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A perfect 10? Leon Goretzka’s surprise start for Bayern against Hoffenheim

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Leon Goretzka stunned TSG Hoffenheim with a thrilling performance as a central attacking midfielder. What does Goretzka’s start mean for himself, and teammates Thomas Müller and James Rodriguez?

SINSHEIM, GERMANY - JANUARY 18: Leon Goretzka of Bayern Munich celebrates scoring the 2nd goal with team mates during the Bundesliga match between TSG 1899 Hoffenheim and FC Bayern Muenchen at Wirsol Rhein-Neckar-Arena on January 18, 2019 in Sinsheim, Germany. Photo by Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images

Leon Goretzka scored a brace in Bayern Munich’s Rückrunde opener against TSG Hoffenheim, the first of his Bundesliga career. There’s a good reason why he scored twice: his position on the field. Bayern head coach Niko Kovac surprised many — including us here at Bavarian Football Works — by starting Goretzka as a central attacking midfielder on the 10 spot.

From 6 to 10

Here at BFW, we all expected a starting lineup that would feature Thomas Müller on the ten with Goretzka and Thiago behind him as a double-pivot — the Doppelsechs or “double six” in German. Instead, Kovac opted for a surprise: Bayern’s usual 10, Müller, played out wide on the right, while Goretzka took over his key role at the 10 — and that instead of arguably the most obvious alternative: James Rodriguez. But James was not the only player left out: with Müller on the right wing and Kingsley Coman on the left, Serge Gnabry also found himself on the bench.

Goretzka had sounded out the Hinrunde playing alongside Thiago Alcantara in the double-pivot, but now that he had moved up to the 10, Javi Martinez also made an unexpected appearance in the starting lineup. Javi has apparently improved in training over the winter break and he rewarded Kovac’s confidence with a solid performance — 5 aerial duels, 3 tackles, and 1 dribble (!) to his name.

Goretzka himself talked about the role after the game (Kicker). “I played this position pretty often in the past,” he said. “I can utilize my offensive qualities better there than at the 6.” Goretzka acknowledged that the move was somewhat unexpected, since “I had practiced at the six for a large part of the break.”

Given a choice between the 6 and the 10, Goretzka prefers the latter, where he can contribute to the offense: he sees himself as an 8, but Bayern’s current 4-2-3-1 leaves no room for a 8. “But I have no problem plugging holes for 90 minutes when it fits the opponent,” he added about the deeper position.

Goretzka on the break

Goretzka’s performance was Meister-of-the-match-worthy, but he played on the 10 as a second striker rather than as a distributing playmaker. Goretzka ended up with the most shots on either team (6). His first goal took a lucky deflection. But the second goal may be the perfect illustration of why Kovac wanted Goretzka in the line up at the 10. Watch it again:

Bayern stun Hoffenheim on a set piece, as Kingsley Coman races away up the left side of the field with the ball. David Alaba overlaps him and receives the ball before Coman is caught. Meanwhile, three central targets are rushing to get into position in front of Hoffenheim’s goal: Müller, Lewandowski, and between them, Goretzka. Even Mats Hummels, closest to Alaba, came along for the ride.

We got a foretaste of this new style in Bayern’s exciting rematch against Ajax Amsterdam, and Kovac made clear at the outset of his tenure that he valued speed over possession. That philosophy is now bearing fruit, and the results are exciting. Bayern can still dominate possession, but the team now also can attack on the break and get results. Goretzka, still only 23 years old, is a perfect example of a two-way player with the pace, defense, and finishing that Kovac loves.

Müller and James

In many ways, Goretzka played like a second Thomas Müller while Müller himself played on the right wing: Goretzka roamed freely in the center of the pitch supporting Lewandowski and constantly distorting Hoffenheim’s defense while seeking space to receive the ball.

Müller, meanwhile, reminded people of what an underrated wingman he is. Müller earned an assist on Bayern’s third goal and contributed a game-high 5 passes that led to shots. Statistically, his xA (expected goals from shots taken from his key passes) was 1.12 — second only to Lewandowski (a whopping 1.44 from 3 key passes). By comparison, Hoffenheim’s most dangerous passer was Andrej Kramaric with 0.61 xA. (Stats from Understat.com.) Müller out wide with Goretzka inside looks like a viable combination.

Goretzka’s presence on the 10 naturally also raises questions about another player: James Rodriguez. James made his comeback from injury in the final fifteen minutes of the match, replacing a surprisingly inconsistent Thiago (dispossessed three times). He announced his presence with a perfect chip pass to Müller, setting up Lewandowski’s following goal. But James played more like an 8, a left midfielder who drove forward as a playmaker, whereas Thiago had roamed box-to-box without showing any clear preference for a given side.

James has not received as much playing time as he would like, and it remains to be seen whether Kovac gives him more going forward, and at whose expense. Could James play a similar role to Goretzka’s, whether as a 6 or 10? As Kicker remarked, Bayern’s current formation lacks a real 8.

Coman and Gnabry: Why not both?

And finally: Kovac’s choice to start both Goretzka and Müller rather than both Coman and Gnabry was the last surprise connected to Goretzka’s start at the 10. Rather than start opposite of Coman on the right wing, Gnabry replaced him late in the game (72’). Was Kovac worried about Gnabry’s stamina? Was it the plan to replace one speedster (Coman) with fresh legs to run at a tired Hoffenheim defense?

It is difficult to say. Gnabry had dazzled with his rapid attacks against Ajax in mid-December, but he too was struggling with muscular issues by the end of the first half, missing Bayern’s last game before the break, against Eintracht Frankfurt. Perhaps, like James, Gnabry was not quite ready for a full start, and since both Robben and Ribery have yet to return from their own injuries, Kovac opted to play it safe. Hence Müller took the right wing, and Goretzka played the 10, while Javi stepped in in the double-pivot. That at least would be logical.

Goretzka’s performance, however, might just have given Kovac a viable alternative for Bayern’s offense as the team works around an unending carousel of injuries. Bayern Munich’s crowded central midfield under Kovac remains the place to watch.