An oft under-appreciated side of the game, defending is an art form that is impossible to truly appreciate in individuals. Defending is a far more cerebral game than it is one with the feet, with the best defenders not being just the ones who can stick their leg in the cleanest but rather the ones who can prevent themselves from having to stick a leg in at all. The massive difference tactics and game plan make to defending make it far more reliant on coaching than individual personnel, but of course occasionally an individual comes along who breaks these norms (looking at no Dutch defenders who broke football last season in particular).
Thomas Tuchel and Julian Nagelsmann are both coaches who are gifted in this aspect. While Nagelsmann is a renowned tinkerer and planner with regards to formation and structure, Tuchel is known more for his tactically simplistic but extremely effective approach to defending. This season, Bayern have seen a dramatic decrease in the quality of the chances they concede as well as the quantity of goals compared to last season.
So, what changed?
Note: If you haven’t read the previous installment in this series, please make sure to do so as it covers the differences between Thomas Tuchel and Julian Nagelsmann’s Bayern Munich sides in offensive situations. It’s a lengthy read but it’s gotten nothing but praise from those who have read it, so we highly recommend doing so! You can find it here.
Wot’s... Uh the Deal: Reducing build-up pressure
Under Julian Nagelsmann, Bayern usually employed a back three or hybrid back three system using Alphonso Davies as a full back and wide midfielder simultaneously. As Nagelsmann preferred building through the middle but used a single pivot, often Joshua Kimmich would receive from the centre-backs with his back to goal, unable to progress the ball effectively. This put the onus on the centre-backs to bring the ball out themselves, especially since Leon Goretzka would often be higher up the field from the get-go, and the wing backs would be pushed up too.
Under Tuchel however, this has massively changed. With the focus now being on building up from the half-spaces and wide areas with a rare foray into the centre if the pass is there, the full backs are much more accessible to the centre-backs and goalkeeper. Goretzka and Kimmich are far more reserved too, often being on the same line but deep, offering themselves as short passing options. This double pivot system also means that the distance between midfielder and full back is lessened, which opens up the chance for the midfielders to lay it off to the full back in the defensive third and spread play or even switch it to the opposing full back safely. Going forward too, when the attack is on one side, the opposing full back tends to hang back and stay slightly narrower to offer himself as a safe release option if the ball comes to the midfielders and to help against a possible counter-attack.
This more reserved positioning has made it far easier for centre-backs to spread play and taken the onus off of Kimmich and the centre-backs to be relied on during build-up. This positioning is also far more effective at stopping counter-attacks as there always three, usually four players ready to defend against the counter even after attacks like this.
Pigs (Three Different Ones): New faces and returning favourites
This one is far less tactically heavy as the other two points, but it is maybe the most important.
At Bayern, Nagelsmann had Lucas Hernández, Benjamin Pavard and Josip Stanišić at his disposal at centre-back as well as João Cancelo for either wing back spot. While Tuchel lacks the number of centre-back profiles Nagelsmann had available to him, he has used Franz Krätzig and Konrad Laimer in the full back positions, but there are three players in particular that I must point out as being crucial developments for the team: Noussair Mazraoui, Manuel Neuer and Min-jae Kim.
Mazraoui is maybe the least of the three, but he is no minor upgrade. Mazraoui fits Tuchel’s new system perfectly, as he always makes the right decisions on the ball, even if he isn’t very ambitious in his decision-making. Furthermore, Mazraoui is defensively a lot more consistent than Cancelo ever was, and while he isn’t as skillful, he is a far safer option to give the ball to, especially in a system which relies on exchanges in wide areas to build up from deep. Mazraoui showed signs of world class ability under Nagelsmann but never truly got a chance to shine, however under Tuchel he has cemented himself as the starting right back.
Neuer was absent from the team for nine long months after breaking his leg on a skiing trip, and thus missed the last few months of Nagelsmann’s time at Bayern. His absence was an ever-looming shadow over the club, as deputy Yann Sommer, while serviceable, was clearly lacking in the qualities on the ball that Neuer possessed, and this massively hindered build-up, further increasing the pressure on the centre-backs and Kimmich to move the ball around at the back. Tuchel has had the luxury of a fit Manuel Neuer and has used it fully, with Neuer’s accurate distribution and confidence on the ball having opened up new passing lanes, occasionally even skipping the first phase of build-up altogether as Neuer has the ability to break multiple lines with a single pass.
