Last month, the Bundesliga YouTube channel ran a comparison video for Bayern Munich’s two prior seasons: one under current Germany coach Hansi Flick, the second under Julian Nagelsmann. Let’s take the occasion to dive into their similarities and differences.
First, I’d offer that these are two excellent coaches who have more in common than not. Both favor high-pressing, fast-paced football and believe the best defense is unrelenting aggression. Not every coach fits in the Bayern DNA so well, even among the good ones — Thomas Tuchel comes to mind with his structured Chelsea FC teams, or former Bayern manager Carlo Ancelotti with his adaptive pragmatism presently on display at Real Madrid.
But while the principles are akin, there are different ways of expression.
Stability in build-up
The video makes an interesting contrast about Nagelsmann’s build-up compared to the typical back three: he has his center-backs close together rather than across the pitch. A screenshot to illustrate:
Perhaps this is the difference between a back three only in possession (and a 4-3-3 pressing structure, say) and a true back three.
Full disclosure: I am a fan of this. This 3+1 build-up structure is, when performed well, pretty good at neutralizing an opponent’s press. We saw this in the second leg against Villarreal. There are a lot of passing triangles there between the keeper, the center-backs, and the six. It facilitates direct, vertical play, drawing opposition numbers forward while probing for the line-breaking pass. Once the attack switch is flipped, numbers can flood forward to convert into a chance on goal.
However, it’s not without costs — among them a more isolated Kimmich and gaping vacancies in the center of the pitch when the ball is lost in the final third. Flick’s high line was vulnerable in its own way, but this adjustment hasn’t been the cure-all.
Similar personnel in the lines
Not that Flick himself didn’t build out from three either, but with differences. Take a look at this screenshot from an excellent article at The Coaches’ Voice showing a 3-2-5, but with Kimmich forming the third at the back by dropping between the two center-backs, and pushing upfield later to rejoin midfield with pivot partner Thiago.
Under Nagelsmann, the flex from three to two typically occurs with Pavard pushing out of the defensive line into more aggressive but infield positions. You might call him, as Nagelsmann once did in a discussion with Ralf Rangnick on German television, “an inverted right-back.” An annotated screenshot from that discussion to illustrate:
At this point, the personnel in each line is fairly similar — whether it’s Kimmich or Pavard who step up to form the three in midfield. However, the patterns of attack still differ.
Half-spaces versus wide areas
One well-known contrast between the coaches is Nagelsmann’s preference for creating threats through the half-spaces. While Flick’s team created sixteen goals from out wide in 2020-21, Nagelsmann’s did just eight the following year.
On the other hand, the attacking thrust was evenly distributed across the field under Nagelsmann: 31% down the left, 18% in each half-space, and 33% down the right.
This isn’t necessarily about playing through the middle. Often, under Nagelsmann, the ball is worked wide first, and in fact, he does expressly use the full width of the field. On the left, that means left-back Alphonso Davies as a winger; on the right, Gnabry or Coman or the occasional roaming from Müller.
Working down one wing in build-up helps open up the switch on the other side. A favored pattern seemed to be going up the left, while Müller and Gnabry combined to make free, unpredictably interchanging runs down the right. Further, in Leroy Sané there’s a creative distributing presence to drive infield and look for the killer pass.
The end result is a defense dragged every which way, with the most direct routes on goal — down through the half-spaces — targeted for plucking.
With a two-striker system in store, this trend should continue.
Clear-cut chances and set pieces
Something the video does a somewhat poor job of separating is what are probable coincidences and what are statistics reflecting trends. It’s not a deep dive — still, there are two noteworthy deltas.
One should not surprise: Flick’s 20-21 team was far more clinical. If you endured the rough patches of the last Rückrunde, you agonized through many a game in which Bayern massively underperformed xG. Nagelsmann’s 21-22 squad created far more ‘clear-cut’ chances (104 to 73) for nearly identical goals (97 to 99).
Unlucky? Unfamiliarity with the attacking patterns? A Moneyball approach to spam chance creation that isn’t as valuable as it seems? You decide.
The second stat did surprise.
We know Hansi Flick as the man who insisted on set piece training while he was Jogi Löw’s assistant with the German men’s national team — to Löw’s and the players’ initial skepticism but ultimate reward in their 2014 FIFA World Cup triumph.
However, on the score of both corners (five to nine) and free kicks (three to seven), Nagelsmann’s squad were the betters. Peculiar, possibly abberant? But a reminder nonetheless that this crucial aspect of the game hasn’t gone out of focus at FC Bayern.
‘The Upamecano factor’
At the 2:33 mark in the Bundesliga video there’s a nice highlight of center-back Dayot Upamecano (as well as a dangerous step forward from Corentin Tolisso from the six position, vacating all of midfield).
Upamecano has been maligned for some shaky performances and high-profile errors, and at times seemed out of favor to Niklas Süle. But he also made routinely class 1-on-1 defensive work in tough situations.
As we saw again this preseason, here against Manchester City:
Unbelievable recovery by Dayot Upamecano pic.twitter.com/WmmgXKBtZ9— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) July 24, 2022
With Matthijs de Ligt arriving the heralded €80m leader of the backline, Upamecano might have more struggles for playing time — but his qualities are sometimes overlooked. He remains Bayern’s best antidote to the fast break. Given Die Roten’s aggressive style of play, such traits should remain in demand.
Flick and Nagelsmann are two outstanding coaches with similarly front-foot approaches to the game beneath their different wrinkles. We’re spoiled silly for having these two back-to-back at Bayern.
This will be a fun year. We’ve got Nations League fixtures in September for Flick and then the opportunity to add a World Cup trophy as head coach to his sextuple cabinet.
And for Nagelsmann, the young innovator, the chance to make amends for the Champions League debacle last season — atop the already enormous task of evolving Bayern beyond Robert Lewandowski.
These two tactical wizards will be hard at work. Let’s see what they cook up!