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Tactics: Bayern Munich's Unbalanced Formation Proves Their Undoing vs. Wolfsburg

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Bayern Munich were resoundingly beaten on the back of impressive defense and a complete tactical plan from Wolfsburg.

Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images

When Bayern Munich took the pitch on Friday against VfL Wolfsburg, it was with an eye towards putting the Bundesliga title race to bed. Eleven points up on the second place side, a win would have taken Bayern 14 points clear and set up an easy Rückrunde run for the side.

What they didn't count on was a full-force VfL Wolfsburg side with an disciplined and aggressive gameplan, which resulted in the defending champions getting thrashed 4-1 on the evening.

Bayern's Unbalanced Formation

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Pep Guardiola lined up his Bayern side in what was ostensibly a 3-4-3. However, like much of what Bayern Munich does, the tactics at each moment are dictated by the flow of the game with the side morphing from three-man backline to four-man backline with fluidity.

Deploying Thomas Müller wide left from the outset kept Robert Lewandowski free to sit in the center of the pitch for Bayern as the star striker. Rather then relying on the interchanges typical of Bayern sides, Guardiola opted to overload the left hand side of the field as Arjen Robben dived underneath the striker. David Alaba performed in the now customary manner, stepping high into midfield as a box-to-box midfielder. With 9 of the 10 Bayern Munich outfield players stacked on the left side of midfield, it's no wonder that both teams operated nearly a majority of their time playing down the left and center of the park.

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The unforseen complication was the lack of effect this compression had on the Wolfsburg midfield. Playing in a 4-4-2, Wolfsburg right hand side of Vierinha and Daniel Caliguiri displayed a disciplined approach to defense, isolating Juan Bernat and Thomas Müller from each other. The aim was to force Bayern Munich back into the middle of the pitch. The middle was where Wolfsburg were the most dangerous. It was exactly this type of maneuver that generated Wolfsburg counter and first goal in just the 4th minute.

The key player to that strategy was Luiz Gustavo, an extremely familiar player to Bayern fans. He is one of the best pure defensive midfielders on the planet, and in tandem with Maxi Arnold, the two were a potent defensive force that controlled the center of the pitch. They generated interceptions and missed passes for Bayern Munich with wanton abandon.

The final component to the Wolfsburg first half domination was the space on the right side of midfield. With the side exclusively manned by Sebastian Rode, the pace of Ivan Perisic was used to devastating effect to find free space on the far post as Wolfsburg attacked down the left.

Man Marking Xabi Alonso

While Wolfsburg clearly had an approach to isolate and win the ball from Bayern Munich, there was still the looming question of how Wolfsburg were going to stop Bayern Munich in transition and in play from deep. The most dangerous player on the pitch for Bayern Munich in that capacity is Xabi Alonso.

Here is where Guardiola's unbalanced formation cause the most problems. Rode was the exclusive player on the right, and this left Ivan Perišić free to man-mark Alonso out of the match when the Spaniard moved deeper into the Wolfsburg half. When play was farther up field, a combination of Arnold, Kevin De Bruyne, and Bas Dost shadowed the midfield metronome for almost the entirety to the match.

With Alonso effectively out of the game, the playmaking and creative aspects of the game fell to Bastian Schweinsteiger who had to match up against Luiz Gustavo.

Half Time Adjustments

With Bayern Munich down 2-0 at the half, Guardiola made one major tatical change in pushing his defensive line far into the Wolfsburg half – and by "far" I mean about 15-20 yards as you can see in the below photo. With so many Bayern Munich targets available, it removed the isolation problem that was plaguing Bernat while allowing better control of possession and giving Alonso some breathing room. However, it came with it's own set of problems – namely, the huge amount of space available behind the Bayern Munich defense.

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Normally, Manuel Neuer's sweeper keeper ability keeps opponents from exploiting Bayern's high line. However, even that has its limits in terms of how high a line you can play. On Friday, Guardiola opted to push his line up as far as it could go.

It was this tactic that ultimately cost Bayern Munich twice in the second half. With Luiz Gustavo winning everything in sight and feeding Arnold, the young German received ample opportunities to pick up his head and just dink the ball over the top of the Bayern defense for De Bruyne to run onto before taking it 50 yards and slotting it past Neuer.

Addressing the Bayern performance

While massive credit for yesterday's win goes to the way in which Wolfsburg controlled the game, and especially the midfield, there is a significant amount of blame that deserves to be laid at the feet of Bayern. Their passing was subpar, even after taking into account the Wolfsburg performance, and that problem exacerbated what was already going to be a very difficult tactical battle. Their tactical sharpness and awareness was wrong all night and put it simply, they were asleep at the wheel.

In many ways it highlighted the biggest issue with the style of football Bayern are playing right now. The team is extremely reliant on overloading specific zones to the detriment of others. This tactic is one of the most potent offensive weapons in football, but it's also an extremely delicate one.