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The Spot

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In which we attempt to answer a burning question … only to determine that maybe there isn’t a good answer.

For the past two seasons, Bayern has mostly been working out of a 4-2-3-1 formation. Ribery and Robben have been struggling with injuries, and even when they’re fit, they occasionally have dips in form. But when they’re healthy and locked-in, they seem to have the wing spots sewed up (and if they’re challenged by anyone next year, it will be Shaqiri). Mario Gomez frustrates fans with his plodding nature and his lack of range on the pitch. But over the past 16 months, he’s been scoring at a good clip, so it seems likely that he will be the starter up front, at least in the near future. What that leaves, as far as offense, is the "hole" - the spot between the wings and behind the lead striker, which would be the middle of the "3" line if we’re talking about a 4-2-3-1 formation:

a

As you can see, we’re leaving out any discussion of the back line for today - that’s a separate subject in its own right.  Let’s just assume Bastian and Gustavo at the CM spots, one on either side - doesn’t matter for the purposes of this exercise.  What’s important is who is filling in that “???” spot.  Whoever it is needs to have a deep and versatile skill set.  He needs to be a precise passer with good vision.  He needs to be a decent shooter in his own right - maybe not a 20-goal-per-season shooter, but at least good enough to threaten with a shot.  He needs to be solid on the dribble.  He needs to be able to use both feet.  And he needs to be able to read defenses and determine the right move in a split second.

The interesting thing is that, whether Müller and Kroos is lined up in that spot on the squad sheet, their number would appear in the exact same place.  But they have different skill sets and much different mentalities towards the game, and this leads to them playing the same position in much different ways.  Neither Müller nor Kroos has incredible speed, though Müller seems to have a slightly better motor.  Müller is also better in tight spaces - he’s not a brilliant open-field dribbler, like his boy Özil, or like Robben or Messi, but he can control the ball with defenders on either side of him and not lose the handle.  And he excels at moving without the ball, especially through traffic.  When he’s in that “hole” position, therefore, Müller usually likes to play forward, and thrash around amongst the opponent’s defenders.  When he’s on the pitch, the position becomes a true “second-striker” role:

b

Obviously, a player’s position at any given moment is dependent on where the ball is, how the opponents are lined up, etc.  But from what I’ve seen, Müller definitely likes to play the “middle of the 3-line” position a lot more forward than does Toni.  He often finds himself further towards the opponents’ end-line than our two wing players, and sometimes he might even venture up past Gomez.

Kroos, by contrast, plays the position as a genuine Central Attacking Midfielder.  He doesn’t move without the ball as much as Thomas, and he can’t slice in and out of traffic as easily.  But Kroos has a lethal shot from distance, and has also demonstrated a propensity to drop in precise forward passes to the wings from a position closer back up to the midfield stripe.  For these reasons, and probably also just because of where he feels comfortable, Kroos usually finds himself playing noticeably behind the other three forwards:

c

Neither style of play is better or worse - each has its own set of advantages.  When Kroos is out there, the other club’s CBs definitely have a little less to think about.  Müller might not be in the best scoring form recently (in fact, he’s mired in a pretty ugly slump), but he still seems to give the other team’s back line a reason to worry.  At the same time, Toni’s powerful shot from distance has the ability to lure defenders out of the box, and might even open up more room for Gomez depending on how the other team is playing him.

Additionally, the opportunities for the wing players will slightly change depending on who’s out there.  With Kroos, there’s probably going to be a little more room for the wings to cut in from the flanks, especially in the final 20 yards of the pitch.  This is both because he prefers a deeper-lying position, and also because his passing game works well from that “overseeing the pitch from back here” spot:

d

If Müller is on the pitch, the wings also have a chance to cut forward into that top area.  But they’re more likely to cut inside a little further back upfield, in a cut-behind / overlap move.  Like this:

e1

Or this:

e2

Thinking back on it now, when Robben was at the height of his slash-inside period, it was usually Müller who was on the pitch with him.  And Robben was usually making this cut while level with or below (IE, further towards our defensive end) both strikers rather than level further towards the goal from them.

This isn’t to say that either is better than the other.  It’s more a question of what the offense is looking for that should determine who plays in the middle of that “3” line.  If we need a guy who’s going to play up near and even in the opponent’s area - who can be something close to a striker, and who can maneuver laterally in traffic - then Müller should get the nod.  But if we’d rather have someone sitting a bit behind the other 3 forwards, and sending in passes and shots from the middle of the field, Kroos is a better pick.

Everything else being equal, I guess I’d have to say Müller has a longer track record.  But he’s had a long stretch of play below that level - I don’t think he’s been as bad as some people accuse him of, but by his own high standards, this hasn’t been a good season for him.  Still, if the opponent has good CBs and we’re struggling to put anything together, I have to say I’d prefer Müller to Kroos at this moment.  I’d be interested to hear what everyone else thinks, though - if you were the manager for this coming weekend’s Leverkusen match, and you could only pick one of them to play in that spot, who gets the nod?

As long as we’re here, let’s all wish a happy birthday to FC Bayern München - the club turns a proud 112 years old today.  EA Sports FIFA players will know that Andy Gray has been around nearly that long.  Thanks for reading.

