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Why Bayern Munich should ditch the 4-3-3 to beat RB Leipzig

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Niko Kovac’s new 4-3-3 formation was supposed to add a new dimension to the Bayern Munich setup, but has so far been worse than what it replaced. Isn’t it time to call off the experiment?

FBL-GER-AUDI-CUP-BAYERN MUNICH-TOTTENHAM Photo credit should read CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images

While it is pretty early in the season, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Bayern Munich’s upcoming clash with RB Leipzig will define the course of the season. Julian Nagelsmann has gotten his team up and running faster than anyone anticipated, resulting in RBL looking like the team to beat this season.

So, where does that leave Bayern? Despite the strong finish to 2018-2019, the Bavarians have once again begun a new season with less-than-stellar performances. A loss to Borussia Dortmund in the DFL Supercup was followed by a lukewarm Bundesliga opener against Hertha Berlin. The results got better against Schalke but the performances did not — Bayern created a mere 1.6 xG against the troubled Smurfs.

In the midst of all these lackluster performances, there has been one consistent factor — Niko Kovac’s new 4-3-3 formation. Unlike Bayern’s standard 4-2-3-1, which uses two defensive midfielders and a second striker, the 4-3-3 uses a midfield trio with one defensive midfielder and two wide-playing central mids. The change was supposed to give Bayern more flexibility and bring a new style of play to the club, but it has had some unintended consequences.

Problems in midfield

In the old 4-2-3-1, the midfield had some very important duties to fulfill. The defensive midfielder would shield the defenders from counterattacks via timely tackles and interceptions, while the other would carry the ball up the midfield.

This has served the club well since 2013. While having only one ball-carrier might seem like a bad idea, Bayern Munich have had midfielder-quality fullbacks for over a decade now, and they’re the ones who do the heavy-lifting as far as progressing the ball up the pitch.

In attack, the 4-2-3-1 ends up looking like a 2-4-4 as the fullbacks push up to join the midfield. Here’s what it would theoretically look like with our current players:

However, in the 4-3-3, the setup is completely different. There is a single defensive midfielder — usually Thiago Alcantara or Joshua Kimmich — who orchestrates the midfield, while two ball-carrying central midfielders play on the left and right respectively.

This would not be a problem — indeed, many big teams use an approach similar to this — but Niko Kovac has made a mistake with his setup. While he has instructed his central midfielders to go out wide, he has not instructed his fullbacks to stop progressing up the pitch into midfield. This leads to severe congestion on the flanks:

If you look carefully, you’ll be able to spot another problem — the center. Doubling up on the flanks not only leads to congestion out wide, it leaves the center weak and unable to opposition midfielders. This has been an issue for Bayern these past few weeks, even against weak opposition like Schalke. Against Leipzig, the effect will be magnified.

Space up top

However, that’s not all. The switch to the 4-3-3 has had an adverse effect on Bayern’s offensive output as well. The problem is easy to see — by vacating the center, Robert Lewandowski is left isolated and unable to really threaten. He has scored six goals so far, but they’ve come from an xG of 3.44, and two of the goals were penalties, while one was a set piece.

The difference in offensive quality between the 4-2-3-1 and the 4-3-3 is best illustrated by the xG timing chart from the Mainz game. Against Mainz, Kovac opted for a 4-3-3 with Philippe Coutinho as the LCM. At half time, for whatever reason, the coach decided to switch back to a 4-2-3-1, this time with Coutinho as the attacking midfielder. The results were immediate:

The little blue line that denotes Bayern’s xG immediately starts climbing to dizzying heights, and the goals soon follow. If you want the raw numbers, here they are:

Minute 1’ to 45’ (4-3-3): 0.71, 2 goals scored
Minute 45’ to 90’ (4-2-3-1): 2.64, 4 goals scored

In fact, Bayern Munich scored more goals from open play in those last 45 minutes against Mainz than they have in the preceding 225 minutes of league play. Before HT against Mainz, Bayern had scored three league goals from open play. Following half time, they scored four.

If that’s not an argument to move on from the 4-3-3, then I don’t know what is.

Countering Leipzig

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about Bayern, but not much about Leipzig. RB Leipzig were already a strong team last year, but it looks like Julian Nagelsmann has taken them to even greater heights. Timo Werner has been scoring at a phenomenal rate, and Leipzig themselves seem to be in blazing hot form.

Kovac has often said that the tactics he uses will depend on the opponent. Well, considering the opponent Bayern are up against, a 4-2-3-1 would be the best course of action. Why? Let’s review:

  • RBL have shifted to a three-man backline with the imperious Ibrahima Konate at its center. It would be disastrous leaving Lewandowski alone up there without any support from someone like Thomas Muller next to him — without someone to create some space for him, Kovac would just be inviting the defenders to shut Lewy down.
  • Leipzig use a strong dual pivot to control the center — if Bayern persists with the current 4-3-3 that leaves the defensive midfielder completely isolated, it could be a recipe for disaster. Thiago may well be the best midfielder in the world, but we all saw how Lucien Favre’s Borussia Dortmund forced him into costly mistakes during the DFL Supercup. Favre stacked his midfield by having his fullbacks tuck inside, severely limiting Bayern’s control of the center. Leaving aside the forward runs from the two central defenders, when looking at the heat map, a clear hole can be made out in the center of the pitch:

Given what we know about Leipzig, Nagelsmann will surely exploit these problems in midfield and up top. Of course, football is an inherently unpredictable game, and anything could happen — however, it’s the coach’s job to put his team in the best possible position. Therefore, Kovac should go back to the formation that made him so successful, and ditch the 4-3-3. It’s the most sensible course of action at this moment.