Season Preview: Tactics

Maurice Separator September 17, 2020

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.

»Eier, wir brauchen Eier!«

— Oliver Kahn

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  1. Flick confirmed yesterday that he will not change his principles and high pressing game plan.
    He will want though that the team continues to learn and improve on keeping the ball longer to pause and recharge during a match. As Goretzka confirmed they are already training specific elements.
    I do imagine that they will try to either decide matches much quicker than they used to and then playing it out with retaining the ball in their ranks. If that not work out to keep the game open without running unnecessary risks just to bring on the big guns in the last quarter to win.

    Dest will me done soon so that they managed to close the most pressing gap as Pavard back up. With Thiago and Coutinho the team lost the two players with the highest skill set retaining the ball- something they want to built on more during the coming season. I imagine they look for a player who can make up for their loss. Kimmich and Goretzka will improve. Cuisance still loves the high risk passes and Tolisso is a major doubt in this department. Fein nobody knows if he can adapt on this level.
    Long term replacements surely are players like Aouar Fabian Ceballos. Dele Alli is another option, Eriksen as well. Both unwanted by their clubs. Maybe Wijnaldum from Liverpool on a free transfer – or Pogba? All players who can retain a ball and vary the speed of action.
    Up front I rather go for a Depay type rather than a pure winger like Hudson Odoi.

  2. Hey 918,

    All very good points you make, but I’d like to offer a bit of a different view on some of them just for the sake of perspective.

    I can’t really see that Bayern have been struggling to decide games early in recent times. Do you? When I watch their games, I see a Bayern that push up and press and provide a goal threat from the first minute on in almost every game, quite unlike most other teams. And they are also one of the few teams that will not relent until the final whistle blows.

    Which, incidentally, also speaks to your second point. To my mind, the call for a Bayern “cruise control mode” – which is essentially what you make when you say that Bayern should retain the ball and perhaps move it around a bit in midfield after going in front in a game – is a misguided one. Such a cruise control playing style would be totally alien to the DNA of how Bayern play. I think that the supposed benefit of phases of reduced physical stress during a game when the players don’t have to chase every ball as if their life depended on it is more than offset by the added mental stress of having to adjust to an alien playing style that is fundamentally not theirs, as well as the added time and effort needed in training in order to bring such a cruise control mode to the necessary level of proficiency so that it won’t be too much of a risk using it in highly competitive games.

    As far as your signing suggestions are concerned, I’ve been observing a tendency of yours to bring up players like Eriksen, Pogba, and the like. I don’t think this is realistic at all, let alone desirable. In contrast to such clubs as Juve, ManUnited, PSG, Real etc. Bayern have never really followed a strategy of signing established, and/or big name star players like Pogba, Eriksen, Wijnaldum, Alli etc. who have already been playing for another club for a long time and made their mark there. Coutinho last year was a rare exception, and he was signed just on a loan.

    Bayern’s transfer m.o. has always been to sign either young or established German players from other Bundesliga clubs or international talents or upcoming stars still at the beginning of their rise to fame from minor to mid-sized clubs (and not your PSGs, Juves etc.). This strategy has served them well so far and I think that, cost-efficiency wise, it will continue to do so in the future, even if it means that some of the most dazzling names in international football, such as Pogba, Mbappé, Sterling, Mané, Salah, de Bruyne (now) etc., will hardly ever feature on the FC Bayern team sheet.

  3. Hi Alex
    Good points.
    As you know I am a fan of Kimmich ever since he appeared in Munich. He developed a lot but must now take the next step as Thiago left. He must learn how to pace the game without giving up on Flicks principal philosophy.
    Flick talked about it again and again even during the run in : once we are up and in a 3-4 goal lead we must be able to control ourselves and close out the match; once we are not in a proper lead yet we also must be able to stay calm and be patient rather than playing relentless risky vertical passes which invite dangerous counter attacks. So far we managed not to chase games very often but you may agree the match against PSG would have been a bit more complicated if the scored first.
    Flick mentioned it now several times that they continue to press and unsettle but maybe a bit more intelligent and controlled. So we shall see if and how the team will be able to implement those elements and move on to a next level up.
    And Kimmich will play the most important part in it. If he succeeds to run and manage the game in this way no one will look back for Thiago.
    Same applies for the others but Kimmich must take control when we have the ball in the same way as Müller does and coordinates the press without the ball.

