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What do Niko Kovac’s comments about his preferred formation mean for Bayern Munich?

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Kovac raised some eyebrows by confessing a preference for a 4-3-3. A revolution or just another name for a familiar formation? See our conversation at BFW.

FC Bayern v AC Milan - 2019 International Champions Cup Photo by Jamie Squire/International Champions Cup via Getty Images

In a recent article published by Sport1, “That is Niko Kovac’s New Bayern Tactics,” Florian Plettenberg discussed at length the possible implications of Niko Kovac’s recent remarks about his preferred formation for Bayern Munich — a 4-3-3 system instead of Bayern’s traditional 4-2-3-1 with a double-pivot. Plettenberg argues that Kovac is returning to the system that coincided with Bayern’s slump last fall and potentially departing from the “Bayern system” that CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge expects Kovac to cultivate. But is that really the case?

Kovac’s comment certainly raised eyebrows here — even causing flashbacks to the dark days of Carlo Ancelotti’s reign. Here is how our conversation about this interesting story played out behind the scenes at BFW:

Ineednoname: So is it true? Kovac wants a 4-3-3?

John Dillon: I can’t confirm it yet. Do you have a link?

INNN: I swear, I’m gonna be so annoyed if he switches. That’ll be yet another half season wasted with that awful formation.

Dillon: So, yeah, he says he prefers a “4-3-3” with one 6 (Thaigo or Javi), but I’m struggling to see how this is actually different from the 4-1-4-1 system we’re all used to. I like Florian Plettenberg, but he seems to think Bayern have been playing with two 6’s since 2013.

INNN: Kovac says he wants two 8’s in the translation.

Dillon: Yeah, that’s what he says.

INNN: So that is different.

Dillon: I dunno, depends on whether he sees Müller there.

That is the crux of the matter. At this point, it was necessary to scrutinize the Kovac’s actual statement. This is what Kovac said after Bayern Munich’s 1-0 victory over AC Milan in Kansas City:

Dillon: Kovac literally said this after the game vs Milan:

“We played with a simple 6 vis-à-vis two 8’s. We had used that [formation] at the end of last season again, too. That’s the system that I’d like to play. But you always have to adapt to how your opponent is.”

The rest is just Plettenberg. For instance, in Bayern’s last three BL games (Eintracht, Leipzig, and Hannover [yes, of course I checked]), Thiago played deep with Goretzka and Müller ahead of him. Coman and Gnabry on the wings. I think he means Müller is basically one of those 8’s (in contrast to someone like James).

INNN: Niko pls.

Dillon: I think it’s interesting to hear how Niko views the lineup, but I don’t think he’s actually proposing anything new. That’s just Plettenberg making a mountain out of a molehill.

INNN: Did Kovac really look at our lineups last season and thought that was 4-3-3?

Fergus: So the thinking is that Müller would be playing in cm in the 4-3-3?! The 4-3-3 is basically a 4-5-1, given the amount of tracking-back the wingers do, and taking into account how Müller and Tolliso/Goretzka love to go forward.

INNN: I can call our formation many things, but not a 4-3-3. Niko, bruh.

The big fear, obviously, is that Kovac is indirectly saying he sees no place for Müller in the starting lineup. We conventionally do not view Thomas Müller as an 8, that is, as an advanced central midfielder. We think of Müller primarily as a kind of 10, or a central attacking midfielder, or a second striker — a chameleon with a hazily defined offensive position — but not an 8.

Fergus: I’ll be so annoyed if Müller isn’t playing in the middle this year.

INNN: You, me, and Lewandowski.

Chuck Smith: And me!

INNN: That’s the only saving grace, that Müller Fan #1 is literally his teammate, Robert Lewandowski.

Fergus: Is Thomas Müller an undisputed starter behind Lewy now that James is gone?

Kovač: “We have to wait and see which system we will use. Whether with two 6’s and a 10 or one 6 and two 8’s. We have alternatives so I don’t want to commit myself to an answer now” (from @iMiaSanMia).

But the way he says it implies that Müller won’t play as an 8 in my opinion...

Kovac, of course, has no intention of declaring before the season has even begun that any player is an undisputed starter. He has even made a point of saying that Jerome Boateng will receive the same opportunities as anyone else, although he almost certainly will be behind Niklas Süle and Lucas Hernandez, and possibly also Benjamin Pavard, on the depth chart. But despite our fears for Müller, I personally don’t believe Kovac is implying he wants to phase him out of the lineup in preference for what we see as a real “8” like Goretzka or Tolisso:

Dillon: People shouldn’t get married to lineup numbers, honestly. If you look at the last games of last season, which Kovac mentions in the same breath, Müller is right there alongside Leon Goretzka with Thiago behind him.

I think 4-1-4-1, he thinks 4-3-3, but it’s the same thing. Offense, defense, constantly moving parts... Any two people can take a snapshot at a different point and decide it’s a different formation.

Chuck: My take: Kovac is going to shift formation alignments based on his player rotation that day.

Josh: Basically that’s it, since Bayern seems to be a free-flowing team with no true rigidity to the top third the formation.

Chuck: Big games: 4-2-3-1, rotation days 4-3-3. Maybe even a 4-1-4-1. What always amazes me is that no matter how much statistical evidence is out there and what the results of games are... coaches still always seem to be interested in finding a way to bench Müller.

At this point in our conversation, Phil Quinn jumped in with his own extensive experience observing Bayern and the game in general:

Phillip Quinn: Teams with good players play anywhere between three to four different formations in a single game. The only thing that matters is the talent that you put on the field and your tactics.

Chuck: Phil, agreed on that, and it’s partially why I believe Kovac has been pushing for versatile, multi-faceted players... That’s why I’m not firing off #KovacOut takes yet...

INNN: But changing shape in the middle of a game is not the same as changing formation, is it?

Chuck: Bayern has totally been looking for players that can be moved. Müller is that type of player who can play centrally or wide, where James was more limited... or maybe was not as willing. Looking at the roster, you can argue that Müller, Gnabry, Leon, etc. all are players that Kovac can shift around in the middle of the game to fill different roles or even positions.

Phil: It all really comes down to an interpretation of how good the opponent is on any certain day. If Bayern roll out a 4-2-3-1, they’ll have an advantage on the wings, but if they’re getting dominated in midfield, they make an adjustment and move a player in that front four back a little deeper to help the midfield. That’s a different formation.

If you roll out the 4-3-3 and you’re just dominating the wings and need a more forward attacker, you move one of those midfielders further up the field into a 4-2-3-1.

And that is where we left the matter. Some doubts may linger, but our rough consensus was that Kovac will presumably adhere to a flexible system that we described last season primarily as a 4-1-4-1. He personally appears to view it as a 4-3-3, but Thomas Müller seems to hold down one of those midfield spots when he is not positioned on the right wing.

It remains to be seen, of course, how the team actually plays. The preseason matches in the International Champions Cup have not answered all our questions, given their varying lineups. Hence, the DFL Supercup against Borussia Dortmund may be a major bellwether for the season. And, of course, further signings — above all one Leroy Sané — would give Kovac even more options than the multifaceted players at his disposal already allow.

We’re excited to find out. What do you think about Kovac’s remarks, and what formation do you expect him to use this season?