Does Bayern have the best defence in Europe?
Medhi Benatia could soon leave the club, but with Hummels arriving there’s already a player, who is regarded as one of the best in his position. He and Jérôme Boateng formed the best central defence at the European Championship, thus showing how good Bayern’s defence could be in the upcoming season. There are plenty of combinations which also include Javi Martínez, Holger Badstuber, Philipp Lahm, David Alaba and Joshua Kimmich. It’s unlikely, that Carlo Ancelotti will utilize the full potential of these possibilities, but it’s still interesting to tinker with them.
The back four has been the standard in European football and Bundesliga for many years. Despite seeing more and more flexible systems, the majority uses four defenders. Carlo Ancelotti is a fan of the 442 and hence it’s expected that FC Bayern will initially build on it. While Alaba and Lahm are favourites for the full-back positions, Boateng will be a starter in the middle. Mats Hummels will be his most likely partner, but Holger Badstuber and Javi Martínez have shown strong performances in the past years. If all of the centre-backs are fit, Bayern can look forward to a great competitive battle. Especially Badstuber and Martinez have had to deal with injuries time and time again. Jérôme Boateng too, who has a torn muscle fibre after the European Championship, had his absences. According to rumours FC Bayern is therefore interested to bring in another centre-back, if Benatia leaves the club. Corluka being the most probable acquisition, but it’s all speculation.
Against the ball the record champions’ defence is not only individually strong, but because of all the different abilities it’s very well rounded too. Mats Hummels benefits from his positional play. He’s known for effectively moving out of the chain, however he also misjudged it a few times in the last years. In the national team we’ve seen it various times already, that Jérôme Boateng might be second to none when it comes to covering and cleaning up these mistakes. The two have a good synergy. Hummels’ anticipation paired with Boateng’s speed and ball-winning ability maybe makes them the best centre-back duo in the world. Alaba and Lahm are two full-backs able to find the perfect balance between offence and defence. As well as with and without the ball both are known for their high football intelligence. Especially Lahm’s last season has shown, that FC Bayern can still count on him. He might be the only full-back in the world who can control and dominate a game from this position.
The back four will be interesting at build-up play and possession. There are two possibilities for structure in the build-up. One would be, that both full-backs push forward and one of the defensive midfielders falls back. Xabi Alonso would be made for this, as he likes to escape pressing. He also has excellent abilities in the build-up play. This didn’t really work out well with Arturo Vidal last season. The benefit from this is that three players cover for a loss of possession. Boateng and Hummels could push into the half-space where it’s much easier to create build-up play, rather than the centre. The chain widens the play and stretches the opposition without leaving big gaps if there’s a misplaced pass. The downside is that one defensive midfielder might be missing in the centre, when attacking the last third of pitch. Pep Guardiola counteracted that with the full-back occasionally moving inside. Another option and the second variant, is asymmetric positioning from Lahm and Alaba. Both are good at build-up play, therefore one defender could push forward and the other drop back. This would still create a back three without pulling back a midfielder. Lahm’s hybrid role from last season could be fitting. In possession the captain always positioned himself more centrally in midfield. Against the ball he moved back to his right-back position. He perfected this role and controlled Bayern’s game from there.
Whatever build-up structure Ancelotti will choose, this back four should be the strongest with the ball. Complemented by a fit Holger Badstuber, FC Bayern has five of the best build-up players in Europe in their squad. Against the ball this team should be able to frequently go without conceding. Hummels moving out of defence could be the only danger, however it has to be said, that the advantages of his style of play easily outweigh its flaws.
In the last three years FC Bayern frequently played with three at the back. Ancelotti might not be known for it, but in the past he repeatedly mentioned that he might use it from time to time. If not at FC Bayern, where else? Thanks to Pep Guardiola this team has become very flexible. In the last three years it used all defensive systems. The type of players at Ancelotti’s disposal are good arguments for a back three.
With the back four we analyzed that it’s especially important to have someone in the middle. If two centre-backs push wide with the middle left open, it’s easy for the opponent to gain access. One of the opposition strikers would have to move between the centre-backs and there would be connectivity problems. A third player provides numerical superiority or if the opponents presses very offensively, he evens it out. Filling the back three with Holger Badstuber, Jérôme Boateng and Mats Hummels, one would have a player on each position who can open play vertically or diagonally. Furthermore, Boateng and Hummels are two rather attacking minded defenders. The latter likes to dribble forward vertically, while the native Berliner is also able to use free space in front of him. In a back three both could push up occasionally.
