Bayern Munich vs Bayer Leverkusen is club football’s biggest matchup this weekend. In fact, if not for the Superbowl eclipsing every other major sporting event, this would be the game to live for (and honestly, it is). With just a few hours to go and a huge title race on the line, now seems like the perfect time to take a dive into the tactical schools Thomas Tuchel and Xabi Alonso represent and how they make this title race storyline so gripping.
Xabi’s rise to coaching fame has been one hell of a spectacle, almost like something out of a movie. After hanging his boots up as one of football’s all-time greats, the man has quickly ascended the stairs to coaching stardom, shattering records along the way and bringing Bayer Leverkusen within reach of a historic Bundesliga title. Yes, you heard that right. A team not named Bayern Munich is currently first in the league table with 14 games remaining.
On the other dugout stands a man with tremendous coaching experience, currently at the helm of the most demanding club in the world. Bayern Munich coach Thomas Tuchel has coached the likes of Borussia Dortmund, PSG, and Chelsea, winning a Champions League and some league titles along the way. However, his stint at Bayern has been quite turbulent, with his 3-month stint to end the 2022–23 season being nothing short of disastrous. All eyes are therefore on him this season, and there is huge pressure to deliver.
The stage has been set.
Xabi Alonso, the up-and-coming protagonist that everyone’s rooting for. Thomas Tuchel, a coach who is already out of treble contention this season with tremendous pressure to deliver and an increasingly impatient fanbase scrutinizing every performance. The face vs. the heel. And as fate may have it, the tactical philosophies on display are just as contrasting.
Offense the best defense or defense the best offense?
Tuchelball has largely been described as unattractive and “safe” football. His Bayern Munich team, much like his Chelsea and PSG sides, tries to hold onto possession and pass around the backline. By playing it safe, the idea is to limit the time the opposition has on the ball, thereby reducing the chance of conceding a goal.
This is in stark contrast to his Borussia Dortmund side, which played blitzkrieg-pressing football. Perhaps Tuchel modified his tactics to add more defensive stability from his experiences against Bayern. This strategy also involves pacey forwards, which is probably why he often favours Sané, Coman, and Musiala up front in favour of Müller—to hold on to possession and pass along the back, and have speedsters up front ready to latch onto a through-ball or a lob and run at the opposition defense at dizzying speeds.
This strategy won the man a Champions League with Chelsea. Did that team look like a snoozefest each time? Yes. Did it affect their success in the end? Absolutely not.
Leverkusen, however, is a team willing to take risks. Xabi-ball has taken pages of various tactical books, including those of one Pep Guardiola and perhaps others, such as Jürgen Klopp, and of course, the concepts that he soaked up during his time at Bayern Munich. The football is free-flowing and looks attractive because it is centered around purposeful ball progression.
Players are constantly looking to make a forward pass and push upwards, even at the risk of conceding. However, because of the intense, smartly organized press, the team is also able to win back balls (more on that later). This mix of audacious attacking football, coupled with intense counter-pressing, has meant that Leverkusen have scored a whopping 52 goals (second highest) while only conceding a paltry 14 (lowest).
Midfield: All or nothing
Tuchel’s style of football emphasizes passing sequences along the backline and using the midfield to control possession. The attacks mostly occur along the flanks and seldom from the center. This has sometimes led to stagnation since this approach simply falls apart against low blocks.
However, it also means that there are essentially 2 lines of defense: one, the actual defense, and the other, the midfield, which shields that defense and acts as a pressure valve to relieve the defense of any pressure due to runs made by opposition attackers. In that sense, at least, a certain Aleksandar Pavlovic is almost the perfect Tuchel DM: a dynamic passer who is also insanely good at tackling, with extremely high positional awareness added to the mix. Something like an Ngolo Kante, but with better passing and less physicality, if you will.
The emphasis however, is not on the midfield. Contrastingly, Xabi-ball is almost all midfield. Another page taken from the Pep school of football, Xabi’s side regularly features 3-4 midfielders, with the wingbacks playing more like wide midfielders in a 3-4-3. The aim is to stifle the opposition by overloading the middle, and suffocating them under possession, thus swiftly regaining the ball.
Xabi knows that games are won and lost in the midfield, and his team is primed to do just that—win midfield battles. Granit Xhaka has been nothing short of world-class under the manager, experiencing a resurgence of sorts and bossing the midfield as a dynamic DM option, while Palacios works as a box-to-box/distributor hybrid and uses support from the likes of Frimpong and Hofmann to generate quick flank overloads.
This of course, comes at a cost, but one that Xabi is more than happy to bear: less width in attacking areas. The gods have been kind to him, however, since Frimpong and Grimaldo are absolute work horses and can sprint up to help with the attack, cut inside to emerge as scoring threats from outside the box, and help with the defense. In a way, the two complement each other perfectly, similar to Davies and Mazraoui under Nagelsmann.
Bayern is definitely the better goal-scoring machine, with an attack excellent at overloads and utilizing wide areas. However, it does feel like Leverkusen is the more balanced side, since midfield control plays a major role in just that. Besides, given that Xabi’s team is inferior in terms of overall quality, the fact that they are still only 2 goals behind Bayern on goal difference in the league is testament to how well this approach is working for him.
Match made in heaven... or hell?
A key factor in Leverkusen’s title run so far is the squad composition. It feels like this team was constructed to play Xabi-ball. Or perhaps Xabi tailored a style that fits this team perfectly. In any case, the football utilizes the players perfectly, and his 3-4-3 formation takes advantage of the midfield roster, the wingbacks, and the attacking players available. Tapsoba and Kossounou are made for the wide center-back role, while Grimaldo and Frimpong may be the best wing-back duo in the world.
The four-man midfield is excellent at creating numerical advantages and progressing the ball, while the attack does an incredible job of interchanging positions and finding pockets of space and attacking them. The conductor here is Florian Wirtz, much like a certain Thomas Müller for Bayern Munich, while the other two forwards could be decided based on the nature of the opposition.
Bayern Munich on the other hand, has a squad curated to suit the attacking brand of football the club has represented for ages. The counter-pressing strategies implemented by previous coaches, coupled with the capacity to utilize the width while also attacking down the middle, has made this team a perennial top-3 in Europe. However, Tuchel-ball seems to be trying to fit a square peg in a circular hole.
Retaining the ball and hoping for a hail Mary is not what this team does. However, surprisingly, this tactic has worked against numerous teams this season. One thing Tuchel-ball does for certain is annoy the opposition and make them venture out. And the space left behind is all that is needed to stage a quick attack.
Tuchelball might not be a perfect fit for Bayern, but it sure could be the antithesis to Leverkusen’s brand of football in several ways. The stylistic mismatch makes this duel between the two teams such a compelling watch.
Alonso is taking the football world by storm, but Tuchel might have something to say in today’s fixture and during the title race. Sometimes, “anti-football”, despite how unappealing it looks, could be the answer against a juggernaut.