Bayern Munich’s game against Union Berlin was a gritty, frustrating affair. The Berlin outfit’s low block and “park the bus” approach, along with a (not so) delicious side of the dark arts rendered the Bayern attack tired and helpless. Die Roten bossed possession but failed to do much with it. The attack looked bereft of ideas and lacked cohesiveness, which begs the question: Is this what a Thomas Müller-less attack looks like?
The answer is a resounding yes.
This article, unlike other tactical articles, will not aim to break down an existing tactic for you. Müller’s role on this side and his importance to the team can sometimes be best understood when analyzing the team in his absence. A large portion of the tactical breakdowns here would be mere speculation and would aim to elucidate how Müller being on the pitch might’ve led to situations panning out differently. In other words, we will study how Müller’s presence keeps the attack ticking, and how things are not quite the same in his absence.
So grab some popcorn and your thinking caps. It’s time to analyze.
Role #1: Half space dominator
Müller is among the world’s best half-space dominators. His incredible footballing IQ enables him to utilize the half-spaces to maximum benefit. There’s a reason Jürgen Klopp, among other coaches, rates him so highly. Here, the attackers are all crowded around the left half-space, leaving the right side completely exposed. Typically, Müller, had he been on the pitch, could’ve been expected to move in from the encircled area to make a run in behind the defense.
This would have resulted in a great attacking opportunity with the man free to take on the goalkeeper 1v1. Simply put, at that point, there was no one to attack the right half-space. Similarly, the graphic below depicts another situation where someone in the half-space zones could’ve provided support by receiving and progressing the ball. Notice how nobody here takes the initiative in Müller’s absence.
Most of these players are experts at close-range finishing, making runs behind the defense, or stretching the defense. Müller would be the piece of the puzzle that supplies these players to enable them to do their thing. This is once again highlighted by the lack of a central presence in the next graphic. The large encircled region is empty, and a player there might’ve helped support Davies, while the arrows indicate the various passing options that would’ve been available to Müller had he been there.
Notice how the attackers have positioned themselves linearly in the box. There is no variation, and very little movement, which may primarily be due to the lack of a creative presence in the final third. Müller’s ‘Raumdeuter’ role primarily revolves around him exploiting these half-spaces. Bayern’s attack lacked that against Union.
Role #2: The organizer
It is a well-known fact that Müller is Bayern’s most vocal attacker. In fact, this has been the case for almost a decade now. The way he shouts orders at his teammates, gets them to move into advantageous positions, and organizes the press is a highly underrated aspect of his game. This enables him to use his IQ to benefit the rest of the attack. It is therefore conceivable that without their de-facto leader, the wingers and forwards could find themselves bereft of ideas at times.
In this graphic, for instance, There are three defenders pressing Sané, with two covering Alphonso Davies’ run. Such situations require help from other teammates, in order to open up more attacking lanes and draw defenders away from the goal. Notice how the other players are not moving much, and are positioned in a straight line. Müller might have occupied the encircled spaces and instructed the attackers to move to different positions, creating havoc. Bayern’s attack made it too easy for Union to stifle their attempts.
In the next graphic, observe how Alphonso Davies, Leroy Sané, and Sadio Mané form a triangle at the far left. They are all crowded around the same space and not much is happening, since they are also being marked by four defenders. Instead of using this opportunity to spread out and cause problems with their movement, the players further up field remain chained to their positions. Müller in that space might’ve been very helpful in both serving as a passing option and in instructing the players to scatter.
This image hammers home the point. Davies is ready to take on two defenders but has nobody for support. Once again, the attack is super static, and the attacking groups seem isolated. Notice how Union’s midfielders and defenders are positioned in two waves of five and four players each. Nobody seems to be getting out of their current positions to receive the ball. This leads to Davies taking on too many players by himself, resulting in another scuffled opportunity.
Müller’s role as the organizer of the team’s press is so crucial to anything this attack does. It is true that Julian Nagelsmann rested him, but in his absence, there needs to be someone else who can step up and give those commands. Against Union, the attackers seemed to all be playing their own individual game; there was a lack of cohesion.
Role #3: The connector
As a free-roaming attacking midfielder, Müller is the best at connecting the midfield and attack. He’s excellent at finding solutions against low-blocks and teams that try to destabilize Bayern’s attacking structure. In his absence, the team lacked a presence that would receive the ball, and recycle it to other parts of the attack.
In the graphic below, Kimmich receives the ball, but has no clear passing line in sight, because there is nobody present in the right position to receive the pass. The arrows indicate a possible passing sequence that could’ve ensued had Müller been on the pitch. We have seen him receive the ball in the left half-space time and again, only to lay it out on a platter for the other attackers. In this instance, Mané and Kingsley Coman might’ve enjoyed his service.
In the next graphic, we see Matthijs De Ligt ready to pass the ball up field, but since there is nobody in that massive empty area in the center of the opposition half, he passes it to Upamecano instead. It is safe to assume that had Müller been there, he would’ve received the ball from De Ligt and quickly unleashed it for Mané or Coman to feast upon. We have seen him do this countless times, so this wouldn’t be a stretch by any measure.
Finally, in this graphic, you can see Upamecano with the ball, ready to make a pass. However, with nobody in the center of the half to receive it, he sent a vertical ball to Mané, who to his credit, did really well, directing the ball towards the top left corner, but the goalkeeper made a brilliant save to deny him. However, maybe this didn’t need to happen. A simple pass to Müller in the center of the half could’ve opened numerous options. The options are indicated by the black arrows.
The red arrow indicates a possible sequence of play. Müller would first receive the ball in this play, pass it to Mané, and then follow the path charted by the red arrow to receive the ball again to create a goalscoring opportunity. This is just one among many possibilities for such a move.
So yeah, a Müller-less attack was probably a huge reason for Bayern’s inability to break Union down, and by understanding what Bayern Munich lacked in his absence, we can now appreciate everything he does for this attack from a different perspective.
It is possible that many of you might be thinking: “But how do we know if Müller would’ve done all that had he been on the pitch?”, and you’re completely justified in thinking that because it is true, we have no way of knowing that. But do keep in mind that these observations and analyses have been made after taking into consideration countless such scenarios that Müller has encountered throughout the course of his career.
He has solved so many problems for Bayern’s attack over the years, especially against low-blocks. Therefore, these conclusions seem quite logical, at least in my eyes. And what do we do in Müller’s absence? Well, someone else simply needs to rise to the occasion, or we need to work on giving Paul Wanner more game-time at the No. 10 every now and then.
Wanner seems to have all the physical attributes and game intelligence required to be an AM in Bayern’s setup, so this might be a good time to start giving him those chances. Here’s to hoping that he’s also vocal enough because that is something that none of the other Bayern attackers bring to the table, at least on the same level.
Another option is just slotting Sabitzer at the No. 10, but since the player is already playing superbly as a DM, it would be quite difficult to move him to another position. However, a Kimmich-Goretzka-Sabitzer midfield sounds really tantalizing.
We talked about this exact same phenomenon in this week’s edition of our podcast, along with a full preview of the Inter Milan game and Bayern’s struggles against parked buses. If you’re interested, listen to it below or at this link.
As always, we appreciate the support!