The tactical battles between Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola have only just begun. With both teams having new tricks to test and try as the seasons move along, the DFB Pokal may soon have the markings of being the truly defining clash between these teams every season; a clash truly worthy of crowning a German champion.
The Bayern Munich 3-4-2-1: An exercise in isolating the attackers and neutralizing the Borussia Dortmund press
Bayern Munich's starting lineup
Bayern Munich's spatial attacking buildup
When David Alaba went down with injury on Friday, the questions started mounting as to how Bayern Munich would play. And Pep Guardiola reached into his bag of tricks from this season and pulled out the 3-4-2-1. In many ways, the 3-4-2-1 was the synthesis of the 4-1-4-1 and the 4-2-3-1 that Bayern Munich have used for vast stretches of this season.
With Javi Martinez dropped deep between the centerback, with a holding midfield pairing of Lahm and Kroos, Bayern Munich sought to impose their possession from the back moving forward. Whereas in the rest of the season Bayern Munich has tried to impose this style of play by using wing based play to move the ball wide, in this match they instead piled both Mario Götze and Thomas Müller into the center and gave Arjen Robben completely free reign. The end result was that the Bayern Munich attack was built directly through the spine of the field. This had several effects.
The midfield pairing of Lahm and Kroos forced Marco Reus away from Robert Lewandowksi in the center and limited their chances to interact. Furthermore, the presence of a defensive midfielder, centerback, and wingback on each flank meant that Reus had very few options in attempting to interchange and interact with Mkhitaryan. The Armenian international spent a good deal of the game trying to get involved but inevitably found himself basically invisible as he accounted for only 26 touches in 60 minutes (which is atrocious for a main creative hub of a team). With his compatriot missing, Reus was forced to spend more and more time generating attacks on his own. While he had a stellar game for the first 70+ minutes, eventually fatigue gave away as the Borussia Dortmund attackers lapsed into exhaustion.
With Reus shouldering more and more of the attacking load, Bayern Munich focused on removing Lewandowski as much as possible. They used Javi Martinez in the center as a physical and technical mirror that harassed Lewandowski for the entire match. But it was what Martinez did without the ball that was far more detrimental. Using the 3 man centerback line, when in possession Bayern Munich split the entire three man line across the entire width of the field, making the field entirely too wide for Borussia Dortmund to press effectively. When the pressers moved forward to their targets this left large holes in midfield for the midfield band of four to operate. As the Dortmund midfield responded to the passing of their initial press, Bayern Munich were able to use their attacking trio to drive forward through overwhelming strength of numbers in midfield.
But after 20+ minutes that brilliant strategy was turned on it's head.
Philipp Lahm's injury forces Guardiola to change tactics
Losing Philipp Lahm was a huge blow to Bayern Munich's tactical setup. Without any holding midfield options on the bench, Pep Guardiola had to make a move on the creative side by dropping Franck Ribery into play alongside Arjen Robben, sliding Mario Götze and Thomas Müller deeper, and morphing his side into a semi-conventional 3-5-2 setup. While it allowed Franck Ribery to slot in and play off Arjen Robben, it also neutralized the main Bayern Munich advantage in buildup play; namely the extra man in midfield. Without that extra man, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund were on even terms and coincided with some of the most dynamic play of the first half.
Reus was still carrying the majority of the creative ideas, but now Nuri Sahin and Mats Hummels were able to flex their creative muscles as well. Coming out in the second half, Bayern Munich transitioned Ribery away from the center and pinned him to the left flank where his pace and dribbling ability would do the most damage rather then in the congested middle. This gave the Borussia Dortmund defense a very right sided shift, and allowed Pierre Hojbjerg more license to create from the right side of the pitch. This caused issues for the more isolated Marcel Schmelzer, and even more for the left sided attacking midfielder(either Reus, Mkhitaryan, or Grosskreutz) in the zone.
The Borussia Dortmund response
Recognizing the real problems Bayern Munich were creating in unbalancing and exhausting the Borussia Dortmund attack, Jurgen Klopp brought in Oliver Kirch for the neutralized Mkhitaryan, shifting his side into a 4-3-3. Shoring up the midfield defensively with Kirch, Klopp was able to take the creative pressure off Reus and instead used Nuri Sahin and Milos Jojic as the main creative conduits for the attack. However, after 10 minutes of fervent end-to-end play from both sides, the price was too high as Reus and Grosskreutz both lost their legs and Klopp was forced to retreat back to the safety of the 4-2-3-1 by removing Jojic and bringing on Aubameyang. If ever there was a game where Borussia Dortmund's loss of Ilkay Gundogan hurt them the most as the game wore on, it was this match against Bayern Munich.
Tired legs breed mistakes
As the match wore past the 105th minute, it was the turnover following a moment of poor concentration from Marcel Schmelzer that ended Borussia Dortmund's plans. Arjen Robben the momentary second to collect the cross from Jermoe Boateng and give Bayern Munich the lead. With 15 minutes remaining, it was all hands on deck as Borussia Dortmund pushed for the equalizer. But at the time when they needed them the most, Robert Lewandowski and Marco Reus were completely out of gas and almost nowhere to be found, a byproduct of the 70+ minutes of excruciating pressing that Bayern Munich extracted from Borussia Dortmund.