Season Preview: Tactics
And who better to talk to for this topic than our friends at TheFalseFullback.
Let’s start with a general question: What advice can you give our readers, if they want to start paying more attention to the tactics of a game? What should they look for and how should they watch a match?
The best advice one probably can give is to not follow the ball constantly. By only following the ball one only sees a small part of the game. I would start by trying to observe the different formations a team uses in possession and out of possession. Based on that, one can continue to analyse the different tasks each player has. It starts with simple descriptions of movements. For instance, do they build up with a back three? Do the full-backs move high up the pitch? Where is the striker positioned and is he involved in circulating the ball or not?
Then, one can look at the way a team tries to progress the ball into the final third. Do they use short passes or long balls over the top? Is it a more vertical style of play or are there many switches across and horizontal passes? In the Bundesliga one will often observe teams who press high and then try to create chances on the counter-attack.
If one is able to successfully see all those details, the basis is set for an in-depth analysis of the game. Now you try to identify the interactions between the approach of the two teams. One example, team A presses with a 4-4-2 – how does team B react to that? Do they fall into a back-three with the defensive midfielder tucked in to create an overload in the first line?
The more one improves, the further one is able to analyse details. Sometimes it is only a wrong movement by one player which destroys the whole pressing plan of a team. Being able to identify those details takes time. But if one wants to pay more attention to the tactical side of the game, the first few steps described above are certainly a good starting point. In the end, it is simply a matter of practice. The more games you watch focusing on tactical aspects, the faster you see patterns and plans of teams because there are more situations saved in your mental database (your mind). Then one basically compares the occurring situation in that game with the situations, patterns and plans one has seen before. In addition, reading a bit about football tactics will be useful, too, simply to have more knowledge and identify certain patterns more quickly.
With this out of the way, let’s dig right into our favorite football team. The coming season will be a compressed season, due to the circumstances brought about by Covid-19. Flick’s Bayern played a super-aggressive pressing with a very direct approach as soon as they won the ball last season. Do you think we will see them following this uber-exhausting playing style this season again or will Flick adapt his approach in order to cope with the frantic pace of games coming up?
The way Bayern played since the appointment of Hansi Flick as head coach, especially, after the Corona-break was really impressive. This extremely man-oriented but yet flexible pressing was hard to overcome for many opponents. However, Hansi Flick will probably adjust and develop the pressing but also the actions of his players in the other three phases of the game. Two aspects are primarily responsible for this change.
For one, the pressing approach of Bayern had its flaws, even though most teams in the Champions League tournament in Lisbon were not able to use the occuring spaces and translate them into goals. Reflecting on the three games played in Lisbon, Bayern had some game luck. Both Barcelona and Lyon had good chances early on in their respective games, while PSG managed to create scoring opportunities throughout their game against Bayern. The reason was Bayern’s pressing. Even though it created immediate pressure, Bayern struggled to defend once the ball was played into the space right ahead of their back-four and then quickly behind the last line. Hansi Flick will probably use more flexible man orientations in midfield in order to balance the pressing. If he doesn’t, opponent’s will take advantage of those flaws.
The second aspect was described by you. With a game every three days, the high-intensity pressing will most probably not be sustainable over the course of 90 minutes over the full, crammed season. In general, one can expect that Bayern will improve their game in possession in order to be more dominant, better organized to facilitate their counter-pressing, and face fewer situations overall in which they have to press high in an organised way.
How could the addition of Sané change Bayern’s approach in attack?
The signing of Leroy Sané gives Bayern an additional facet in their offensive approach. Since the departure of Robben and Ribéry at the latest, actually starting with the last season of the two already, Bayern’s focus in attack has successively changed from the wings towards the centre. With players like Gnabry, Müller, and Goretzka, Bayern’s main offensive threat so far has been created in the centre, due to well-timed runs off the ball and vertical combinations. Moreover, the intense pressing focus of Bayern in the defensive phase of the game often resulted in interceptions high up the pitch, thus creating good counter-attacking opportunities.
With Leroy Sané Bayern’s offensive game will involve more actions on the wing apart from Coman’s dribbles and crosses. Compared to the French attacker, Leroy Sané is not only good in creating chances for his teammates but also for himself. Consequently, the goalscoring will be more evenly distributed and not solely focused on Robert Lewandowski. One can expect that Flick will try to create isolations for Sané on the wing against weaker defenders in order for him to dribble towards the centre. With Sané we will probably see a more variable attacking game of Bayern this season.
