With a convincing 3-1 win against Schalke 04, Bayern Munich are back at the title fight in Bundesliga. Borussia Dortmund’s 3-3 draw against Hoffenheim earlier that day surely motivated the Bavarian squad. With 13 games to go, the gap between league leaders Dortmund and runner-up Bayern is now only five points. Schalke, on the other hand, remain in the bottom half of the table.
In our analysis, we will show the tactical measures taken by both teams and explain why Bayern Munich still need further improvement in order to reach their season goals.
Bayern Coach Niko Kovac used a 4-3-3 formation for his team. Jerome Boateng started as centre-back instead of Niklas Süle. Apart from that, there were no further changes in comparison to the German Cup game against Hertha Berlin on Wednesday.
Concerning Schalke, Domenico Tedesco preferred a 4-4-2 system, like in all the previous matches since the winter break. The system with a back-three, one of the key factors for last season’s success at Schalke, is history for now. Up-Front, Tedesco once again trusted young Ahmed Kutucu. The talented 18-year-old had scored a wonderful goal on Wednesday in the German Cup, so his performance was highly anticipated. Schalke hopes to possess another diamond coming from their academy “Knappenschmiede,” much like Julian Draxler, Mesut Özil, Leroy Sane and many more.
Schalke defend deep but offer gaps
In their 4-4-2 system, Schalke defended extremely deep. Frequently, all their players were in their own half, defending.
The image above is one of many examples where Schalke are passive and move back enormously. The back line and the midfield line are positioned around the box. Kutucu and Bentaleb up-front are only 30-35 meters away from goalkeeper Fährmann. Tedesco’s team rarely put pressure on the opponent. Instead, they try to stay compact and leave Bayern no room. 69.6% of possession for Bayern and only 30.4% for Schalke, as well as 687 to 294 passes in Bayern’s favour, underline the fact that Bayern were way more active. This certainly doesn’t come as surprise. The surprising factor is the spaces Schalke fail to close down, nonetheless. Despite moving back and defending deep, Schalke lacked compactness and offered a lot of gaps.
If we look at this image, we can clearly see that the midfield line isn’t positioned well. Right wing Suat Serdar has an eye on David Alaba. 20-year-old Weston McKennie isn’t close enough to Robert Lewandowski (circled in red). The distance between McKennie and Serdar is about 20 meters, which is way too much. As a consequence, the pass from Thiago to Lewandowski is easily possible. Lewandowski controls the balls and immediately plays a through-ball to Gnabry, who fails to convert the resulting one-on-one position into a goal.
Bayern were eager to play fast vertical passes on some occasions. This image provides one such example. Unlike in a counter-attack, there are still eight Schalke players in this image. The problem is that some players don’t fulfil any purpose. There is no pressure on Gnabry, who is in possession of the ball. Also, there are huge gaps between the players. Kimmich attacks the empty space behind the left-back, while Goretzka, Lewandowski and Coman are ready to receive the ball in the box as well.
Bayern exploit Schalke’s weaknesses
With their huge individual quality, Bayern managed to exploit these weaknesses. Schalke coach Tedesco recognised the problems in his midfield line and substituted Sebastian Rudy prematurely in minute 33. But Omar Mascarell wasn’t able to overcome these difficulties either, since it was a collective problem.
From Bayern’s point of view, Robert Lewandowski played an important role. The polish striker participated in his team’s offence by intelligent movement between the defensive lines.
Once again we see how Schalke tried to defend in a compact fashion. At first sight, it seems as if Schalke are doing fine. The red line marks the vertical distance between the two defensive lines. Boateng, who is a great passer, sees Lewandowski moving between the defensives lines. With a fantastic laser-pass, Boateng finds Lewandowski. The midfield-four is out of play and Lewandowski once again shows his creative abilities in finding Gnabry in the follow-up to this image.
Furthermore, Bayern used such fast vertical passes often enough after gaining possession. Bayern’s first two goals were scored in such fashion. This surely was an important factor in order to win the match. When Bayern couldn’t play fast though, it became much harder to create chances.
Bayern’s build-up and the special role of James Rodriguez
Until now, Niko Kovac didn’t trust James all that much. In this game though, the Colombian was nearly everywhere and played a great match. Similar to many games last season under Jupp Heynckes, James was quite actively involved in the build-up. Previously, Kovac had used him only in the final third, but this game was slightly different.
Here, James receives the ball from Mats Hummels and initiates the build-up. Note that Thiago, Goretzka and Kimmich are positioned on the same horizontal line. This is something that possession-oriented coaches like Guardiola wouldn’t prefer, since the players are in the way for a potential pass to the player next to them.
