Thomas Tuchel has had his body of work described in many ways, but ‘tactically innovative’ is certainly not one of them. This is not a slight at the coach, as while many prefer to have a coach that looks to create and iterate their own ideas, a coach who can reiterate on concepts and refine existing ideas is just as, if not more, important (see also: Bayern Munich’s two treble-winning coaches, Hansi Flick and Jupp Heynckes).
For the unfamiliar, there has been a massive paradigm shift in terms of the general shape that top teams employ in 2023. While the 4-2-3-1 is still in vogue, the more forward-thinking and innovative coaches around began to experiment with a new system towards the end of 2022, and now in the season of 2023/24 it has become a fully formed idea with multiple teams now tweaking their squads and personnel to fit these systems. This new system is the concept of a ‘midfield box’.
Football has been played in triangles for the last few decades, with the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 being the most dominant formations. However, Pep Guardiola (to my knowledge, the first to experiment with this system) has brought in a new way of analyzing space, using quadrilaterals in place of triangles, and at the centre of this is a ‘square’ of two defensive midfielders and two attacking midfielders. This creates a lot more lateral passing lanes and essentially gives three passing options instead of two, which can create problems for teams that press and pass in triangles. In particular, the midfield box completely overruns the triangular midfield of a 4-2-3-1, as the opposing double pivot must either press the defensive midfielders which concedes space to the attacking midfielders between the lines, or the double pivot which must screen and mark the attacking midfielders and concedes space to the defensive midfielders. The opposing attacking midfielder will be cancelled out by their work either pressing in the final third or being stuck in a 1v2 against the defensive midfielders. This shape is extremely advantageous when facing a team in transition too, as it completely chokes out the middle due to an overload of personnel. If the team in question has physically imposing defenders then the defensive line can quickly cover for any wide areas which may be used.
This system has often been paired with a different formation off the ball. The transition from the midfield box to the off-the-ball shape consists of positional changes that vary from instance to instance. For example, Pep Guardiola’s out of possession shape is a 4-4-2, where one of the ‘strikers’ (usually Kevin De Bruyne) drops into the attacking midfield line alongside three of the midfielders, and the one remaining midfielder (usually Rodri) is joined by a centre back (usually John Stones) who steps up beyond the defensive line to form a 3-2-2-3. Liverpool have employed a similar system, but instead of having a centre-back step up, it has been the right-back (specifically, Trent Alexander-Arnold) who has inverted into the middle to form the defensive pivot.
This brings us back to Bayern Munich. Thomas Tuchel may not be a coach that is renowned for his tactical adaptations and refinements, but he has own iteration of the midfield box in that is extremely interesting, and worth looking at in depth.
It may not look like much, but there is a box here somewhere. Joshua Kimmich (6) and Leon Goretzka (8) form the defensive half of the midfield box, and the offensive half was formed by... Kingsley Coman (11) and Serge Gnabry (7). With Alphonso Davies (19) providing width, Coman was often far narrower in possession, even when the ball was in the defensive and midfield thirds. In fact, Coman would often drop deep in the half-space to pick up the ball, much like the attacking midfielders in the midfield box have been noted to do.
As we can see here, Coman was often dropping deep into midfield areas to recycle possession, often drawing a defender or midfielder out with him, a gambit that the attacking midfielders in the midfield box are required to do in order to open up spaces for wide men or a striker.
Here we can see Coman sat narrow between the lines when Davies receives the ball out wide, and Gnabry is between the lines centrally too, looking to maintain a line with Coman. In this case Coman is actually further up than where he usually receives the ball, but this case is important, as Coman’s quick thinking and positioning here allows him to send Davies through behind the defense in a wide position, as Augsburg’s centre-back comes out of position to try and track Coman and opens up space behind himself. It’s the perfect example of the positional gambit of the midfield box.
Similarly, Gnabry too was often between the lines and not running in behind which one would assume is the natural response to having a deep lying forward like Kane who often sat behind the defense and was not running in behind himself.
Gnabry’s heatmap may not be as clear due to a smaller sample size and a less crystal role due to his floating in the middle of the pitch, but it still showcases clear positions where he receives the ball: right at the edge of the box where he will likely have a player on his back and will have to recycle possession as an attacking midfielder or try to play with his back to goal.
This paired with Noussair Mazraoui and Davies providing width creates a good attacking balance through all four vertical sections of the pitch, and combined with the movements of Harry Kane and especially Leroy Sané creates havoc for defenses.
It is even more apparent now why Tuchel demanded ball playing centre-backs, as unlike Pep last season, or Jürgen Klopp and Mikel Arteta this season, Bayern do not run a back three system in possession. The centre-backs have a lot of heavy lifting to do if they are to take charge of all the build-up from the back as a pair, and this is also likely why Dayot Upamecano has been favoured over Matthijs de Ligt, as Upamecano’s more progressive and visionary passing makes build-up far easier to handle even if it sacrifices a bit of defensive and aerial safety which de Ligt provides.
So, to summarise, we have:-
- Goalkeeper (Sven Ulreich, soon to be Manuel Neuer) who will come out a bit to support the centre-backs in build-up.
- Centre-back pair (Kim Min-jae and Dayot Upamecano) who take the brunt of build-up in the defensive third.
- Wing-backs (Davies and Mazraoui) pushed up to provide width in the midfield and offensive thirds.
- Defensive midfield pivot made up of the double pivot (Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka).
- Attacking midfield pivot made up of Coman and either Gnabry or Thomas Müller (hopefully Jamal Musiala once he is fit).
- Striker (Kane) ties down defenders by taking important spaces in front of them and forcing them onto himself rather than the attacking midfielders.
- Wildcard (Sané) takes space wherever he can find it the final third, and looks to run in behind off the back of the striker or attacking midfielders with the others trying to meet him with balls over the top or driven through the defense.
Roughly a year ago, Leon Goretzka was the subject of a post exploring the concept of wildcards in the final third. Much like Julian Nagelsmann, Thomas Tuchel is overloading defenses with a shape that forces players to mark almost man-for-man and then introduces a wildcard that shifts from place to place to break the structure and cause havoc.