It has been a wild week in the DFB Pokal Cup. Upsets, goals and fascinating tactical battles have brought German football to the forefront of people’s minds. Hertha Berlin vs Bayern Munich was no different.
In front of a packed house in the nation’s capital, Pál Dárdai and Niko Kovač sent out their teams to battle once more. Kovač and his Bavarian stars managed to progress to the next round after Kingsley Coman’s extra-time header put Bayern 3-2 ahead to end a fascinating tactical encounter.
Both teams made changes from their weekend Bundesliga losses with Hertha reverting to a back four. It saw a return to the starting line up for Skjelbred and Kalou with Lustenberger and Maier dropping out.
Kovač used this game to give us a possible preview into his thoughts for the upcoming Champions League tie against Liverpool. With Muller suspended for the upcoming clash, Kovač replaced the stalwart German with Serge Gnabry. He also recalled Thiago Alcantara to the first 11 to cover the central channel, moving Kimmich back to his preferred right full-back role.
Both teams found their game plans thrown out of the window within seven minutes. Inside three minutes, Goretzka burst into the Hertha penalty area only to be tripped, hit the ground and then receive a yellow for simulation.
During Kovač’s complaints to the fourth official, Hertha overloaded their top line to disconnect Bayern’s midfield from their defence. Jarstein played a long ball, Mittlestadt got onto the knockdown, played a neat one-two with Kalou before firing between Hummels’ legs and past the outstretch Ulreich to give the hosts the lead.
Hertha Berlin is a strong team at home, and the early lead seemed to give them hope. Having not let in a goal against Bayern Munich since October 2017, the fans started to dream. The dream lasted four minutes.
Kovač got the immediate response he was after. After a swift combination down the right-hand side between Kimmich and Gnabry, a cross was put in for Lewandowski. The prolific striker fought Rekik for the ball and forced it into the path of the onrushing Gnabry to slot home. 1-1, seven minutes gone.
Hertha’s defensive shifts and triggers
With the ball, the hosts formed a traditional 4-4-2 with both their wingers and their fullbacks looking to push forward. Out of possession, however, Dardai’s side became a fluid unit of three lines that looked to stifle the opposition centrally. Once the ball was won, they countered quickly with the aim of exploiting the space left behind Bayern’s aggressive fullbacks.
When the ball was with Bayern’s first line, Hertha sat in a 4-4-2 with the two attackers working together to not allow passes through the central channel.
Once the ball moved out wide into the half or wing space, a shift took place that freed up one of the central midfielders to help press.
In an effort to put pressure on the ball, the right-sided midfielder, Kalou, has shifted across the field to pick up one of Bayern’s attacking midfield duo. This then releases the strong sided central midfielder to help the left-sided player put pressure on the ball.
This forced Bayern to play backwards throughout much of the first half. As soon as the ball was played back to the central defenders, the Hertha defensive shape changed again.
Central channel issues for Bayern
Throughout the first half, Bayern built well and dominated possession and territory. This was in large part due to Thiago and his ability to dictate play from the quarterback role he was given.
He sat centrally for much of the half, received the ball from Hummels and Sule and then looked to either combine with James and Goretzka or play a third line pass to the wide players making a blindside run behind their full back.
For Bayern, the issues started when they were unable to find Thiago in the initial build up. If Bayern had possession in Hertha’s half, the hosts dropped into a narrow 4-4-1-1 with Duda tracking Thiago’s movements. When this happened, Bayern struggled to play forwards and found themselves playing a lot of U-pattern passes across the back line.
The visitors also struggled when Thiago wasn’t vigilant in his positioning. Unlike the Bayern of Pep Guardiola, this team does not have the same urgency when it comes to positioning across the field. Thiago often found himself drifting out wide to try and escape the clutches of Duda.
In previous seasons, this wouldn’t have been an issue, as one of the other midfield three would have repositioned themselves to make sure the team was still connected positionally. However during the first half neither James or Goretzka dropped back to help, and as such Bayern’s build up was disjointed and predictable.
Bayern’s attempts to disrupt the 4-4-1-1
As the half continued, Bayern found themselves becoming increasingly frustrated at the lack of quality opportunities they created. As a counter to this Bayern had Thiago drop into the first line to pick up the ball and dictate play. Thiago split the pair of Hummels and Sule, creating a back three in the first line.
