Bayern Munich boast the best attack in all of Europe right now. With 34 goals in 11 league games, no other attack is even close to putting up the numbers Bayern are in front of net. It is a surprise that this is the case, especially when it’s put into context that just half a year ago, Bayern’s attack was in its worst shape in years, barely scoring enough to win games and often failing to do even that.
So, what changed?
Your Time Is Gonna Come: A midfield instead of a midfielder
Under Julian Nagelsmann last season, the team relied a lot more on vertical movement through the half-spaces and central zones, often building up through direct vertical carries from midfield. This kind of system normally requires a midfield three, but Nagelsmann elected instead to run a midfield duo, most often Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka.
Kimmich was given the role of picking the ball up from the defensive third and recycling possession or progressing it into more advanced areas while also being the defensive midfielder out of possession, an immensely pressure-filled role which makes the team rely on one player for getting out of pressing traps, creating chances from deep, progressing the ball to the attackers AND holding down the centre when out of possession. Goretzka was given the role of receiving the ball between the lines — almost as a second attacking midfielder — and trying to kickstart attacks with his respectable technical abilities and try to push the opponent into a corner by pressing with his immense physical presence.
In matches where Kimmich could not be relied on to control the middle alone, Goretzka was often given a deeper role where he would win duels in the middle and try to sweep up any loose balls or ‘second balls’ in midfield. Regardless of opponent, one of Goretzka’s main functions was helping the wing backs by offering them an option in the half-space. In particular, a common pattern of play under Nagelsmann was Goretzka drifting to the left, receiving the ball from Alphonso Davies who immediately made a run behind the opposing winger and was met with a return pass from Goretzka, and suddenly Davies had space to run in behind the defense.
However, under Thomas Tuchel, this changed massively. While Tuchel did experiment with this system at first — most notably dropping Goretzka at one point for Ryan Gravenberch — it did not work, as Tuchel’s ideas of football simply do not gel with the verticality of this system. So Tuchel instead opted for a proper double pivot.
Goretzka and Kimmich are now billed as proper partners in midfield rather than the markedly different roles they occupied under Nagelsmann, both coming short to receive from the defenders and goalkeeper, but both taking turns affecting play in the midfield and final thirds. The only real difference in their play is that Goretzka tends to drift wider to support the wing backs and wingers more while Kimmich tends to progress through the middle and play through balls over the defense for the forwards to latch onto.
This system is a lot more sustainable for Tuchel’s style of play, one which relies a lot more on switches and spreading out the play rather than Nagelsmann’s tunnel-visioned high octane vertical system. Tuchel’s midfield has shown a lot more control over games than Bayern have had with the single pivot midfield, with a lot better retention of possession, less tendency to fall into pressing traps, and a better rate of recovering the ball in the midfield third through counter-pressing and structural competence.
This change can be analysed through the statistics too. Goretzka already has half the progressive carries this season as he did last season while having only played a third of the games, as well as also nearly reaching the halfway point for total passes completed, showcasing a clear uptick in Goretzka’s presence in build-up. Kimmich too has had an uptick in his more offensive statistics, creating far more shot-creating and goal-creating actions than before, as well as a reshuffle in his defensive statistics to where Kimmich’s pressing statistics have had an increase whereas the statistics associated with screening and No. 6 play such as pure tackle and interception numbers have actually gone down as his defensive responsibilities have laxed a bit. It’s not the best we’ve seen of the Kimmich-Goretzka pivot in terms of function and individual play, but it’s definitely the most functional.
Dazed and Confused: Reading between the lines
Under Julian Nagelsmann, Bayern were focused on central congestion, with the attackers taking positions in the half-space and trying to make runs in behind the wide centre-backs off the back of the de facto striker. This was tactically sound, as the lack of a proper striker in the middle severely limited Bayern’s ability to stretch defenses and then pick them apart with a quick cross or through ball to a player through on goal from the middle, but rather make defenses move in response to a player in the middle and use those disruptions to send a player in behind in the half-space.
This was most evident when in the absence of Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, Nagelsmann elected to play Thomas Müller up front. Müller was used as the fulcrum of the press, guiding everyone to their positions while playing as almost a false 9 to try and facilitate the inside forwards. In this system, the inside forwards pretty much always occupied narrow positions, almost never venturing to the wide spaces, those spaces instead being occupied by the wing-backs.