    As for transfers:
    The first team is clear but we need 2-3 more quality players. Aouar Ceballos Fabian are exactly the type of player we surely shall look for and described by yourself. They are young skilled but already experienced players who can fill the gap in midfield which Fein Cuisance Tolisso cannot fill. None of them are realistic now.

    As for now short term I would surely loan Eriksen or Alli if they were available even without an option to buy. Both provide better options than the three players mentioned above. Pogba is unrealistic ( agent salary team structure) but from a pure sporting perspective a brilliant fit. Wijnaldum next year on a free is a bit more realistic as he is a great squad player with high quality who can easily cover for Goretzka and Müller. Even Götze now is better than nothing.

    We need experience after Thiago Coutinho Perisic left. As you know I would have taken William long ago rather than waiting for Perisic to disappear. CHO is a no go. Personally I’d rather have Rafa than Odri.

    Long term in a different situation we would never discuss Götze or Rafa. I completely agree that we successfully managed to bring high quality talented players in, low twenties but already experienced and turning them into top players. It is the correct way but we need experience as well.
    Thiago and Alaba were essential corner stones in this picture . A shame that management were not able to pin them down much earlier(Kovac?), lesson learned hopefully and they now extend with Kimmich Goretzka Gnabry Süle asap.

  4. Hi 918,

    Welcome back. I completely agree with you on Joshua Kimmich. He will have to take up the mantle now that Thiago has left. He will be the next leader and conductor in midfield through whom Bayern’s game flows. Kimmich has already made great strides in his (not so new any more) deep-lying playmaker role in midfield. He has already demonstrated that he is a very quick study and more then capable of stepping up to the challenge Thiago left him. He has made significant progress over the last 18 to 24 months – essentially ever since he has been consistently used as a midfielder rather than a full-back – both as a player and as a leader, both on and off the pitch, and I have great trust that he will become one of Bayern’s most essential players for the next five years.

    The only other two players in the present Bayern squad I find comparable to Kimmich with respect to their role as leaders and taskmasters in the team are Müller and Alaba (if he decides to stay and recommit himself to Bayern like Lewandowski did a few years ago when he was on the verge of signing for Real but didn’t).

    Due to the empty and quiet grounds, COVID-19 has demonstrated for everyone to see and hear how crucially important this kind of vocal, tireless leader and taskmaster on the pitch really is for a team to realise its full potential. I’m convinced that without Kimmich and Müller constantly harrying the teammates around them, Bayern would have been only half as good.

    Agree with you on your points regarding the squad and transfer situation. I’m not one for signing players just because I like their names or because it would feel good to have them on the team-sheet, but I agree with you that Bayern’s squad is awfully thin at the moment in some crucial positions, most notably at right-back. However, unlike you I don’t see the situation in midfield close to hopeless. I’m not sure what Fein can do, I’ve never seen him play, but given the current run-of-the-mill Bundesliga fare for competition, Tolisso and Cuisance should be able to do a competent job in most fixtures. In a way, almost see it as a good thing that Bayern have a light squad and will have to rely on unseasoned and youth players at times during the season to make up the numbers. Bayern are so far ahead of everybody else that even if they have a two or three of Cuisance, Zirkzee, OBM, Musiala etc. in the starting lineup, they will still dispatch most other teams handily. What better opportunity for these players to grow and learn than playing alongside the likes of Kimmich, Müller, Alaba, Lewandowski against real Bundesliga competition in competitive games without the coaching staff having to lose much sleep over risking the title in giving them starts. Perhaps then the Bundesliga would become more of a competition again, too, then the one-man-show / farce it currently is. ;-)

  5. Hey Alex
    Fully agree with you on Fein Cuisance Nianzou Musiala. For half of the Bundesliga games they are good enough to start. They will have enough chances to prove themselves.
    But still believe we need long term a better player than Tolisso- and it wont be a kid.
    I am sure we will get 2-3 players in next week of which at least 2 will be loaned and experience.

    They run it from the worst case model mindset- which is the right thing to do in this situation.

    Next year will be a different game altogether again. Results 19/21 will be and must be ascertained together and it will be very interesting also with regard to FFP.

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