Profiling the Single Pivoteers: Who's the best option as Bayern Munich's lone holding midfielder?

Simon Hofmann

WIth the wealth of talent available to Pep Guardiola and the numerous options that can play the single pivot of the 4-1-4-1, who is really the best option for Bayern Munich?

It's been a wildly successful season for Bayern Munich as they've only lost and drawn twice respectively in all competitions. It's also been a year of radical change as the team has added a dominant possession based emphasis onto the onslaught type mentality that has pervaded their system for years. On the most radical shirts has been away from the double pivot of the near-universal 4-2-3-1 to the 4-1-4-1 system that Guardiola has them using.

While responses to that system ranges from "it' totally blows, man" to "it's a defensive catastrophe waiting to happen" to "ZOMGS! ALL THE POSSESSIONS!", it is clear that the system is here to stay and it's time to find the best option to play that position.

A review

While the position has been mostly utilized to the same effect, it's been occupied by no less then 4 different players as injuries forced Pep Guardiola's hand. To start the season, Bastian Schweinsteiger was the man in the role and had by far the most difficult job as the sided learned and adapted to the new system. While he struggled first due to unfamiliarity then later due to injury it was Phillip Lahm, the wily captain, who stepped in filling the role admirably. It was a role he was pressed into when long term injuries to Schweinsteiger, Javier Martinez, and Thiago Alcantara left them with no one to fill that role. With the increasing health of the squad, it was a rotating complement of Lahm, Martinez, and Thiago who filled that role. However, no one has ever staked their claim to the position with a series of outstanding all-around performances.

In Possession

Minutes Pass% BackZonePass% FwdZonePass% Pass/90 Touches/90 Longballs/90
Bastian Schweinsteiger 242 0.92 0.97 0.85 103.61 115.52 14.52
Philipp Lahm 720 0.91 0.95 0.86 94.13 105 7
Javi Martínez 270 0.91 0.98 0.84 79.33 98 6.67
Thiago Alcántara 76 0.91 0.95 0.84 104.21 118.42 16.58

The first thing that's evident in examining these players in possession is that they are nearly identical in passing. They are within a percentage point of each other in total passing percentage, both offensively and defensively. Where the differences break down is in importance of buildup play. Schweinsteiger and Thiago both display much higher pass per 90 and touches per 90 then their counterparts. In conjunction with that, they also show a much higher propensity to play longballs. Longballs from the back have been an important addition of Guardiola's system with the aim to draw defenses high and deliver balls over the top or forcibly pinning teams back and stifling counterattacks. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Javi Martinez who shows both much lower passes per 90 and touches per 90 then his fellow single pivoteers. Sandwiched between the two extremes on this side is Phillip Lahm

In Attack

Minutes Final Third Passes/90 Key Pases/90
Bastian Schweinsteiger 242 19.29 0.41
Philipp Lahm 720 23.75 0.75
Javi Martínez 270 15.33 0
Thiago Alcántara 76 28.42 0

The single pivot under Pep Guardiola has very little offensive input. It's a defensive and distributive position that enters the attack only when the defense is pinned completely back. When they do come forward it should be for the intent of maintaining possession, but also to add an extra spark in the attack. From the statistics, it's actually Phillip Lahm who does the most effective attacking work form the single pivot position. He attempts more passes in the final third then either Martinez or Schweinsteiger and actually attempts the most key passes per 90 of any of the single pivot players. Thiago represents a more direct attacking player in the single pivot yet adds less in the creative department. Given that the Spaniard hasn't played the position in more then a handful of minutes, we'd do wise to temper those conclusions. Martinez is clearly the least offensive of the options, as we should expect, while Schweinsteiger rides the happy median along with Lahm.

In Defense

Minutes Tackles/90 Interceptions/90 PossWon/90*
Bastian Schweinsteiger 242 2.57 2.12 6.98
Philipp Lahm 720 1 1.25 2.63
Javi Martínez 270 4.33 2.67 3
Thiago Alcántara 76 3.55 3.55 1.18

*defensive and midfield thirds

By far the most important components of the single pivot, besides the distributive skills, are the defensive skills of the player. In this capacity there is actually the biggest differentiation between the players Pep Guardiola has chosen to employ in the single pivot. Thiago actually shows up as the worst defensive player in the single pivot as evidenced in terms of the number of tackles and interceptions he attempts makes but in the few times he actually wins the ball. Granted, again it's looking at a very small sample size so temper expectations accordingly. By far though the most impressive in the single pivot defensively is Bastian Schweinsteiger who not only attempts tackles and interceptions at a decent clip but actually wins possession nearly 7 times a game ,vastly outstripping even Javier Martinez defensive ball winning skills.

Caveat

Granted there is a major caveat with this analysis specific to the Guardiola system in that many of the players rotate around within the central midfield area throughout the game. Schweinsteiger or Lahm may be listed as the CDM, but they are constantly interchanging and swapping roles. It would most likely be a more complete picture if we looked at their statistics in both the CDM and CM roles(which is coming up next!).

Conclusion

In looking at the statistics it's relatively clear that Bayern Munich needs Bastian Schweinsteiger back. The 28-year-old German international not only is one of the most offensive options available in the single pivot, but is also demonstrably one the best defensive options as well. In addition, this is Bastian Schweinsteiger playing at nowhere near 100% with a nagging repetitive ankle injury and still putting up some of the best numbers on the team. Imagine what his performance is going to be when he's at 100%

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