Under Tuchel, this has changed due to two important factors.
One: The change in midfield. The minimisation of verticality between the double pivot, while very advantageous for build-up in the defensive third, has resulted in a lack of ability to progress the ball through the middle unless one of the forwards drops into the middle — which has been a common occurrence but not integral to the game plan. Rather Tuchel has elected to progress the ball through wide areas, using the full backs and wingers.
Two: Harry Kane. It was inevitable that I would have to mention the arrival of Kane in the summer, as his mere presence in the squad has changed how the entire team sets up. With a proper aerial, ground and finishing threat in the middle, the attackers are able to stretch defenses and overload them in wide areas before throwing in a cross for the big man in the middle or even use him as a decoy for a late run from the opposing winger or a midfielder.
Above is a pair of heatmaps for Leroy Sané, a player used extensively by both Nagelsmann and Tuchel. It’s clear to see that Sané occupies far wider areas under Tuchel than Nagelsmann, often receiving the ball on the touchline and trying to beat his man or use his wing back on the overlap to create a chance through a cross. Another notable player is Kingsley Coman, who struggled with finding a concrete place in Nagelsmann’s system, often being shoe-horned into the lineup as an inside forward or wing back role due to good form but never truly fitting into either role. However under Tuchel, he has become integral as his playstyle suits the wide touchline winger role far more than it does an inside forward or wing back role.
A more spaced out defense is a massive advantage for Bayern, who boast players like Sané, Coman, Davies, Jamal Musiala, Konrad Laimer and Mathys Tel who are extremely quick to punish teams whether it’s on the break or even in a normally paced attack with their acceleration. While Nagelsmann relied on his players’ intelligence at playing in tight areas, Tuchel leans on his players’ natural gifts a lot more.
When the Levee Breaks: Positioned to pounce
Let’s address the elephant in the room properly.
Harry Kane has been nothing short of an era-defining transfer for the club and for world football. Even if Kane only stays for, say, three years, he has the opportunity to break an unimaginable number of records and win a ridiculous amount of silverware, both for the team and for himself. With 21 goals and 7 assists in 15 games for Bayern, he is currently averaging nearly two goal contributions a game — this is beyond even the best we’ve seen from one Robert Lewandowski.
One may say that Tuchel is leaning on Kane a bit too much, but this is not true. Tuchel has shifted the entire system around Kane, and it has resulted in far better chance creation. There’s a reason Tuchel elected to use Serge Gnabry up front instead of the more natural options available to him, as Gnabry possessed qualities on the break that the Müller simply did not. It is evident now that the role Gnabry was in, a striker that drops into midfield in the half-spaces and then moves into dangerous spaces as the ball progresses, was made for Kane. As such, Bayern’s entire pattern of build-up has changed to a more patient, sustained build rather than the high-speed roadkill that Nagelsmann employed.
This is even more evident when one looks at the statistics for where Bayern get their goals from. Under Nagelsmann, Bayern got 15% of their goals from outside the penalty area and a further 15% from inside the six yard box, and in fact underperformed their xG for shots taken from inside the penalty area.
Under Tuchel, Bayern have scored just 11% of their goals from outside the penalty area and in fact now score 26% of their goals from inside the six yard box. This marked change in where the goals are actually coming from is a clear sign of a shift in the way the team looks at chance creation as a whole — quality over quantity. This is not to say that Bayern don’t fancy themselves from distance, as we have had quite a few great goals from outside the box already, but the shots taken from outside the box are now a lot more measured, usually taken by specialists such as Sané and Kane rather than the haphazard and often over-excited attempts from distance by Goretzka or Coman that were a commonality under Nagelsmann.
Bring It on Home: Where do we go from here?
BFW is well known for its diverse range of opinions, especially on matters to do with coaches and tactics. So let it be known that I was not asked to do this article, and despite what I have said in the past, this is not me backtracking on my comments about Tuchel but rather it is an open and voluntary declaration that I was wrong. Tuchel knows what he’s doing, he just didn’t have the right tools in place. Bayern gave him just two of the three tools he needed, and he has already shown a remarkable improvement in performance from last season, as well as doing some other things better than Nagelsmann such as his management of player egos and the control they have at the club, as well as giving young players a chance to play an extended number of minutes.
All that can be said now is BACK THE COACH. The upcoming January window is the perfect time to get exactly the profiles Tuchel needs to complete this squad. Trust him.
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