Bayern, and there easily could have been more. One came from Boey not even seeing Stanisic (of all players), and the other, from Pavlović not following Grimaldo. These moments Bayern lacked focus while Leverkusen was completely into the game. There were other individual errors that somehow didn’t end in goals by Leverkusen.
For Leverkusen’s first goal Bayern had eight men in or very near the box while Leverkusen attacked with 6 players. In a routine throw-in Grimaldo was allowed to cross, and no one followed Stanisic. Boey, who was covering the LB position didn’t even see him until after he scored. In this first goal Leverkusen made Bayern seem like an amateur team.
For the second goal, Grimaldo made a run from a 1-2 pass in the left halfspace. Ideally this back five formation was meant to cover the wingbacks, but here no one really tracked back, and Pavlović saw Grimaldo move past him but didn’t follow him. Upamecano didn’t do it either, and Mazraoui was at the edge of the box since he was just tracking back from his makeshift RWB / RM / RW role. Some argue Neuer should have saved this one, but even if Grimaldo didn’t take the shot, Bayern’s left flank was completely empty, so any cross would have ended in a goal either way.
When Bayern actually managed to track back as a team and defend, they switched between a back 5 and a back 4. Not that it made a difference.
One thing that made this game difficult defensively was the fact Leverkusen’s players were constantly switching positions, overloading one side of the pitch and playing switch passes. They scrambled Bayern’s defensive unit, which was scrambled either way due to constantly switching from a back 4 to a back 5 and vice versa, with the wingbacks and outer CBs covering several positions in different phases.
Besides overloading a side of the pitch, Leverkusen, at times, also tried stretching Bayern’s defensive line, with players very close to the sideline, building up in a 2-5-3 that gave them numerical superiority in the midfield. Wirtz was constantly dropping deep and Xhaka stepping forward; this is a very good example of something Bayern didn’t even try, with Musiala and Goretzka being completely absent in the build up.
Leverkusen deserves this year’s title. Bayern, despite having better numbers than last season (at this point in the season) make it difficult for us fans to support them when they play like this. I still don’t think they should sack Tuchel because it would be making the same mistake as last season. If they do sack him, it should be in the summer.
Regardless of the coach, Bayern really seems to need an identity.
With Heynckes it was a very pragmatic “bread and butter” approach, nothing complicated, just key partnerships all over the pitch and a very cohesive squad where everyone knew exactly what they were supposed to do. Maybe this is the way but I don’t know if it would work in modern football.
Guardiola brought a positional play, possession based approach, that broke the Bundesliga but seemed to be insufficient in the UCL. Ancelotti and Kovac were irrelevant.
Flick brought a relentless pressing and overly physical style, which I think is unsustainable as a team identity for long periods because it causes burnout and injuries.
With Nagelsmann the team lost that identity a little bit, as he frequently switched tactics and formations, going from an RB-football type game, to a positional play based game. Then he lost his focal point in the attack when Lewandowski left and he was forced to play Mané who didn’t really fit the team.
With Tuchel, tactics are OK, with lots of formation changes in each phase and so on, not super intricate, but flexible and based on risk management. With him, tactics don’t seem to be the problem, but rather squad cohesion. Even with a full squad sometimes it’s not clear what each player’s role is.
Today also made me think Musiala has a lot of weight on his shoulders replacing Müller, and despite his glimpses of brilliance, he seems to disappear when the team is having a hard time. Maybe he should wait on the bench for a few matches and they should give Müller a chance.
The season is far from over and Bayern is only five points behind first place, and ten points ahead of third … so we still have lots to look forward to, but just based on what Leverkusen is showing, they deserve the league title. They play beautiful balanced football, they’re a cohesive squad that deals well with absences, they go for it when they’re losing and Xabi is doing a great job in both tactics and squad management. It hurts but we have to accept they are a better team than Bayern at the moment.