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Sans Thomas Müller, Julian Nagelsmann’s ongoing tactical evolution at Bayern Munich

Bayern are beginning to chart a post-Thomas Müller era, and the results so far have brought uncertainty.

FC Bayern München v 1. FC Köln - Bundesliga Photo by Stefan Matzke - sampics/Corbis via Getty Images

Bayern Munich is hitting the Rückrunde of the Bundesliga season licking its wounds. Between injuries and benchings, Julian Nagelsmann has re-imagined how his team looks — particularly in an attack that is now without Sadio Mané and Thomas Müller.

For two and a half desultory games, the new-look Bayern have disappointed. But an intriguing second half shift against FC Köln, bolstered by Joshua Kimmich’s last-minute screamer and reports this week that youngster Ryan Gravenberch is set for a starting role in midfield, offer fresh portents of new hope for the record champions.

Return of the narrow mindset

Bayern’s XI — unchanged through two games — have marked a return to the centrally-focused style that began the season. Without Sadio Mané, Serge Gnabry has shifted to the left, making both nominal wingers inverting threats: Gnabry to run in behind and shoot; Leroy Sané to create or launch curlers from range. Leon Goretzka provides an additional box threat out of midfield, rotating with striker Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting.

Forward line: Gnabry, Musiala, Goretzka; Support line: Choupo, Sane; Midfield line: Davies, Kimmich, Pavard; Defense: De Ligt, Upamecano. Choupo rotates with a mobile Goretzka
Attacking rotations to create goal threats out of midfield

The results left much to be desired. Partly this may be down to familiarity: Gnabry doesn’t look totally in tune with his teammates at the moment, and Goretzka’s positional dalliances occasionally disrupt more than just the opposition. The first half against FC Köln was characterized by a haphazard series of almost-chances, and missed connections that yielded dangerous counters.

While the idea appears to be to deliver a variety of goal-threats, arriving into the box at unpredictable moments, Köln were able to compact space nicely and frustrate Bayern’s magic-men. Jamal Musiala in particular tried his trademark of dribbling through solid blocks of opposition, only to be foiled time and again.

A need for wingers

However much Julian Nagelsmann desires to focus creative play in the half-spaces, it seems that wingers cannot be denied. In the Hinrunde, Sadio Mané emerged as the solution to hold down the left wing for the team and keep the central attackers central. Now with Mané unavailable, Kingsley Coman has once again demonstrated his immense value to the squad.

Coman’s season didn’t start off on the right foot — owing in part to a suspension carrying over from the previous campaign, and also to early injury issues. He’s started just five times in the Bundesliga and appeared in eleven of seventeen games. But pound for pound, there’s nobody on the roster who can stretch the defense quite like him.

His second-half introduction brought instant dynamism against Köln. And as long as Noussair Mazraoui is also out injured — with the less mobile Pavard in his place at right-back — Coman may be the most necessary man in attack for the moment.

Forward line: Musiala/Gnabry plus Choupo/Tel; support line: Davies, Gravenberch, Sane/Muller, Coman; pivot: Kimmich; defense: De Ligt, Upamecano, Pavard
Something of a 3-1-4-2?

With Coman, Bayern finally have a serious wing threat on the right, someone to reset and restart the attack when it fizzles down the left. Pavard is also freed up to play much more like a center-back. Nagelsmann can shift to a 3+1 build-up which he has favored in the past, and the remaining three positions in attack enjoy considerable personnel flexibility.

Finally, Thomas Müller and Mathys Tel both have promising roles to play in this setup, if not starting ones. Müller’s preternatural sense of where the goal threat is makes him a top candidate to play off an advanced striker. And the seventeen-year-old Tel — in addition to being the most natural player to spell Coman at right wing — has also already seen time in the nine, against Leipzig.

The Gravenberch factor

This revised blueprint might ask very different things of Joshua Kimmich’s pivot partner: less to be a goal threat and more to function as a left-sided ten where required. Those were the sorts of spaces where he was most involved against Köln:

For a younger player with maybe less defensive nous than veterans like Marcel Sabitzer, this is a role that makes sense — and it’s complementary especially to Leroy Sané, an ideal creative partner. With Gravenberch in more fixed positions, Bayern have their build-up options stacked to the left/center, carving out even more space in which Coman may reside on the right. Gravenberch has shown an eye for the pass already in his limited minutes so far this season; some strings-pulling assists would do wonders for his confidence.

It may also benefit Choupo-Moting to stay advanced, particularly when the opposition is sitting deep anyway. Nagelsmann’s Bayern teams have struggled when falling behind — something that may be because unpredictable attacking rotations are more suitable for transitions than for unlocking low blocks.

This isn’t to say that Goretzka — a more than capable player in a variety of deployments — should be relegated to the bench. But a midfield role that highlights nimbleness, technique, and passing vision is one that could allow the youngster to finally blossom in Bavaria.

The window for experimentation is closing

Will this be the Rekordmeister’s new groove? A trio of big tests await: Eintracht Frankfurt at the weekend, followed by a must-win DFB-Pokal trip to Mainz midweek and a visit to Niko Kovač’s resurgent VfL Wolfsburg side on February 5.

In all, Bayern have four games to get it together for the first of their two Champions League round of sixteen legs against Paris Saint-Germain. The clock is ticking.

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