Bayern Munich started their Bundesliga season in exuberant fashion on Friday, trouncing Eintracht 6-1 on their own turf. That scoreline accurately represents how hapless the Frankfurt outfit was on the day and gives a fair idea of just how dominant Bayern looked. In fact, Die Roten could’ve easily had 2-3 more goals with tidier finishing. And all this against the reigning Europa League Champions, no less.
Bagelsmann... erm, I mean Nagelsmann, seemed to have gotten everything right. The pressing, the precision passes, the buildup through the middle, the relentless attacking, and a rock-solid defensive structure. But... don’t you live and die by the 4-2-3-1? How on Jupiter can you field a different formation and still get such convincing results? Probably just a fluke, right? WRONG.
This formation and setup displayed all the hallmarks of a well-thought-out plan which would also have included a meticulous study of the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. Nagelsmann outplayed Oliver Glasner tactically, and it was never close. He was the man with the plan on the day, and his plan was executed with surgical precision by the team (barring Neuer, who got too carried away playing around with a scalpel until he cut himself).
So what was it about this formation that gave Bayern such a massive edge? What tactical tweaks enabled Bayern to put on such a dominant showing? Let us now dive into the intricacies of the 4-triple-2, as I’d like to call it.
One of the key advantages offered by the 4-2-2-2 is a surplus of attackers in the opposition box and surrounding areas. Nagelsmann’s setup enables the half-space wingers/playmakers to create numerical advantages in the opposition third at will. The fluid attacking structure allows players to interchange positions constantly, dragging defenders out of position and exploiting the resulting spaces.
Observe how Müller, Musiala, Gnabry, and Mané are all in the box in an instant. They are all spread out quite well, with no overlaps. This increases the odds of the ball finding the back of the net. If Musiala can’t get to the ball in time (he does), Gnabry is right there to finish it off. Mané offers yet another option in case Müller decides to cut the ball back.
Getting into such situations and positions is very straightforward with this setup. The attackers would also be heavily involved in ball progression in this case. Often, the midfield is bypassed to directly get to the action in the attack. Since the play is so quick and direct, the midfield does not even have to hold the ball for long periods. Passing sequences involving as few as 3-4 passes are enough to get the ball from the defense to the attack, where a goalscoring opportunity would be generated.
The key for this setup to work is the utilization of half-spaces, which leads me to the next point:
Yes, Bayern has a lot of superb half-space merchants. These players exploit half-spaces brilliantly and cause havoc with their movement. They also have the vision to find teammates in tiny pockets of space or spot their runs and release defense-cutting passes. Thankfully, Müller, Sané, Musiala, and Mané are all excellent at doing this exact thing. Sané in particular has been revitalized by Nagelsmann’s reinvention. He really thrives in that left-wing half-space playmaker role (boy, what a mouthful).
Here, Sané drifts into the left half-space from the left wing and, after spotting the run of Musiala from behind the defense, unleashes an otherworldly through ball that bypasses 3 defenders and falls right at Musiala’s feet, who has just drifted to the center from the right half-space. The rest, as we all know, is history. Good close control and a composed finish from the young star.
Notice how even in this position, Musiala has another passing option in Mané. Like Tedesco mentioned after the Supercup game, this Bayern team has a horde of arrows coming at you. It is very difficult to defend all of them at once. This setup pulls defenses apart and creates space for everyone excluding the opposition.
Cover my flank, Serge-ant!
Bayern Munich’s formation may look somewhat narrow on paper, and perhaps Nagelsmann wants the center of the pitch to be utilized more than the wings, but the 4-triple-2 can also use this to exploit spaces and spring surprises along the wings when it is least expected.
Opposition players should try to limit passing options by congestion the middle, and this is when Bayern executes its next trap: players who suddenly turn into wingers and sprint out wide! In the following exhibit, notice how both Gnabry and Mané take to the left wing in anticipation of Kimmich’s pass, which sends them sprinting down that flank. Also notice how so many Frankfurt players are busy in the middle of the park.
