When Javi Martinez ruptured his ACL in the DFL SuperCup, Pep Guardiola seemed to lose his 3-4-3 formation. Without the defensively dynamic midfielder, he simply didn't have the defensive and possession option in the midfield to make the system work. So Bayern Munich went out on the open market and returned with Xabi Alonso and Mehdi Benatia. While the later has yet to feature due to fitness issues, Xabi Alonso has quickly slotted in and proven to already be a fantastic addition to Bayern Munich.
However, the system around those pieces has necessitated a shift in Pep Guardiola's tactics; the consequence being the new-ish 3-3-3-1 tactical system.
The hybrid 3-man/4-man backline
With Javi Martinez in the fold, Bayern Munich played a clear structure 3-man backline utilizing two wingbacks during times of intense pressure to facilitate buildup play through the center of midfield. In the last two matches with Xabi Alonso in the fold, they've started from a position of a 3x3 setup in defense
On Saturday against VfB Stuttgart, Bayern Munich used Badstuber-Dante-Boateng across the 3-man backline. Stacked on top of them were Juan Bernat, Xabi Alonso, and Philipp Lahm. It's from this 3x3 defensive setup that Bayern Munich begin to work their possession based magic. Jerome Boateng has been deployed as a hybridized centerback/fullback and pushes far forward along the right touchline in conjunction with Thomas Müller and Philipp Lahm's movements.
The Bayern Munich captain played the box-to-box role which has become a new major component for Pep Guardiola this year in both his formations. After the struggles of Bastian Schweinsteiger last year to adapt to the 4-1-4-1 system, the fact that Pep Guardiola realized he needed to make a change to utilize one of the best players in Germany to his fullest should be a welcome breath of fresh air for any Bayern Munich fan who still thinks of Guardiola as tactically intractable. On the flipside, Juan Bernat plays wide left functioning as a touchline hugging winger when Bayern are in possession. When they lose possession he tucks back in alongside Alonso on top of Badstuber.
However, the roles of Alonso and Bernat were the most varying. One of the natural weaknesses of the 3-man backline is the inability to defend wide which has been fundamentally addressed by Bayern. When attacks came in wide on the right side sucking Boateng and Dante out, Badstuber would slide over playing the center while Bernat dropped back into the more traditional fullback area. When attacks came down the far left, Bernat would remain high, while Badstuber shifted left and Alonso tucked into central defense alongside Dante. Attacks through the middle saw Bayern Munich compress their 3x3 defensive shell and overwhelm the Stuttgart attack with numbers through the middle.
Hybrid strike force
Up top, the movements of the Bayern Munich attacking midfielders were more fluid then their defensive counterparts, but also equally dependent on playing multiple hybridized roles which worked in concert with the shifting defense. By far though, the man who makes it all work is Thomas Müller. In conjunction with both Philipp Lahm and Jerome Boateng, Müller helped to provide much of the offensive spark on the right hand side. In every attack, either Müller splayed wide keeping Boateng back while Lahm moved into attacking midfield or he slid up top alongside Robert Lewandowski while Boateng or Lahm took the duty of providing the offensive impetus on the right. In concert with the movement of Müller up top, Mario Götze would drop in deep between the two forward forming a diamond through the middle with Alaba, Lahm, and Alonso from which to make midfield runs on the Stuttgart box. When Franck Ribery was brought into the match, focus again shifted to also using a 3-man front line.
So, it's 3-man/4-man defensive hybrid with a diamond-y 1-striker/2-strike interchange formation? Answering the nomenclature question
It's hard to really define what Bayern Munich did in the Stuttgart match. It certainly wasn't an archetype 3-3-3-1, but neither was it a real 4-2-3-1, or even a diamond 4-4-2. The backline was undoubtedly 3-man with specific patterns for covering the inherent weakness in width by using a 4th back option when necessary. Up top, it was also neither a lone striker nor a two striker system, but an option chosen based on the direction of the attack and somewhat on the whims of Thomas Müller. 4-2-2-2 might be right, but it still doesn't address the fundamental defensive idea which is the 3-man backline and the strength through the middle. I would consider 3-3-3-1 the most apt description as the formation starts from that basic tactical framework, but neither is it the strict 3-3-3-1 of yesteryear.
Maybe, we just call it "Pep Guardiola's Bayern Munich" and leave it at that? In many ways, it's a synergistic formation that blends the 3-4-3 of early August with the 4-1-4-1/4-2-3-1 of last year. It could be that this was Guardiola's vision all along, and he just didn't have the "right" personnel to make it work.
Can this be a viable formation for tomorrow's match against Manchester City?
Ultimately, the question of any formation is can it win you a game? While competition against the likes of Stuttgart is all well and good, Manchester City and Manuel Pellegrini are going to be the tough sell that Bayern Munich needs. Pellegrini is a brilliant coach, and he made Guardiola look foolish on two occasions last year with mid-game tactical switches. That being said this new formation is fluid in all the areas that Manchester City are weakest. It's fast and fluid in defense, which should play havoc with any pressing game. The 3-man backline ensures the eternally dangerous Edin Dzeko of next to zero service. The 3-man holding midfield should compress and occupy space between the lines where David Silva operates at his peak efficiency. With the 4-man midfield built through the spine, it should be enough men and bodies to stifle Yaya Toure going forward while the ability on both sides to commit numbers wide in attack should stack up favorably against the Manchester City fullbacks.
Of course, that's all predicated on Manchester City trying to play their game. As we saw last year, Pellegrini is not adverse to switching it up and using his players in unique ways to really harass Bayern Munich. They still have James Milner who was a serious threat in both ties last year to go along with an experienced and reloaded fullback core. That also doesn't begin to touch the lightning-in-a-bottle that is Sergio Aguero.
Either way, tomorrow's game will start to define exactly how far this Bayern Munich team can go with this new revamped tactical framework.