Philipp Lahm has long been Pep Guardiola's favorite toy to tinker with. From moving him from rightback to central midfield to centerback to attacking midfield and all the way back again, Guardiola's tenure has been marked by Philipp Lahm's almost plug-and-play nature just as much as it has been marked by radically different formation styles. Friday's 2-1 win over Hamburger SV was yet another episode of "this week in tinkering" in a long series.
In the defensive phase, Bayern Munich lined up with a standard 4-man backline and 3-man midfield. It's been the common refrain from Bayern Munich this season. In the offensive phase, it was pure chaos as Philipp Lahm slid completely into midfield occupying the space between the two centerbacks.
Most commonly, this offensive setup involves dropping Xabi Alonso deep between the centerbacks exposing space for the likes of Thiago and Arturo Vidal to move within and dictate the offensive buildup of Bayern Munich. When you slide Lahm into that role and pair him with Xabi Alonso, then leave Thomas Müller as your third midfielder Friday happens.
Against Hamburg, Lahm and Alonso dropped deep with the centerbacks mostly getting in each other's way as they tired to push the offense forward. Thomas Müller moved higher, playing off Robert Lewandowski and leaving Thiago alone in the middle. In conjunction, Lahm's abandonment off the right in this setup dropped Douglas Costa deeper to man the entire flank. Without the ability to get in behind the Hamburg defense at pace, Costa's best skill was taken off the table in a vain effort to overload the left side of the pitch. Even more crucially, Thiago Alcantara was left alone against a Hamburg midfield that denied him both time and space with double teams and blocked passing lanes.
While the intended effect was to draw Hamburg far left then hit them with a quick transition to right for Costa to exploit a 1-vs-1 situation, the overall attacking thrust failed as Costa was forced to drop too deep in response to Hamburg's counter. Against the likes of Hamburg, it wasn't a disastrous choice to field this odd setup. Their lack of pace on the counter ensured Bayern Munich didn't have too much trouble in transition but the knock on effect left Bayern Munich statically lopsided.
At a certain time, this type of tinkering has enormous value. And that's in game in response to a perceived weakness. But to start a match with this setup and then continue it for the vast majority of the match not only reduced Bayern Munich's ability to break down Hamburg's defense, but left them far too defensively exposed. While they got away with it now, this kind of approach is something that can easily cost Bayern Munich. The Bundesliga is filled with sides who eat these kinds of weaknesses alive with counterattacks.
Considering we've seen Guardiola run with this in games when the stakes are highest -- does anyone else remember a certain "let's man mark Neymar, Messi, and Suarez all at once" idea? -- it's not exactly good for the blood pressure to see him rolling out this same to start a Rückrunde. That goes double with Borussia Dortmund only eight points back in the league and showing well enough to give Bayern Munich a serious run for the title this year.