This image is a good example of a pattern that occurred often. James fell back into the right half-space and tried to create something from this position. Often, he would play the ball out to the wing to Kimmich. Other passing options are Gnabry and Thiago. Occasionally, James tried to move the ball to the other wing with a long ball to Alaba. Thus, Bayern were constant in their possession game and moved the ball as well as the opponent. In these set-plays, Bayern couldn’t create many chances though.
Bayern’s problems in the build-up
One of the problems was that besides James, Goretzka and Thiago would fall back as well. Most of the time, Thiago moved back between Boateng and Hummels. Goretzka in the left half-space was pretty much useless, as he isn’t a creative player. In the follow-up, when the ball was played out to the wing to either Kimmich or Alaba, situations like the following arose.
With all the central midfielders falling back in the build-up, the centre was sometimes not occupied. Thus, Kimmich only has the option to play a long ball or turn back. For a team having a possession rate of 70%, this kind of positional weakness is problematic.
Looking at this image, we see that seven Bayern players are involved in the build-up. In the circled space are only Kutucu and Bentaleb from Schalke. Playing seven against two with such technical skilled players seems like a waste of resources, as it may result in a lack of players in the last third. We have seen that the movement of Lewandowski and partly Gnabry compensated for that. But nonetheless, it remains difficult to understand the need for so many players in the build-up.
Especially at the beginning, Goretzka made odd decisions in terms of without-the-ball-movement. It seemed as if he got the directive to move back, but didn’t know when to do that.
In this image, Hummels has a lot of passing options. On the left-hand side, the passing lane to Alaba is open. The right-wing seems even more promising, as there is no opponent. So he could easily play the ball to Boateng or Thiago. James recognises this and occupies a central offensive position. Instead of staying in his position, Goretzka wants to move back between Hummels and Boateng. In this situation though, it is not at all necessary. If Schalke pressed the centre-backs, it would make sense to help them. Here, there is not any pressure at all.
In this situation only a few minutes later, Thiago receives the ball from the right-wing from Kimmich. Thiago has all the time in the world and there is no need to try to support him. Even before receiving the ball, an intelligent player like Thiago knows that he will move the ball to the other side and pass it to Hummels. Goretzka ends up running back for nothing, as a pass to him wouldn’t make any sense.
Defending counter-attacks remains a huge problem for Bayern
All season long, Bayern Munich have shown defensive weaknesses. The Bavarians have already conceded 24 goals in the Bundesliga. As the big game against Liverpool is coming up, Niko Kovac needs to sort that out as fast as possible. Even though Schalke weren’t quite dangerous offensively, the known weaknesses of Bayern’s defence came to light once again. Youngster Ahmed Kutucu punished it without showing any mercy.
After losing the possession, Bayern tried to regain it immediately with a good counter-press. Three Bayern players are attacking Bentaleb. In this situation, a tactical foul would be an option as well. But Bentaleb manages to get the ball to McKennie.
Here, Boateng needs to attack McKennie, while Alaba should cover him and keep an eye on Kutucu. Coman, running behind Kutucu, is one of the fastest players on Earth and needs to push more in order to catch him.
Instead, Alaba tried to attack McKennie, and Boateng runs back. While Kutucu is at full speed, Boateng needs to accelerate first. Coman, on the other hand, loses track to Kutucu. The young star is faster than Boateng and Coman and scores cold-bloodedly against ‘keeper Ulreich.
From this perspective, the errors in terms of coverage are even more obvious.
From Schalke’s perspective, this game was similar to many games this season. Tedesco’s teams want to stay defensively compact, but fail in doing so, as they make too many individual and collective mistakes. Offensively, the gameplan relies on long balls and counter-attacks. Kutucu’s fantastic moment was a rare moment where the plan was successful.
Bayern, on the other hand, had great moments when they played fast vertical passes to their strikers and wingers. The build-up structure showed obvious shortcomings, but the individual class of the team, especially James and Lewandowski, compensated for that. Defensively, Kovac needs to make immediate adjustments if Bayern want to make it to the next round. For sure Salah, Mane and Firmino will punish every tiny mistake.
If you love tactical analysis, then you’ll love the digital magazines from totalfootballanalysis.com – a guaranteed 100+ pages of pure tactical analysis covering topics from the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga and many, many more. Pre-order your copy of the February issue for just ₤4.99 here, or even better sign up for a ₤50 annual membership (12 monthly issues plus the annual review) right here.