On Saturday, we bore witness to some of the limitations of Pep's 4-1-4-1 when up against a strong compact defense like that which Mainz rolled out during Bayern's 4-1 win at the Allianz Arena. For the first 45 minutes, this team was very lost and very ineffective. The normally strong possession based game through the center of the pitch was stifled by spatial restrictions and the superior defensive numbers of the Mainz defense. While Bayern has struggled at times this season to breakdown compact defenses nothing has been as dramatic as it was on Saturday.
The two major takeaways from that half of play were:
- The importance of attacking fullbacks for Bayern Munich
- The importance of wing based play
The Problems of the First 45
The fullbacks for the first 45 minutes, Rafinha and Diego Contento, were basically non-existent in the entire attack. While you could make a case that their lack of attacking was good from a defensive perspective, it more likely cost this team attacking impetus and allowed to generate more dangerous counterattacks then they otherwise would have.
The first half showed one the most striking differences between how Bayern Munich's possession based attack and Barcelona's possession based attack function on the field. While Barcelona has built a dynasty on fast small interchanges and moving and exploiting small spaces found between compact defensive lines, Bayern has built its foundation of success on generating large acres of space which the teams exploits mercilessly. The importance of generating large amounts of space is fundamentally linked into wing play and stretching the field. The ability to isolate defenders one-on-one, neutralize or weaken defensive cover, or just plain force disadvantageous double teams from opposing defenses are all at the heart of generating large spaces. The system fails without aggressive wing play. On Saturday, that wing play was absent for the first 45 minutes apart from being a conduit for pumping crosses into the box.
The main ineffectiveness came from the lack of impetus from the attacking fullbacks. Without support from Contento and Rafinha, Müller and Robben were often isolated alone on the wings with often the singular option of playing the ball into the central midfield when presented with the inability to move the attack forward. This forces much of the burden on offense into the hands of the three central midfielders while also simultaneously putting them up against a structured defense without spaces in which to operate. While the Bayern midfielders are good enough to generate chances and opportunities when in this situation, it does make their job exponentially tougher simply because Kroos, Schweinsteiger and Mandzukic in the center aren't capable of doing what Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta do. The three true central midfielders and the lack of attacking fullback support were unable to breakdown the Mainz defense, and until the half, Bayern looked somewhat impotent as they pumped crosses into the box and were unable to generate the short rapid passing necessary to overload the Mainz defense in the center.
The Halftime Adjustments
Enter Mario Götze at the half for Rafinha and the switch of David Alaba from centerback to leftback and the return of Phillip Lahm to his world class work at right back. The shift into utilizing two more attacking fullbacks options solved the isolation problems for the two wide midfielders but it was Mario Götze who was the catalyst for the rapid and impressive turnaround from Bayern Munich immediately to start the first half as a false 10 in Bayern's midfield.
The quintessential example of the false 10 is Mesut Özil. The position requires a player to move and pass along the wings, often in support or interchanging with the wide midfielders, or moving up alongside the striker as a secondary striker to interplay with and off of. In Bayern's system with inverted wingers in Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, and Thomas Müller, the role is more as a supporter and interchanger with the wings then as a secondary striker. It was the addition of this role at the start of the second half that allowed Bayern Munich to completely change the dynamic of the match against Mainz.
If we look at the passing charts from the first half, we see the isolation and lack of interchanging wing play from Bayern Munich's central midfielders. We actually even see side bias from both Schweinsteiger and Kroos. The inability to exploit and open spaces kept the entire team in fairly rigid formation which is a great way to reduce creativity and the ability to break down any defense.
In the transition to the second half, we see Mario Götze enter and actually never make a single pass from the center of the pitch. He takes over the previously absent false 10 role, supporting and working with the wide midfielders to open spaces and channels. In addition, it allowed Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos more creative control and enough space to operate in the central midfield and dramatically increased their ability to influence the match. Schweinsteiger in particular became the cog of this team in a way that we haven't seen from him since last season.
In many ways Mario Götze's role on Saturday is what Pep has tried to get Thomas Müller to do all season when he has played him as a central midfielder. While it has worked to varying degrees and Müller can play the false 10 role better then most players on the planet, it definitely neuters Müller's strongest strengths - namely his off the ball movement and spatial manipulation - by forcing him into interchanges and playmaking. It's definitely nice to have a true false 10 who can work and support this system when additional width is needed. It's even nicer when he drops two assists on the day as well.