The back-three: Why does it exist?
Before you skip to the comments, hear me out for a second. This isn’t another “Nooooo why does Bayern Munich play the back-three we should always play a back-four and never switch!!!” opinion (though that IS the gist of how I feel). No, this is about Julian Nagelsmann, and how see seems to want the back-three to function for Bayern.
Since the last international break, Bayern Munich have mostly been playing a three-man defensive line consisting of (from left-to-right) Lucas Hernandez, Dayot Upmaecano (or Niklas Sule), and Benjamin Pavard. That style of play has the following key attributes:
- Alphonso Davies pushes up VERY high up the pitch, more of a winger than a wingback.
- The right-winger moves to a right-wingback position.
- The left and right-center backs move very wide to cover more space behind the wingbacks.
- Thomas Muller moves wide to occupy the right-winger’s position.
- Leroy Sane occupies the left half-space.
- The middle center-back becomes a primary progressor of the ball in the attacking phase, while the DM (Kimmich, usually) moves up the pitch like a #8.
This differs from Hansi Flick’s tried-and-tested back-four setup in the following ways:
- Benjamin Pavard pushes up into an aggressive RWB position.
- Alphonso Davies mirrors him on the left, ironically becoming more defensive because of his natural attacking tendencies.
- The DM drops in between the center-backs to receive the ball and progress it up the pitch.
- Leroy Sane plays more like a traditional winger on the left (or on the right, as was the case under Flick).
In general, all the demerits of the back-three have been discussed to death, in our podcasts, in articles, and in the comments section. If you want to listen to our arguments, check our EP18 of our Flagship below (or at this link):
So why does Nagelsmann persist with it? Well, maybe we got an idea of it today. Against Wolfsburg, Bayern Munich did not start with a back-three. But they did not finish with a back-four either. It was a true hybrid — switching from the back-four to three and back repeatedly in phases during the game.
Is this Nagelsmann’s endgame? Some kind of true switching hybrid? Or is the switching simply a half-measure, and something more robust is in the works? Did he go back to the back-four against Stuttgart because he had to, or because he simply thought it would be a good test-run before Wolfsburg?
Whatever it is, it’s not good enough yet — probably because it’s incomplete. Wolfsburg were not the best opponents, and even then the system showed its flaws. Where to go next? Well, the coach has a short winter break to think it out. We’ll see what he comes up with.
The Rocasiala (is that a thing?) midfield shines brightly
In the last two Bundesliga games, Marc Roca and Jamal Musiala have shown they can be a genuine alternative for Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka while the two are unavailable. While neither player possesses the qualities of Bayern’s starting dual pivot, together they form a partnership that seems to be better than the sum of its parts.
Musiala is the maverick — he presses hard, wins possession, dribbles up the pitch, tries risky passes, and does all the highlight reel stuff. Roca, meanwhile, handles the conservative side of the midfield game. Defensive positioning, recycling possession, and simply standing in the opponents’ passing channels seem to be the roles given to Roca by Nagelsmann.
It works. Granted, Wolfsburg and Stuttgart weren’t the best opponents, but it’s not like Bayern’s other midfield solutions (Sabitzer and Tolisso) did well against poor opposition either. Musiala and Roca seem to work together because they’re so different. While the Kimmich-Goretzka pivot can do everything, Musiala-Roca can do half of everything, each. That’s really good to see, and it gives Bayern more options going forward.
The ultra-risky defending of Dayot Upamecano
Julian Nagelsmann is taking a risk with Dayot Upamecano, and honestly it’s a good thing. The Frenchman did not play like a standard CB versus the Wolves — he was repeatedly pushing well outside of his position, rushing down attackers and closing passing lanes to shut down counters. He did his job superbly, having a 100% success rate with 5 tackles, and wasn’t dribbled past even once. Often, his interventions would lead to immediate counters for Bayern, preserving the team’s attacking momentum.
Of course, this style of defending is liable to get a team in trouble. What happens when Upamecano misjudges a pass, or misses the timing on an interception? A counter, of course. Nagelsmann seems to be betting that whatever counters are caused by Upa being out of position will be dealt with by Lucas or Neuer enough times to not be a problem. His calculation paid off today, but will it always do that? Maybe not.
It’s a big gamble by the coach, but a courageous one. That’s what a Bayern Munich coach should be like. You can’t have entertainment without risk. If Upa makes mistakes, then that’s too bad. He’ll have to be better next time. But this kind of challenge tends to improve a player, and the Frenchman has loads of talent. Of course, if it doesn’t work, there’s always Niklas Sule on the bench.
By the way, why not check our our postgame podcast? Listen to it below or at this link.
As always, we appreciate all the support!