Bayern Munich’s performance in the first half of their commanding 3-1 victory against Wolfsburg in the DFB-Pokal has been widely acclaimed as one of their best under Pep Guardiola. Laying on three goals inside the opening 35 minutes, they dominated the game with their typical tactical traits – dominating possession, incorporating fluid positional play, and mixing patience on the ball with strong penetration in attack.
While these principles have been consistent throughout Guardiola’s tenure, Bayern maintain significant unpredictability due to their ability to make minor adjustments to the system of play. Thanks to some extremely versatile players, Bayern are able to change their shape fluidly during games, often doing so to either target or exploit a weakness in the opposition, or create an area of advantage for themselves.
In this match, for example, Bayern utilised a slight variation on their typical build up methods by using what Rene Maric described as ‘lopsided full-backs’. When Bayern had possession in the build up phase, the full-backs Phillip Lahm and David Alaba had two different roles. On the right hand side, Lahm stayed much deeper and closer to the right-sided centre-back, Javi Martinez. As Wolfsburg defending in a 4-4-2 shape, this meant Lahm was ‘goalside’ of the front two, positioned in the same receiving line as the two centre-backs.
In contrast, Alaba was higher on the left hand side, level and outside of the Wolfsburg front two. This meant he was positioned in a more advanced receiving line than Lahm, which sometimes gave Bayern the appearance that they were building up with a back three.
On paper, it looked something like this…
There were two interesting outcomes from this formation.
Firstly, it meant Boateng, from a left-of-centre position, often received the ball with minimal pressure and was thus free to hit long, accurate diagonals to switch the play towards Thomas Muller on the right. This was a key feature of the opening ten minutes (and has been of Bayern’s attacking play this season, most notably against Borussia Dortmund).
Secondly, the lopsided shape of the back four allowed Alaba to push forward aggressively from left-back. He combined brillantly with Kingsley Coman throughout the first half, varying his forward runs and constantly overlapping/underlapping when the ball entered the final third.
Another crucial component in allowing Alaba this freedom was the movement of Thiago Alcantara into deeper positions in the left half-space (this being the zone between the flank and the centre if the pitch was divided into five vertical zones).
In the context of Wolfsburg’s 4-4-2 formation, this meant Thiago was able to receive the ball on the outside of the front two. It left Bas Dost with a near-impossible decision – does he move forward to close down Thiago, with the risk of either a) giving Boateng more space on the ball – which we’ve already seen was very dangerous, or b), conceding space in the centre of the pitch that Xabi Alonso would’ve been able to take advantage of.
In this regard, it’s important to note Alonso positioned himself behind Wolfsburg’s front two, in the same receiving line as Alaba. This meant Dost and Julian Draxler focused on blocking passes into him, and thus prevented Dost, as mentioned above from moving out to press Thiago.
Therefore, with Thiago, Alaba and Boateng now giving Wolfsburg a major headache, the stage is set for Bayern to effectively build up play from the back. This allowed them to create multiple angles of penetration in the final third, with a strong focus on crosses to Muller and Lewandowski at the back post paying obvious dividends for the second and third goals.
What’s perhaps most impressive about this performance is that it’s merely one case study of the endless variations Bayern have up their sleeve. Guardiola is able to alter his side’s positional structure to get the best out of his players, without drastic changes to the principles that dictate their style of play.
Here, we saw how slight changes in the positioning of Lahm, Alonso, Thiago and Alaba (the latter, it’s worth noting, has played centre-back for the past month) gave Bayern the platform to cut through Wolfsburg’s defensive structure time and time again.