Against the ball this variant opens up some possibilities, too. Against Italy it became obvious that this greatly accommodates Hummels. His moving out of the backline is covered by two centre-backs, so he can roam freely. The new signing from Dortmund worked well with Hector at wing-back and Boateng in the center. The game of Germany going forward suffered because of this formation. At FC Bayern Alaba has totally different qualities in the last third than Jonas Hector from 1. FC Cologne. Philipp Lahm still has a massive advantage over Joshua Kimmich on the right side as well. Playing against an opponent that sits back, using Arjen Robben as a wing-back could become a possibility. The Dutchman has proven this successfully and nowadays, has the tactical discipline to help his team from this position. It wouldn’t rob him off any of his qualities, he’d just have to come from a slightly deeper starting position, his job requirement would stay the same for the most part. Not too long ago he had a superb game against AS Roma in that role. Beyond that, Douglas Costa could be a more attacking option for the wing-back position, although he’s still far behind Alaba when it comes to tactical comprehension. Besides, Alaba is a good attacking option already.
Another advantage resulting from this would be that the wide forwards to could move into the middle at times. In the half-space the paths towards goal are shorter for Robben, Müller, Costa, Coman or Ribéry. Coman has displayed at the European Championship that he could perform in that role. Müller is known for being more effective in the half-space rather than the centre or with chalk on his boots. The back three, respectively back five would be stable in defence as well as quite flexible in attack.
Analyzing the disadvantages of this formation, one comes to the conclusion that the central midfield could suffer from it. With three ball playing centre-backs the role of Xabi Alonso would be nearly redundant. It would require a typical box-to-box player like Arturo Vidal or Renato Sanches. Thiago would be the creative partner in a 5-2-3/3-4-3, who’d be responsible for the connection between offence and defence. Particularly against opponents sitting deep this formation would probably not provide enough penetration. Three centre-backs aren’t required against this opposition and even if the wing-backs are set-up to attack, the structure in the last third of a back four might be more effective. Alternatively it’s possible, that Ancelotti deploys Alaba or Kimmich at half-defender position and allows them to move forward in possession. If FC Bayern come up against a strong opponent in the Champions League, three trained centre-backs would be an interesting option.
How often have Bayern faced opposition in the Bundesliga which solely played for a 0-0? In particular at the Allianz Arena there are consistently teams that just sit back and don’t show any ambitions going forward. The more midfielders or attackers on the field, the better. As good as the defensive centre with Boateng, Hummels, Martínez and Badstuber is, sometimes one of them could suffice. Combining a central defender with Lahm and Alaba at the half positions, there’d be three defensive players responsible for preventing counter-attacks, if thing would get serious. Otherwise both half-defenders would move into the opposition’s half, while Boateng would serve as the primary build-up player. Will Ancelotti have that much courage? Probably not, although there have to be as many players as possible between the lines, if the opponent just parks the bus.
Not only the tactical abilities Pep Guardiola has left behind, above all the individual class of each defender will make Carlo Ancelotti’s mission easier. With David Alaba, the Italian always has a player on the pitch who can be used to change the system with. If the back four doesn’t work out, one could change to a back three with him. Vice versa as well. The different centre-backs are a manager’s dream, too. Hummels, Boateng and Badstuber as perfect build-up players and Javi Martínez as a worker, that can destroy the opponents game in every position. In addition there are hopes on Hummels that he could be a goal-threat, which the Bayern defence has missed in the last years. Adding Kimmich, Rafinha and Bernat to this, there are theoretical solutions for every attack you can imagine. Joshua Kimmich alone can play any system and any position in it. The 21-year old has impressively shown it this year. With him there might grow a Lahm successor, although his future should be in midfield. Ancelotti will be able to rotate a lot without much of a performance loss. Considering the short summer break for some of the national team players this will be necessary. If he really has the best defence in Europe will have to be seen, with a very high possibility it’s the most flexible. And if everything else fails, there is still Manuel Neuer.