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Pressing and stretching: How Hansi Flick took apart Schalke 04

Hansi Flick served up a tactical dish of delights with a few secret ingredients thrown into the mix.

FC Bayern Muenchen v FC Schalke 04 - Bundesliga Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images

Bayern Munich’s performance yesterday against Schalke was arguably their best of the season so far, probably up there with the likes of the Tottenham trouncing and the Dortmund demolition. The game was won due to a number of reasons (one of them being poor Schalke goalkeeper Markus Schubert), but none more important than a tactical masterstroke from Hansi Flick.

Schalke were coming off strong with a win against Borussia Monchengladbach in their previous game and were undefeated in every game against the current top five in the league except for their 3-0 defeat to Bayern way back on Matchday 2.

Here is how Flick outsmarted the Royal Blues and put his master plan into motion.

Step 1. “Know your enemy and yourself and you will win a hundred battles”

Schalke’s victory against Gladbach probably raised a few eyebrows when it happened, but it was very well deserved. Schalke created a plethora of chances in the first half, and it was only because of Gladbach keeper Yann Sommer that the Foals were not at least two down by halftime.

Schalke’s strengths in the Gladbach game were counter-pressure and quick switches in attack that exploited the space left in their opponents’ half. Their two goals came from these open spaces, like this:

This is the buildup to Schalke’s first goal, with Michael Gregoritsch (bottom left) getting the ball on the flank. Gladbach’s defenders are clearly too far apart at this point, and are all focused on Gregoritsch, not on the other advancing players.

Seeing the space that he created, Gregoritsch (no. 11) passes to goalscorer Benito Raman (no. 9), who wanders into said space and doesn’t take that many touches before curling a shot past Sommer. 1-0.

The second goal was similar, if not more space-oriented:

Suat Serdar (no. 8) has two options in front of him as three defenders begin closing in on him. This creates more space.

Serdar chooses Raman (no. 9) and draws the defense toward him, in turn creating space.

Gregoritsch comes into that space, and slots the ball into the bottom corner.

So what we see from Schalke in this game is that they like to create space to run into on sudden attacks. Their midfield overruns Gladbach’s, and allows them to dictate the play from the middle of the pitch, releasing the ball when necessary. Schalke used their numerical advantage in midfield, with their four central midfielders taking charge of the ball and using it to draw out the defense, thereby creating their necessary space.

Part 2. An impenetrable midfield trio

So what does Hansi Flick do to counter this? He sets up a midfield battle with a rather unorthodox formation. Ditching his preferred 4-2-3-1, or even 4-1-4-1, Flick went for a classic 4-3-3, playing Joshua Kimmich, Thiago, and Leon Goretzka all at once, a rare occasion. In doing so, he got rid of the no. 10 role, and pushed his normal no. 10 (Thomas Muller) onto the wing to flank Robert Lewandowski with Ivan Perisic.

Flick’s plan was clear: he was not willing to give up any space in midfield for Schalke to take advantage of. Although his team still had fewer midfielders than Schalke, he fixed that problem by having his midfielders move together as a unit. When Schalke got the ball, at least two midfielders usually closed down the player and either cut him off or held him so that he could not pass the ball forward. The third midfielder meanwhile remained in the wings waiting to pounce on any wayward balls that might find their way through.

This diagram shows just how compact Bayern’s midfield was.

Goretzka, Kimmich, and Thiago stayed tightly together, working as one to disable Schalke’s midfield passing. Coupled with the active passing between them and the back four, Bayern caught Schalke in an almost impenetrable trap, with little, if any, space.

Once the trap was set, Die Roten pressed the Royal Blues nonstop. Schalke’s midfield was overrun by the tireless work of Bayern’s midfield trident. With fullbacks Alphonso Davies and Benjamin Pavard manning the sides, not to mention ample support from wingers Thomas Müller and Ivan Perisic, Schalke’s flanks also fell victim to high pressing and their attack was nullified.

As a result, Schalke lost possession seven more times than Bayern, despite attempting more challenges and interceptions. The reason for this is mainly the fact that Bayern’s pressing served not only to recover the ball, but also to force Schalke deeper into their own half. The stats back this up: Schalke’s backward passes (105) are only outnumbered by their forward passes (191) by a measly 86, while Bayern’s 350 backward passes pale in comparison to their 534 forward passes. Bayern’s fourth goal was also a by-product of this pressure: Kimmich intercepted a wayward pass after putting a defender under pressure, kicking off the buildup that resulted in Thiago’s second goal in as many games.

