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BFW Film Room: How Leon Goretzka evolved into Bayern Munich’s most important midfielder

Nagelsmann may have unlocked the German to a higher degree than even Flick.

Viktoria Plzen v FC Bayern München: Group C - UEFA Champions League Photo by Harry Langer/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

You read that correctly.

I know some if not most (if not ALL) of you immediately mouthed the words ‘Joshua Kimmich’.

While I agree that Bayern Munich’s Kimmich is the ‘better’ player of the two and that in previous seasons he was very much the heartbeat of the team, in recent games that has changed.

Manager Julian Nagelsmann has made de-centralisation a large part of his tactical work this season, most notably in attack with having to craft systems without the presence of one Robert Lewandowski. Similarly, Nagelsmann has done his magic in midfield, with Kimmich and Marcel Sabitzer forming a formidable double pivot earlier in the season with fluid role shifts. However, Nagelsmann has evolved his system over the course of the season from the 4-2-2-2 that was to the 4-2-3-1 that it is now, and a big part of that has been a new role given to the returning Leon Goretzka.

Now, calling Goretzka the most important ‘midfielder’ is a bit of a misnomer, as it is what he does everywhere but in the midfield third that makes him stand out.

Defensive Positioning: A lesson in double-pivot pendulums

Borussia Dortmund v FC Bayern München - Bundesliga Photo by Edith Geuppert - GES Sportfoto/Getty Images

This picture is a perfect showcase of bros being bros Bayern’s ‘midfield’ three.

Joshua Kimmich was originally in a much more advanced role with Sabitzer staying back at most times, and while it was mostly successful, Kimmich lacked consistent decisiveness in his finishes and was sometimes a little too slow to get on the gas when he got the ball. However, he has now been pulled back to his No. 6 role, staying with the centre-backs and aiding progression from deep, and offering himself as the safe ‘return and recycle’ option for the man on the ball when play advanced into the final third.

However, Goretzka has not abandoned his defensive duties. Goretzka is the primary presser when Bayern lose the ball in the final third, harassing defenders who have barely just recovered the ball and often managing to win the ball back in dangerous positions. He also drops back once a lead has been established, sometimes even hanging back as the 6 and letting Kimmich drive forward if the momentum of the play favours it.

Offensive Positioning: The concept of wildcards

Attackers marked with white lines, Goretzka’s position in relation to the attackers marked with red lines.

Leroy Sané has taken over the role of Jamal Musiala, dropping into midfield as an effective third midfielder and working to try and recover the ball in the midfield third of the pitch as well as aiding the striker in the press by having the opposition’s defensive midfielder in his pressing shadow, cutting off the potential for progression through the middle. Sané can often be observed sat even deeper than Goretzka. Even in the final third, Sané and Goretzka are often on the same line as shown above. In this situation, Goretzka only needed one touch to beat the entire Viktoria Plzeň defense with a through ball to Sadio Mané.

Attackers marked with white lines, Goretzka’s position in relation to the attackers marked with red lines.

Here Serge Gnabry is operating in the Sané role, and Goretzka picks up the ball level with him before quickly progressing it into a goal-scoring chance with a pass to Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting. In just a couple of touches, Goretzka takes the ball from behind the entire Plzeň defensive line and double pivot, to clean in on goal at the feet of the striker. Kimmich may have better long balls and balls over the top, but Goretzka’s incisive driven passes are something else.

But why is Goretzka so important in a way neither Sabitzer nor Kimmich could fulfill in their advanced roles?

Well, it comes down to the presence of Goretzka as a ‘wildcard’.

Kimmich was present as a purely creative presence in the final third, sitting no further than the edge of the box and looking to play attackers in over the top, having three (sometimes four including a full back) options to look for. Sabitzer was a more off-the-ball presence, rarely getting the ball in advanced positions but looking more to drag defenders away from the attackers in the box when the ball is out wide. Goretzka however, is so much more.

As showcased already, Goretzka advances into dangerous spaces a lot more than Kimmich and receives the ball in these positions a lot more than Sabitzer. Goretzka’s positioning often ties down a player meaning there is one less defender to mark the attacking quartet, but if Goretzka is left unmarked he has the decisiveness to punish teams. It is a lose-lose situation for Bayern’s opposition: either mark Goretzka and give space to the forwards, or leave Goretzka and risk him deciding the game with his shots or through balls.

Bayern’s attackers marked with white lines, opposition’s second bank of four marked with red lines.

In this situation the Borussia Dortmund defensive bank of four is each tied down to a player, and there is a second bank of four at the edge of the box. However, the Dortmund players decide to hold shape instead of pressing, and Goretzka punishes them with a shot from distance that cannons into the bottom corner to open the scoring. Also note Sabitzer’s advanced positioning reacting to Dortmund’s very defensive approach, almost temporarily taking over the role of ‘wildcard’ as he attempts to drag the Dortmund midfielders away from Goretzka with his movement. It succeeds as Salih Özcan is caught in two minds, failing to block Goretzka’s shot as he is distracted by trying to tie down Sabitzer.

Attacker-defender marking pairs marked with white lines, Goretzka’s run marked with a red arrow.

In this situation we can see Goretzka’s movement causing chaos once again. Every defender and midfielder is already tied down to an attacker, even the opposition full back who is having to mark Noussair Mazraoui down the right. The Plzeň centre-back narrows in on getting ready to make a challenge if Sané manages to get past his two pressers, not noticing the run of Goretzka through the half-space into the box. Sané times his through ball to perfection and Goretzka gets an easy 1-on-1 which he gobbles up with a chipped finish.

Goretzka has become Bayern’s most important player in the final third due to his ability to aid overloads with his destructive positioning but even more due to his ability to beat players with few but decisive touches, something other midfielders have lacked.

What do you think of Goretzka’s new role? Is this the key to unlocking defenses with Bayern Munich’s new attacking structure? Let us know your thoughts in the discussion below.

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