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Javi Martinez: Pep Guardiola's newest central attacking midfielder

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Pep Guardiola has now run out Javi Martinez as the teams CAM twice in the last two weeks. Is it a gimmick? Or has the Spanish master tactician come up with another viable option to break down the opposition?

Alexandra Beier

In recent weeks, we've seen Pep Guardiola use Javi Martinez, one the world's best holding midfielders, as what has effectively been a CAM, or classic #10. The 25-year-old Spanish international played the first 45 minutes of Bayern's 3-0 league win over Borussia Dortmund in this role before reprising it last week for the first 45 minutes against FC Augsburg in the third round of the DFB Pokal.

At the time, it was certainly an odd choice seeing as how the current positional replacements, Philipp Lahm and Thiago Alcantara, are certainly nowhere near the defensive quality of Martinez. While both are undeniably as gifted (and in Thiago's case without a question better) in terms of distribution and playmaking ability, the defensive prowess of the large Spaniard certainly tips the balance in his favor at that spot. And thus comes the inevitable conundrum and moment of ape-ish head scratching before the light bulb goes on that is part of being a Bayern Munich fan this season. At least in Martinez's case, there some precedent for playing as an attacker (i.e. Confederations Cup semi-final against Italy, UEFA SuperCup vs. Chelsea.).

Last season, Martinez was the rock that Bastian Schweinsteiger played off. In many ways, the defensive solidity he offered to this side was exactly what Bayern Munich had previously missed in matches that required that defensive presence. The response to counterattacks as well as the proper defensive work against possession based sides were the main skills that Martinez brought to the table. This allowed Jupp Heynckes to give Toni Kroos, Thomas Müller and Schweinsteiger the license to create majesty in the middle of the park. Given that the license brought the treble home to the Allianz Arena was an indicator that Martinez was the world-class holding midfielder Bayern Munich had been looking for since the departure of Mark van Bommel.

This season, that double pivot has turned into a single pivot in Guardiola's 4-1-4-1 system utilizing Lahm and occasionally Schweinsteiger. To a large degree, that shouldn't be a long term indicator given that Martinez was basically unusable for the first 3 months of the season with recurring injuries and multiple surgeries, including a visit to his dentist. However, in the last month we've seen Guardiola integrating Martinez into this team, and the results have been nothing short of head scratching.

It started on a cold Saturday at the Westfalenstadion when Martinez lined up as the central attacking midfielder in Guardiola's 4-1-4-1 for the first 45 minutes. It was the first of four positions (3 different positions) he would play on the night and just a taste of the weeks to come. As I noted in the recap for that match, "Martinez is a static force, and this in an offense built on interchanges and zonal overloads allowing individual players to run channels for 1v1's against entrenched opponents keepers. With a static central midfielder, the offense was stuck in their zones, isolated and without support.", and it was completely true. Bayern were able to dominate the midfield and control the tempo of the game, but their ability to get in on goal was hampered.

Michael Cox over at Zonal Marking had a few additional tidbits on Martinez as a CAM: "But it was nevertheless a surprise to see him used in such an advanced role, and his runs towards the edge of the box provided a goal threat on a couple of occasions, and helped to push Dortmund’s two holding midfielders back."..."Instead, Martinez driving forward moved Sven Bender and Nuri Sahin deep, and created a pocket of space - between Dortmund's front two and back eight - for Kroos to dominate"

That enormous pocket of space gave the midfield duo of Kroos and Lahm the space to run the match and turned the formation into what was effectively a 4-2-3-1 without a usable CAM. The effect was to attempt to bring Mario Mandzukic into the game as Bayern attempted to bypass the Dortmund press with long balls. This has been an option in Bayern's arsenal all season and while it efficacy at times can certainly be questioned, it fundamentally requires that Mario Mandzukic be able to move, interchange with the attacking midfielders and win the aerial balls. Against Dortmund, it was a strategy that backfired as the entire Dortmund backline with the exception of Sokratis won over 80% of aerial duels. With Mandzukic playing a more mobile role, Martinez then steps up to become what is effectively the striker, making runs into the box or getting onto the end of a cross. That aerial role is almost completely monopolized by Mandzukic when Martinez is not on the pitch and with a more mobile focus for the Croatian, it becomes absolutely necessary to maintaining the efficacy of the long ball strategy.

It's telling that the next match that featured this unique combination was the mid-week win over FC Augsburg in the DFB Pokal. This was the next match Mandzukic featured in. It's further telling that in the intervening matches when Bayern completely eschewed any aerial presence by opting to use the diminutive Mario Götze at striker

Once again, Mandzukic played as a highly mobile striker with Martinez at times sitting in that CAM role. However in direct contradiction to how that partnership functioned in the Dortmund match, this time we saw Bayern Munich play with Martinez pushing forward as Mandzukic drifted wide while the wide midfielders in Arjen Robben (later Müller) and Götze the cut inside. Conversely, if Mandzukic was straight up in the center, Martinez would drop back and form a flat three man midfield with Kroos and Thiago as the two wide midfielder drove into the center of the pitch. It's telling that in this situation as well Guardiola only carried the lineup until the 45th minutes when he once again shifted Martinez back into holding midfield.

There are two reasons behind why Guardiola would prioritize doing this for one half only:

  1. Using long balls to bypass the press instantly relieves pressure while simultaneously opening space for Kroos to work his magic. Exhausting the opposition press by forcing them to cover both this option as well as the ground based buildup option is a great first half strategy. While it may make games tight going into the second half, the ability to waltz through the midfield unimpeded for the following 45 minutes is a great way to put up embarrassing scorelines.
  2. It maintained the importance of the wing based play that Bayern Munich were so adept at last year. With Lahm moving into the midfield, Bayern Munich was unable to cross in an effective way for the first few months of the season. With the mounting injuries, the use of Götze, and the increased focus on Robben's ground game, they've lost much of their crossing ability. By moving Müller to the right wing and bringing a makeshift striker into the middle, Bayern have allowed the threat to persist even though it has been ineffective all season. That threat is one more obstacle the opposition must contend with.

This use of Martinez as a CAM is likely going to continue for the foreseeable future until this squad is healthy. The loss of Robben, just as Xherdan Shaqiri and Franck Ribery were returning, was a major blow as in all likelihood Müller will continue filling in on the right side of attack. Müller is the only other player on this squad with the aerial attacking ability who can play this role that Guardiola has pressed Martinez into.