Kim is the new kid on the block, but by no means is he green and naive. Kim has shown himself to be the finest centre-back in the world by some margin, pretty much never losing a duel in the air or on the ground, recovering well against counters with his deceptive pace, using his positioning and strength to force players into bad areas, and of course his presence in build-up is irreplaceable. While Matthijs de Ligt may have far better decision-making than Dayot Upamecano and Upamecano may have far better passing range than de Ligt, Kim combines both qualities into an absolute monster of a player. His presence in every Bundesliga and Champions League game Bayern have played so far has been nothing short of vital to the way the team plays. If Kim is on the ball or on the player with the ball, Bayern is safe.
Careful with That Axe, Eugene: The danger of complex transitions
Nagelsmann is my favourite kind of manager: the tweaker. Every game, a new tactical tweak or strategy can be observed. While it’s very interesting as a neutral spectator, it can get frustrating when you see your favourite team find a system that works and then have it changed.
Nagelsmann experimented with numerous formations throughout his last season, eventually settling on a 4-2-3-1 that transitioned into a 3-4-2-1 when in possession. This was done through the left-back pushing up and the right-winger dropping deep to join the midfield line and the right-back tucking in to become the third centre-back. This transition was effective at dismantling teams who used narrow attacking formations as the centre-backs and wing-backs were able to go man-for-man with the opposing attackers and wing-backs, but this transition was often found to be exploitable by wide attackers. When the left-back pushed up into midfield, it left a space behind him that wasn’t immediately covered for. If the ball turned over while the left-back was pushed up, then the left sided centre-back would be forced wide to stop the attack, leaving massive gaps in the left half-space or even potentially the centre if the other defenders weren’t positioned correctly.
Another vulnerability was between the lines on the right side, as it was possible for there to be times when the right-back was positioned in the back three but the right-winger had not dropped into their spot in the midfield line yet, creating a gap in the structure which could be exploited by the right kind of press. This was exposed in the game against Paris Saint-Germain too.
This is due to the fact that Nagelsmann’s positional transitions require movements in two different dimensions at once, which creates a lot of moments where space is exploitable due to the many moving parts. It is impressive just how much a safer transition can make an otherwise unviable system completely viable: just take a look at Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, who changed their inverting full-back into a wide centre-back and elected to push John Stones from centre-back into midfield, winning the treble with this one simple change.
Tuchel has adapted the idea of simple transitions, and while the formation he employs does not have any structural transitions, it rather relies on positional awareness from the wingers and midfielders to create natural transitions.
This transition is very simple, involving three straight line movements rather than any diagonals or line shifts. Sané drops deep to cover the wide area as an effective full-back, Mazraoui tucks in to become the centre-back, Upamecano is higher up as the defensive midfielder. It’s not a trained transition, it is just players adapting to the way they are placed on the pitch, working on instinct rather than instruction.
These transitions are not ones made on the ball which can result in exploitation if the ball is won by the opposition and Bayern are caught out of shape, but rather they are off the ball adaptations to better position the team defensively. The ‘window of exploitation’ is far shorter in the case of Tuchel’s Bayern as the entire team looks to adapt to the best possible defensive structure rather than trying to adapt a fixed structure while sacrificing space and time to give players the opportunity to return to their natural positions. A far safer transition allows for more defensive solidity when being countered against at pace, as well as providing better structure on the ball as players are ready to go as soon as the ball is won rather than requiring a second or two to re-position themselves according to plan. This in turn has also allowed Tuchel to utilise long passes more frequently, as a player further forward can simply make their run without needing to worry about a change in phase of play or their teammates’ movements.
Have a Cigar: Where do we go from here?
Tuchel’s Bayern are markedly better at defending than they were last season under Nagelsmann, conceding 0.82 goals per game this season compared to last season’s 1.02 per game. While Tuchel has been great at moving things around and making some new faces work, the team is still lacking depth. The team has a massive blind spot at centre-back, where Noussair Mazraoui, Leon Goretzka and Konrad Laimer have all had to deputise, and just one injury to either Mazraoui or Laimer would leave the team in a pickle in terms of options to play right-back. Tuchel needs a player or even players who can play in these positions or the team will inevitably struggle further, especially during January and February when Mazraoui and Kim will be away from the club due to their international commitments.
I will end this article the very same way I ended the previous one, with the words: BACK THE COACH. I don’t much like Tuchel, but there is no denying that at every turn he has proved that his identification of the squad’s problems is correct, and he knows exactly what profiles he wants to add to the squad in those problem areas. Please, trust him.