In the next exhibit, Mané is in acres of space (once again, due to the Frankfurt players trying to contest the center), and Müller turns into Müllinho, the elite winger, and sprints down the right wing in time to receive the ball and send in a beautiful cross to Musiala.
Very neat. And now, on to yet another super important facet of Nagelsball (and football at FC Bayern Munich in general, to be honest):
The pressing issue
Nagelsball is epitomized by smart gegenpressing. It is no secret that the man is a big fan of intense presses (as demonstrated by his stints at Hoffenheim, Leipzig, and even Bayern last season). However, unlike Flicki-flaka, the players aren’t asked to torpedo their opponents for 90 minutes, running like madmen at every opposition player with possession. Of course, that had its own merits, like we saw in the 2019-20 and the 2020-21 seasons, but also made the team highly vulnerable to fast breaks.
In this case, however, the players are instructed to press in well-organized factions. 2-3 player team-ups and different layers of the press are seen in Nagelsball, which reduces the rate of player burnout, and adds another layer of defensive stability. If you got through the midfield triangle press, you’d be welcomed by the defensive duos (RB and RCB, LB and LCB). Ideally, one group stays back while the other presses.
Another major characteristic of both Flicki-flaka and Nagelsball is the pressing even when IN possession. Although this is technically not exactly pressing, observe how the Bayern players are all with their respective men, creating loads of space in the middle of the park. The wave of red has cut out interception lanes and taken defenders out of position.
Müller receives the pass, and subsequently unleashes it for Gnabry, resulting in a goal. So yeah, Bayern’s pressure persisted, even when in possession. Once you’re done applauding the wonderful alliteration in that sentence, let us now move on to the mastermind behind all this - the coach.
Flash news: Nagelsmann is a top-tier coach and definitely knows better than so many of us armchair coaches. He is clearly trying to implement his system here, which, in all honesty, is quite novel and nothing like we’ve been used to seeing as Bayern fans. By that, I mean the formation and the way the team functions. Of course, many fundamental principles remain the same: intense pressing, quick passing, attacking fullbacks, etc.
However, there are several elements here that have Nagelsmann’s signature all over them, including half-space exploitation, direct play through the middle, the interchangeability of the attacking positions, the well-concerted presses, and the two striker setup (where one striker sometimes acts as a counter-foil for the other).
One factor that could be massive moving forward is Nagelsmann’s willingness to try different setups after studying the opposition. It is no secret that the coach plans for games meticulously, and may well devise tactics that are tailor-made for each opponent. This 4-triple-2 could have several variations, including a 4-2-3-1 where Mané is the sole striker and Coman replaces Gnabry from the lineup or a 4-4-2 where the half-space wingers play as wider midfielders.
We could also see a 3-5-2 version with Pavard acting as the third CB and Davies and Coman (?) functioning as wingbacks. In this case, Müller could drift inside, with Gravenberch/Sabitzer occasionally drifting wide to support the winger. This 3-5-2 would be able to shift to a 4-2-2-2 or a 4-2-4 at a moment’s notice. Bayern has a coach AND the personnel to execute these seemingly complex setups.
Of course, this is just the first game of the Bundesliga season, and I am definitely not jumping to any major conclusions. Yes, Teddy, I hear you. This is certainly not a big enough sample size to make any meaningful conclusions. However, there are certainly some great signs, and there’s no saying how much this setup could benefit the club. As with every new philosophy or tactic, there will come a time when a club is ready with an answer, and when that happens, Bayern might struggle.
Nagelsmann might have to go back to the drawing board and make more tweaks. Devise more strategies. But that won’t be a problem, since Nagelsmann can field multiple tactics. Nagelsmann ain’t a one-dimensional coach. And I have a hunch we’ll be seeing that this season.
But until that happens, just sit back and enjoy the glorious football on display.