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Bremen review and Freiburg preview: a crash course on avoiding pressure

Bayern successfully broke down a dogged Bremen defense on Saturday; they will face an upgraded version in Freiburg on Wednesday. Here’s how it happened, and how it needs to happen again.

FC Bayern Muenchen v SV Werder Bremen - Bundesliga Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images

FC Bayern Munich suffered an early scare in their latest league game against SV Werder Bremen, going 0-1 down inside the first half hour after some sloppy defensive errors from Joshua Kimmich and Jerome Boateng. A stroke of luck around halftime turned the game on its head, which meant that the Bavarians could go back to the locker rooms with a lot of pressure off their shoulders.

What happened in the second half was a tactical masterclass from Hansi Flick. A few small but necessary tweaks were made at the break, and Bayern ended up scoring four more goals to register their joint-biggest league win of the season (coupled with the 6-1 win over Mainz). Here’s how it all happened:

Bremen’s midfield pressing causes problems

Bremen’s Florian Kohfeldt lined his team up in a narrow 5-3-2 formation, or 4-3-1-2, depending on whether they were attacking or defending. In this formation, the center-backs and central midfielders overcrowded Bayern’s attacking areas, especially the midfield. Kohfeldt had a clear plan in mind: pull up Bayern’s defensive line as much as possible, and catch them on the counter.

Bayern, meanwhile, started in a 4-3-3, with Kimmich, Leon Goretzka, and Thiago making up the prongs of a midfield trident. As talented as all three players are, however, only Thiago can confidently say that he can play the ball under pressure. Kimmich and Goretzka are more capable of applying pressure than freeing themselves of it, which played right into Bremen’s hands. Not only could Bremen take advantage of Bayern’s weakness, they also outnumbered the Bayern midfielders, as even their center-backs moved forward to press. This was facilitated by the back-five formation that they started with, since the extra defenders let them take greater risks when sending the center-backs forward.

Having found safety in numbers, Bremen’s midfield overpowered Bayern’s again and again, exposing Bayern’s weakened defensive line to the quick feet of Milot Rashica and Yuya Osako. The former ended up scoring on one of these counters, when a simple pass got past Kimmich and put him 1-on-1 with Boateng. Although Bayern subsequently took the lead before halftime, it was the visitors who most likely would have deserved the lead when the referee blew his whistle for the last time in the first half.

Problems with midfield? Then skip it!

Hansi Flick made a crucial substitution at halftime, subbing off Boateng for Ivan Perisic. This single change made reshuffled the entire formation. Right-back Benjamin Pavard moved into central defense to replace Boateng, while Kimmich moved to right-back. Philippe Coutinho, who started on the left flank, moved into the No. 10 spot while the newly introduced Perisic slotted in his place.

Flick’s plan was simple: if we can’t win in midfield, let’s just not play in midfield. By removing a central midfielder in an already outnumbered situation, he basically conceded the midfield battle for something that suited his team much more. The answer was more direct attacks, and not stopping to slow the ball down in midfield, where Bayern ran the risk of being intercepted and countered. Long balls delivered to the flanks and the attacking third were the norm for at least the first fifteen minutes of the second half.

As Bayern already had a lead, they could also attack with less urgency, making things easier for the players. It was through these elements that Bayern scored their third goal of the day. A long ball from David Alaba found Coutinho completely alone in a dangerous position. With little to lose — again, because of the preexisting lead — Coutinho pulled off a daring chip after seeing Jiri Pavlenka come off his line. The ball soared into the air before swooping down, glancing off the crossbar and into the net. 3-1.

What goes around comes around

Now that the Bavarians had a decent enough lead, Flick turned up the game plan a notch. He subbed in Thomas Muller for Goretzka, leaving Thiago as the only central midfielder on the pitch. However, since the ball rarely stayed in midfield long, this worked in Bayern’s favor. The attacking trio of Muller, Coutinho, and Robert Lewandowski, flanked by Perisic and Serge Gnabry, found safety in numbers in the attacking third.

Flick thus used Bremen’s plan against them by doing to them the same thing that they had done to Bayern in midfield. By outnumbering Bremen’s defense with their attacking players, Bayern’s forward pressing intensified. With their defense understaffed and their midfield stranded without the ball, Bremen’s troubles increased.

Bremen’s midfielders had little choice but to drop back and assist their defenders, which left Thiago free to roam alone in the wide-open midfield. He was thereby able to support the front five with ease and was not under too much pressure. As Bremen’s attacking line was pushed further and further back, the risk of counterattacks also decreased, leaving Thiago and his defenders behind him with little challenge.

Already sitting on a two-goal lead and having no reason to hurry, Bayern’s forwards leisurely broke down the Bremen defense with quick and fluid passes. The sheer numbers Bayern had forward made it hard for the Bremen defenders to mark them, and they used that to their fullest advantage. For one, Muller and Lewandowski played a brilliant one-two for Lewandowski to score his 220th Bundesliga goal, drawing him level with the legendary Jupp Heynckes. Perisic then threaded a ball to Coutinho, whose cutback found Muller unmarked to score a mere five minutes after coming on. Of course, some players did not go to the trouble of breaking down defenses — Coutinho wrapped up his hat trick with a sumptuous “Coutinho-zone” shot from outside the box that curled into the far corner.

Bayern ended up running out as convincing winners, again proving that Hansi Flick clearly knows what he is doing. Not once since Flick has taken over from Niko Kovac have his primary tactics gone wrong, even when Bayern lost to Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia M’Gladbach.

Deja Vu vs Freiburg?

With such an approach bringing the team immense success against Bremen, it remains to be seen whether Flick will take a similar approach in their crunch match against Freiburg tomorrow. Freiburg’s preferred formation is a 5-4-1. Christian Streich prefers to have his team sit back and catch their opponents on the counter, a plan not too dissimilar from Bremen’s approach in Munich. Even on the rare occasions that Freiburg switch to a back four, they tend to sit two defensive midfielders in a 4-4-2 double-six, which clearly shows that they put much more emphasis on keeping goals out than scoring them.

The stats back them up: Freiburg have not scored more than three goals this season in any game, and the last time they scored more than twice was in September. The reason why they are so high up in the table, however, is because they also tend not to allow many goals either. Freiburg have conceded more than twice in only one Bundesliga game this season, against then-table-toppers Gladbach. They even shut down the best attack in the league (RB Leipzig), limiting them to one goal while scoring two of their own to pull off a shock victory in the Schwarzwald Stadion back in October.

It is not a stretch to think that Freiburg will take the same approach against Bayern tomorrow. Considering the fact that their defense is much better than Bremen’s, it will take a lot of effort for the record champions to break Freiburg down. Moreover, if there is one thing that Freiburg do well nowadays, it’s taking their chances. Free kicks, counters, set pieces, you name it. Freiburg have scored what few goals they have in a myriad of ways, making it hard to pinpoint their attacking strengths. Freiburg also happen to be almost unbeatable at home this season, having won four, drawn two, and lost only once, albeit surprisingly enough to relegation-threatened FC Köln.

Whether Bayern will be the second team in the league to prevail in Freiburg remains to be seen. As Freiburg’s excellent form this season has proven, this game is anything but a game to take lightly. However, there is ample room for optimism, considering how Flick and his men were treated to a crash course on dealing with midfield pressure and successfully evaded it. Hopefully the players can deliver, as a win on this particular matchday could see Bayern jumping up a few steps into the title race.

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