If Bayern were to lose not only Thiago, but also Alaba during this transfer window, which of these two would be the more devastating scenario concerning Bayerns build-up play?
Definitely David Alaba. The development of the Austrian under Flick is incredible. His intelligence, technique, and athleticism are a combination which rarely exists in world football. With him, Bayern’s build-up through the left half-space is superb. Either he finds teammates with accurate flat passes between the lines or he challenges the opponent’s pressing with his short dribblings. In addition, Bayern does not have a left-footed centre-back with those playmaking abilities as a replacement. Not for no reason did many of the opponents in Lisbon try to take Alaba out of Bayern’s build-up play. Nevertheless the loss of Thiago will hurt as well. The spanish midfielder is one of the best defensive midfielders in world football. Especially his calm and ability to keep and circulate the ball under pressure will be hard to replace. However, with Kimmich Bayern at least have a player who can partly compensate for the loss of Thiago.
What team and coach combination in the league is the most interesting situation from a tactical point of view?
Difficult question, because there are a few very interesting teams and coaches. From a tactical point of view, RB Leipzig under Julian Nagelsmann are certainly interesting. Their first season was promising not only in the Bundesliga, but also in the Champions League. It was impressive to see how Nagelsmann developed a perfect plan against Atlético Madrid’s defence. In the second season we will probably see an improved possession game of RB along with their usual strong pressing. The only question mark for me this time is how they will replace Patrick Schick and especially Timo Werner, who was the perfect RB player.
The other team to watch is Borussia M’Gladbach under Marco Rose. They were a well organized team last year. Their pressing was extremely good, as well as their behaviour in transition. Hopefully, they will further improve their possession game. Last year their build-up was already well organized, but they then often attacked quite vertically or on the counter, but struggled against deeper sitting opponents. However, if Rose manages to develop Gladbach in a similar way as his Salzburg side, they will be right in the mix for the title race once again. Both Leipzig and Gladbach are interesting to watch because they allow us a peek at the next level in the tactical development of football. Both coaches don’t have a philosophy set in stone but are flexible enough to change details, formations or the whole approach from game to game to adjust to the opponent. This flexibility is the next step forward in the tactical development of football, because being able to dominate in every phase of the game with different approaches makes a complete team and will win titles in the future.
Tuchel in Paris or Klopp in Liverpool – Germany has a few great coaches all over Europe. Which Bundesliga coach comes the closest to the two of them as a tactical mastermind?
Julian Nagelsmann and Hansi Flick both proved in the Champions League that they can make intelligent adjustments to support their teams and help their players to find spaces and use their strengths. While Hansi Flick managed to make small adjustments during the games in the Champions League, he has yet to prove to be able to make the right adjustments once the opponent finds a way to overcome Bayern’s pressing on a regular basis. Julian Nagelsmann, on the other hand, already proved that he can change formations and set-ups flexibly during a game. Compared to his time in Hoffenheim, he wasn’t able to change his side’s approach as freely in Leipzig during a game. However, this was probably because of the time the players need to adapt to Nagelsmann’s principles. We will certainly see more clever tactical in-game adjustments by Nagelsmann this season. Besides the two, Marco Rose can definitely develop into one of those tactical masterminds, if he hasn’t already. His adjustments against Leipzig and Julian Nagelsmann last season especially were extremely impressive and showed that Rose has one of the best tactical minds in football.
Are there any true tactical innovations still happening in the Bundesliga or are we past the peak of Guardiola vs. Klopp/Tuchel?
Tactical innovation will probably always occur. In the end, every coach tries to adjust his playing style to the challenges his players face. Take the false nine, it was simply an adjustment of Guardiola against the man-oriented approach of many defenses. By using the striker in a deeper role, Barcelona created numerical superiority in the centre while the opponent’s centre-backs had a difficult choice to make. Should they follow Messi and create a hole in defense or should they leave him and risk that their own midfield wouldn’t be able to defend the Barca midfield.
Two seasons ago there was a noteworthy tactical innovation at Holstein Kiel with Tim Walter and their dynamic occupation of space by moving the centre-backs in the six space. Small adjustments like that happen in the Bundesliga as well, however, we have probably moved past the peak of tactical innovation and adjustment. Guardiola vs. Klopp/Tuchel was on such a high level regarding the planning of a game and making in-game adjustments that it will be hard to reach such heights again soon. However, coaching face-offs like Nagelsmann vs. Rose or Flick can still be very interesting. On the whole, the Bundesliga still is one of the best leagues in Europe generally speaking, not only from a tactical standpoint.