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A system change? How Bayern Munich’s Julian Nagelsmann should approach the final game of the season

With a dead rubber game coming up on Saturday, this is the perfect time for Nagelsmann to experiment.

FC Bayern München v VfB Stuttgart - Bundesliga Photo by Martin Hangen ATPImages/Getty Images

If there’s one thing that Julian Nagelsmann’s first season at Bayern Munich has shown (among many other things), it’s that the defense has not been fixed at all. Although the team conceded less goals than last season, it still didn’t convince anyone as they just barely limped to the Bundesliga, losing the other two competitions in spectacular fashion.

Thankfully, it seems like Nagelsmann is well aware of the defensive problems, and is hoping to change them come next season. The question is, how? We’ve seen that Nagelsmann’s systems have more than often lacked balance. Counterattacks have been a thorn in Bayern’s side all season - just look at Villarreal’s last gasp equalizer at the Allianz Arena. Even against Stuttgart last Sunday, Bayern were constantly exposed at the back. Nagelsmann’s current formation involves both a 4-2-3-1 and a 3-4-2-1, the former of which takes form when defending. The flaw in this system is that because of the high overlapping full-backs (Benjamin Pavard and Alphonso Davies, in this case), the center-backs (Dayot Upamecano and Tanguy Nianzou) were often left isolated and having to deal with multiple attackers at once.

So how does one fix this? Reports from Kicker and Sport1 say that Nagelsmann is looking to add an extra man in defense, making the hybrid back-4/back-3, just a classic back-3. Three center-backs remain in defense while the wing backs push high up the pitch, but unlike the current hybrid system, the defense remains stable with the extra man. The wing-backs, meanwhile, contribute more defensively. We’re talking about actual wing-backs here, not Serge Gnabry. The upcoming transfer of Noussair Mazraoui is likely an extension of this long-term transition plan: to add a classic wing-back who can add some balance and stability to Bayern’s defense.

Of course, it’s not as simple as just putting an extra man in defense for the sake of boosting the numbers. That’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer level tactics, and as much as I dislike Nagelsmann, even I think he’s a better coach than the former Manchester United boss. Counter-pressing is also an important issue that Nagelsmann brought up, which explains why he’s looking for reinforcements in central midfield. But whatever the case is, it looks like Nagelsmann is pushing for the back three system that characterized his success at Hoffenheim and Leipzig.

I know, Bayern playing with a back three? That’s blasphemy of the highest order. After all, Hansi Flick and Jupp Heynckes won trebles with a classic back four. However, if back threes are what it takes to bring out Nagelsmann’s biggest strengths, then I say so be it. No one will be complaining if he succeeds. But will he?

Which brings us to the final game of the season against Wolfsburg. What better time to test out a new system than a dead rubber game? Saturday’s match literally has nothing on the line. Bundesliga title? Check. Trophy celebrations? Check. Home crowd farewell? Check. Heck, even the relegation fight is now more or less over, so the likes of Felix Magath can’t use that to bully Nagelsmann into fielding a full strength squad. What’s more, Wolfsburg have long secured their Bundesliga status anyway. In short, this is the one game of the season that Nagelsmann can do whatever he wants, how he wants to. I say this is the perfect opportunity to give that classic back three a trial run. Will it work? Maybe, maybe not. If it does, then Nagelsmann will have something to build on for next season. If not, oh well, at least he tried something new.

The one thing that stands in Nagelsmann’s way at the moment is the fact that Bayern don’t really have a classic right wing back yet. However, since this is about testing a new system rather than new players, he can rely on the likes of Benjamin Pavard, who’s had his share of wing back duty with France, or even Josip Stanišić, if he wants to get adventurous. The season is more or less finished, one deadbeat game won’t change a thing. Might as well treat it like a pre-season friendly.

So how would Nagelsmann line up in this game? I would propose something like this:

Neuer - Upamecano, Süle, Hernández - Pavard, Kimmich, Goretzka, Davies - Gnabry, Müller - Lewandowski

No hybrids, no constant changes, no confusion. Just the classic back three that he desires. Any number of youngsters, such as Jamal Musiala, Paul Wanner, Gabi Vidović, or Stanišić can join the fun as well.

The bottom line is, I want Nagelsmann to try something new against Wolfsburg. Whether it be new tactics, a new formation, a new system, or new players, just try something different. It’s become frighteningly clear that what he had before is not working, so why stick with it and risk heavy criticism? If he tries something else, then at least he’ll be able to defiantly say that he was doing so for the team. A new approach is the only thing that will give this otherwise meaningless game some, well, meaning. If he does so, I will respect him for his effort, regardless of the result. Better to try and fail rather than not try and fail. Trial and error is there for a reason.

Of course, I’m probably wasting my time here. Judging from the past two weeks, it’s pretty safe to assume that Nagelsmann will roll out with the same boring, confusing, and worthless system that resulted in just one point in two games. But if he really is the innovative, flexible coach that we all hoped he was, then he’ll shake things up in Wolfsburg, and I will applaud him for it. After a tough first season, Nagelsmann is in the hot seat now. He needs to use every opportunity he can get to apply his strengths to the team. If he does keep trying to innovate and improve, and if there is clear evidence of progress, I will support him even if we finish next season trophyless. Transition takes time, and if Nagelsmann uses said time wisely, then he will win the trust of many doubtful fans, including myself. However, if he wastes his time in Munich stubbornly sticking to the same approach that resulted in failure, then he will be one of Bayern’s biggest wastes of money in recent years.

I will end this piece with a heavily paraphrased quote from Harry Potter and the Goblet of FIre.

“I tell you now – take the steps I have suggested, show us that you are willing to improve, and you will be remembered, in office or out, as one of the bravest Bayern coaches we have ever known. Fail to act – and history will remember you as the man who stepped aside and helped destroy the legacy so many have tried to build!”