This shift in lines created an issue for Hertha as their front two was now trying to cover three. It allowed Bayern to control the ball more and helped them create overloads in the wing space. Bayern worked to get one of the back three with space ahead to then dribble into.
By dribbling forward with the ball, it creates an issue for the opponent. Hertha now has a decision to make in either sticking to their defensive shape or putting pressure on the ball carrier.
Through Hummels dribbling in the left half space, Bayern had success in drawing Skelbred or Kalou towards the ball. This created a numerical superiority for Alaba and Coman against Lazaro.
Although Coman and Alaba often found themselves in space to cross, this did not lead to the chances Bayern were hoping for. During the match, Coman attempted five crosses, with none finding a teammate. Alaba faired only slightly better with one of his seven attempts finding his target.
Second half and extra time
Bayern started the second half quickly and took the lead within three minutes of the restart. Unsurprisingly it was Gnabry that grabbed the goal.
Following this, the second half took a similar pattern to the first. Bayern dominated in possession, territory and chances on goal. Hertha continued to make life difficult for their illustrious opposition, forcing Bayern out wide with crosses being their only option. Hertha did grab a fortunate equaliser after a Hummels mistake, but it was Kingsley Coman who finally finished the game off with a scrappy header in extra-time.
Thiago and the left half space
One noticeable change was the positioning of Thiago within the build phase of Bayern’s play.
Thiago was not dropping into the first line as often as earlier in the match. This meant that the Spaniard was able to receive the ball from Hummels and Sule in a position to connect play.
As you can see from Thiago’s second-half heat map, he was able to take up a position in the left half space and then connect through James, Alaba, and Coman. This reliance on the left-hand side allowed Gnabry to be the free man on the opposite flank. Through this overload to isolate principle, Bayern were then able to release Gnabry one on one against Plattnhardt.
Star turn: Serge Gnabry
Gnabry was one of few bright spots for Bayern on what turned out to be a tricky night in the national capital. The scorer of two goals and for most of the match, Bayern’s only attacking threat, Gnabry shone for Kovač’s side. Gnabry’s statistics make for good reading compared to his season averages.
In the absence of Thomas Müller, Kovač gave Gnabry the job of being the main link with Lewandowski. The highly talented striker is well known for his deceptive movement off of the ball, and it was this that led to Gnabry and Bayern’s second.
Having recycled possession through Sule and Kimmich, Gnabry starts to drift into an inside space.
This leaves the wing space open for James to occupy and means Hertha no have two central players to deal with in the top line.
Lewandowski then checks to receive the ball to feet, pulling his marker with him.
Gnabry reads the rotation and drives into the open space. James reads the run and plays a first time ball into the open area. Gnabry takes a touch and puts it past Jarstein. Lewandowski’s movement and Gnabry’s ability to read the situation is simple, yet effective.
During the match, Bayern looked to start attacks centrally using Thiago, James and Goretzka and combination play. This resulted in Hertha becoming very narrow in their defensive shape. Gnabry and Coman positioned themselves outside of this block and maintained width so that Bayern could quickly switch play.
Due to Gnabry and Coman’s dribbling ability, Bayern continued to look to isolate them against their fullbacks. In this instance, Coman remains blindside of Lazaro whilst Gnabry uses a quick check and spin to open up space in behind. This positioning and movement are to try and stretch Hertha horizontally as well as vertically. By doing so Bayern would be able to find more space between lines. This is key as for every 25 passes to a forward facing player between the midfield and defensive lines, 10 of them result in a shot on goal.
In what is becoming a pattern for Bayern Munich, they were once again dominant in all aspects of the game. However, individual errors and lapses of concentration in positional terms are making things much harder for the Bavarian giants. If Kovač cannot make adjustments or fix these errors then Bayern could be in for a tough time against a free-scoring Liverpool side.
For Pál Dárdai and Hertha Berlin, however, the season now starts to become a test of character. Comfortable in the Bundesliga and out of the Cup, Dárdai needs to be able to make a push for the Europa League places. Defensively and at home, Hertha are a match for anyone. Against teams lesser than themselves, however, they need to be able to dictate tempo. This will help them force play in a way that has yet to be seen. They will be an interesting team to watch this spring!