Müller himself commented after the game that “we wanted to allow them no air to breathe, as we did against Dortmund.” Perhaps Bayern has a thing for pressing teams from the Ruhr, and to great success.

Part 3. Spread your wings and fly away

Pressure in defense is one thing, but how do you break down a rock solid defense in numbers in front of you? Go around it, says Hansi Flick.

Looking at the diagram above, we can see that Bayern’s passes were distributed mainly out wide to the flanks, particularly to the fullbacks. The wingers are involved as well, but the majority of passes they received were from the fullbacks. The reason behind this is most likely that since the wingers were spaced out wider from the midfield, passes to them carry the risk of interception by Schalke’s defenders. Bayern’s fullbacks, in contrast, are in close proximity with both their center-backs and the midfield, so it is only natural that they would be the main source of attack.

With Schalke using a centrally strong formation, it only made sense for Bayern to focus on the flanks, utilizing their full backs and wingers to their advantage. Their plan was simple: stretch out Schalke’s defense and score early on, then let the floodgates open and we can use the midfield more.

It is therefore no surprise that Bayern’s first two goals came from the flanks. Here is Lewandowski’s opener.

Jerome Boateng finds Müller on the flank, with Pavard advancing. Schalke’s defense is half focused on Pavard, so that leaves Müller just the right amount of space to send in a cross that is awkwardly punched by goalkeeper Schubert.

Muller’s cross has now split the Schalke defense. Perisic picks up the loose ball and sees Lewandowski in the space that the cross has created.

Lewandowski is free to volley home. The Schalke defense frantically scramble back into the center, but it is too late.

Müller’s goal on the stroke of halftime was pretty similar in that it used wayward passes between the flanks to open up the defense.

A long ball from Kimmich is intercepted by the defense and falls to Perisic, who doesn’t hesitate to launch a ball toward the other side of the box as defenders close in on him.

Perisic’s cross stretches the defense again and gives Goretzka just enough space to get a head on the ball. He is still too surrounded to attempt a shot on his own, but who is that red flash in the middle of the defense?

With the defense focused on Goretzka, the “flash” is able to hyperdrive his way into the open defense and latch onto the former Schalke man’s header. This is probably one of the best examples of Müller’s “raumdeutering” this season: just finding space, getting into it, and scoring a tap in. Profit!

The two-goal lead that Bayern got from their sideways passing enabled Schalke to open up quite a bit in the second half, and Bayern eventually got their other goals in a variety of ways: a fantastic scissor-kick, a press and counter, and a goalkeeper nutmeg from distance.

Likewise, Bayern’s focus on the flanks made it impossible for Schalke to remain in the middle of the field. When Bayern had the ball, Schalke simply needed to cover the marauding runs of Davies and Pavard, which opened up pockets of space for Müller and Lewandowski to slide right into. Flick’s plan to open up Schalke as early as possible thus worked like a charm, and gave Bayern a two-goal cushion going into halftime. That gave Bayern the ability to play their game, and Schalke played right into their hands. According to Flick’s plan, the game was done when referee Manuel Gräfe blew his last whistle of the first half.

Conclusion: Bayern played like Bayern should

I doubt there is a sentence that could describe this game better. Bayern won the treble in 2013 based on a healthy mixture of possession and pressing. The same method would win Germany their first World Cup as a unified nation a year later. With all due respect to Pep Guardiola, his “passing first” method was not a good fit at Bayern, as many trophies as it brought them. As for Carlo Ancelotti — well, I do not believe anyone knows what kind of football he was trying to do at Bayern. And Niko Kovac showed his version of pressing and possession when he won the double, but ended up ditching it for something that eventually cost him his job.

Hansi Flick, at the moment, is the closest thing we have to a Jupp Heynckes approach. He has proven to be tactically flexible, and he has shown that he can think on his feet and change up his approach should it not work out (which rarely happens). The one thing that sets Flick’s tactics apart from typical Gegenpressing is that it is not pressing nonstop for 90 minutes, but knowing when to press and how to press, thereby conserving strength for the entire game rather than burning out in a single half. That is exactly what set Heynckes apart from Jürgen Klopp at Dortmund, and it is also close to what Klopp himself is implementing at Liverpool, the tactics that won him Liverpool’s sixth Champions League.

Again, it is too early to call Flick an incarnation of Jupp Heynckes, and it is also too early to say whether Flick will win Bayern a treble this season. But what has been proven through the Schalke game is that there are very few, if any, clubs in the world who will not fear Bayern at their best, doing what they are best at. As captain Manuel Neuer said after the game, “FC Bayern is back.” They indeed are, and they are playing to their strengths.

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