Guardiola, Bayern, 3-4-3 and the UEFA Champions League.

guardiola_bayernPep Guardiola has always liked 3-4-3. First implemented in disguise, it was at Barcelona that the Spaniard first adopted the formation. Although his Barca side were better known for playing with a 4-3-3 in order to accommodate their passing brand of football, Guardiola, the tactician that he is, secretly applied a 3-4-3.

Similarities between his Barcelona past and his Bayern present are not uncommon. Aside from the obvious blue and red blaugrana kit that Bayern will be sporting this season, similar tactics have been adopted. This can be seen most predominantly in both tactical formations and playing style.

 

3-4-3 going forward
3-4-3 going forward

Whilst at Barcelona, Guardiola would often (initially) set his side up with four defenders, three midfielders, and three forwards. However during games this would be altered greatly. With right back Daniel Alves coming into midfield and Eric Abidal at left back staying put, Barcelona were transformed into a four man midfield. This four man midfield was ideal for maintaining possession, with more bodies in the centre of the pitch. With more bodies Barcelona could pass the ball more freely, with more players in close proximity to the man with the ball (eg: Busquets, Xavi, etc).

All of this was of course set up with an attacking state of mind. When defensive duties came into call, Alves, if it was Alves who made up the extra midfield player, would revert back to the base formation of 4-3-3, with Carlos Puyol shifting left to make up a centre back pairing with Gerard Pique. Sounds simple. Take it a step further if Lionel Messi (as often does) drops deep into the ‘hole’ in midfield. This creates a five man midfield, with three defenders and two attackers.

Guardiola set up in this manner as a means to keep possession of the ball. Keeping possession was a crucial aspect of the tika-taka style of play implemented by Barcelona during the Guardiola years. And many of his previous Barca traits can be seen in his new project at Bayern.

In their 1-1 draw with Schalke 04 Bayern too adopted a 3-4-3 formation. The movement of David Alaba to left midfield from left back, thus creating a four-man midfield, parallels that of Daniel Alves at Barcelona. With new signing Xabi Alonso dropping deep between Jerome Boateng and Holger Badstuber, Philipp Lahm was pushed forward in attack to right midfield. Although initially set up with Mario Gotze behind the duo of Thomas Müller and Robert Lewandowski, it was clear that Lewandowski would operate as a lone striker, with Gotze pushed out to left wing and Müller playing in the ‘number 10’ role behind Lewandowski.

Similar to his Barcelona side, Pep Guardioa’s Bayern also adopt two different systems during play: one for going forward and one for defending. Against Schalke Bayern alternated between a 3-4-1-2 going forward and a 4-3-3 in defence. When tracking back, David Alaba and Philipp Lahm fell into a simple four man defence with Jerome Boateng and Holger Badtsuber moving inwards to centre back. Likewise the three man midfield of Alonso, Gotze and Rode would fall back to defend directly in front of the defence, applying pressure to the Schalke attack. Similarities can be drawn player to player (eg: Alonso at Bayern to Busquets at Barca; Mario Gotze to Andres Iniesta) but this is not like for like in the way that the formation adaptation is.

Lahm and Alaba push forward (yellow)
Lahm and Alaba push forward (yellow)

The system itself did not succeed against Schalke. With Robert Lewandowski isolated up front, and no chances being created for him by the likes of Mario Gotze and Thomas Müller, Bayern lacked serious penetration in the final third. The game passed newboys Sebastian Rode and Juan Bernat by, whilst Xherdan Shaqiri provided a typically frustrating performance, with odd glimpses of good play. Late in the second half Schalke added more aggression to their play in search of an equaliser to Lewandowski’s opener. Encouragement for Bayern could be seen in a model Philipp Lahm performance and Xabi Alonso’s like-for-like fill for Toni Kroos. With Arjen Robben, Thiago Alcantara, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Frank Ribery all due back from injury, Bayern should be looking more familiar both in terms of lineup and performance, in the coming weeks.

It is said to be the mark of a good manager to have a distinct style of play, but that a great manager learns to adapt, and evolve, depending on his players and resources available. Pep Guardiola appears to be taking a half and half approach to this at Bayern. Although players with different skill-sets are available to him at Bayern, Guardiola persists with his passing style, although not as rigorously as was carried at FC Barcelona.

This new passing style was evident from Bayern’s first game under Guardiola. Bayern had never been previously accustomed to playing the ball around at the back in slow, steady buildup play, so to speak. But with Pep at the helm it appears that the manager has taken his own style with him to Munich. Not evolving so much as implementing his own style to his team.

A flat back four: 4-3-3 in defence.
A flat back four: 4-3-3 in defence.

This is not necessarily a criticism, however the similarities are there to be seen.

In his first season at the Allianz Arena, Guardiola managed to win the league and cup double, securing the Bundesliga title in record fashion with seven games remaining. However, when taken into account that his predecessor Jupp Heynckes had won the treble the year before, Guardiola’s achievement is not an improvement. Bayern’s 5-0 aggregate humiliation at the hands of Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid was a clear low point for Bayern and Guardiola alike.

-It was later revealed the deep and psychological impact that the loss had taken on the team. With Bayern having wrapped up the Bundesliga in late March, claiming the UEFA Champions League title was the essential priority.

And so it seems that no less than winning the European Cup in his second season in charge will do for Guardiola. When announced as the successor to Jupp Heynckes in January 2013 and with Bayern’s treble winning season, it appeared that the addition of Guardiola to the ranks was a step forward for the German champions and a sign of progression. A surge of Bayern Munich domination was set to be unleashed, but again it seems that last seasons failure to bring home the UEFA Champions League, greatly diminished this.

UEFA Champions League or nothing.
UEFA Champions League or nothing.

With the addition of Mario Götze and Thiago Alcântara last season, as well as Xabi Alonso, Robert Lewandowski, Pepe Reina and Mehdi Benatia to the squad this season, Bayern’s squad depth is second to none across all other European competitors. Bayern have themselves contributed to the growth of ‘super clubs’ across Europe recently. Similar to Chelsea FC, Real Madrid CF and Manchester City, Bayern have built their club on the basis of high quality squad depth. The top football clubs of 2014 must exist with an eleven of world class players as well as a bench suited with players capable of making an impact.

The growth of super clubs such as Bayern creates fierce competition for places, most notably with goalkeepers. Bayern too have followed in the trend of having two established “number one’s” in Manuel Neuer and Pepe Reina competing for a place in the teamsheet. Barcelona, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Manchester City too share this healthy dilemma.

Pep Guardiola’s goal this season, simple in clarity, is the UEFA Champions League or nothing. With Bayern expected, as they have done for the past two seasons, to claim the Bundesliga title, this season’s European Cup must be going back to Munich, and into the hands of Pep Guardiola.

 

 

 

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