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From the comment section - as new comments pour in, the earliest ones get archived - I'm re-posting them here so people can refer back to them as the discussion progresses.  This is everything received up until 11:30 last night (my time).  If needed, I'll post more as more get bumped.  Thx.

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Kate February 27th, 2012 at 5:09 pm

I guess, maybe I am in the minority in this, but I haven’t given up hope on a Schweini Kroos combo and Mueller playing in the hole. I want to so it when Schweini is at the top of his game. The couple times they played since the break, Schweini wasn’t as good as normal so I want to see it again. I guess, in terms of just the hole, I prefer Kroos??? I don’t know. I want them both on the pitch. Even if that means Robben gets benched and Mueller gets moved to his spot and Kroos fills the hole.

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Jon February 27th, 2012 at 5:36 pm

I think Muller is more suitable as second striker and Kroos in other hand can play CAM without any issue but not with Gomez …..

IMO…. we should play like that…

Gomez/OLIC

Ribery Muller Robben

or

OLIC/MULLER

Ribery Kroos Robben/Muller

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Beilke February 27th, 2012 at 7:00 pm

Great post Phil. I would also like to see Muller in the hole, and Kroos playing beside Schweini. When we go on attack i wana see something like this
Gomez
Ribery Muller Robben
Kroos
Schweini

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mohammad hassan February 27th, 2012 at 7:25 pm

why not use the German team formation, 4-1-4-1.
Gomez
Rib-kroos(slightly lower than rib/rob)-muller(slightly higher than kroos behind gomez)- rob
Schweini.

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eddinanM3 February 27th, 2012 at 8:00 pm

when you get too many guys like Kroos and Tymo on the pitch at the same time it really takes away from the pace of Bayern’s potential attack and they have a tendancy to rely too much on Ribery and Robben to provide that passes that go forward or the runs that split open defenders. Kroos is a fine young player with a lot of talent, but he has a certain skill set and it isn’t easy for Bayern to adapt those skills into our offense when the other team has 10 defenders back in their own end. Kroos needs space for his shot and to make his passing work and that isn’t always available when teams are defending with everybody. Muller thrives in open end to end play as seen at the WC in Africa, but he can also do damage in tight quarters in the middle and has a much better sense of where to be around the goal and where the ball needs to go which is another key to scoring.

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BrklynBayern February 27th, 2012 at 8:28 pm

Nice post Phil, I think this position is one of the toughest in the game today. Especially, at Bayern where we play so many deep lying defenses, this position is key to overall success. It was the big ??? at the beginning of the season, and it still hasn’t been resolved.

As you noted, its a big toss up with Kroos and Muller, and its only going to get more so. right now I prefer Muller, although I think it is Kroos’ natural position. I think Phil has it right with the two players slightly different tendencies. Muller more up, Kroos more back.

The reason I go with Muller is, because Robben needs more help than Ribery. And, Muller is about the only person that has shown consistently for 2 yrs. that he can link up with the guy.

Also, I think the game with Schalke finally showed what JH has been trying to get these guys to do for most of the season, and that is the lateral overlapping. Muller and Robben did a nice job fluidly switching positions and Robben needs to alter his game away from the speed demon that he used to be. Drifting center to link with Ribery and Gomez is what he needs to do from time to time. Kroos just doesn’t do it quite as well with Ribery. He tends to just make dummy runs that only create space without giving a passing option as well. hence he disappears in games, because he is always making runs to pull defenders out of the middle, away from the direction Ribery wants to move with the ball. Ribery is having the one of the best years of his career. He can do it on his own. robben on the hand needs Muller, because he and Kroos don’t seem to even know each other’s name.

BTW I forgot to mention it before, but I think the game against Schalke was one of the best Ribery/Robben interactions we’ve seen… ever. They exchanged passes, provided shooting opportunities, and even appeared to be genuinely friendly with each other after the match. We really need this from these two if we have any hopes for success.

At hassan, I don’t think you will see us adopt that formation formally, because it is inherently heavy in the attack. You need a more balanced system for league play. But, more to the point, we don’t have Schweini now. You need an absolute machine in the CDM spot to hold that system together and he is one of the few guys on the planet that can do it well.

But, I will say this, a reason to use Kroos as a CM when Schweini comes back is so that we can shift into this formation for brief spells in a game. The same way we are finally seeing the lateral overlapping up front. I think the plan with Schweini on the field was to have one of the CDM’s moving forward fairly regularly to interact with the 3 attacking mids, especially against deep lying defenses. Alaba and Gustavo are just not experienced enough to get away with this yet, or do it well enough to make the risk worth it. Even when paired with Kroos in the CM, or Tymo for that matter, our central midfield was getting pulled all over the place when we tried to play with a more dynamic CM tactic. I don’t think our players are mature enough, yet to do it responsibly without Schweini on the field. Even then its problematic, again I refer to Phil’s stop frame analysis of the counter attack BMG threw at us when Kroos and Schweini decided to play as dual CAM’s and left Tymo holding the bag.