“The principle behind Barcelona’s style was very simple: play with the ball, do everything with it. Every footballer around the world decided to play football because one day in some corner of their small village or big city, wherever it was, they kicked a ball around and enjoyed it. Barca’s system, even if people say it’s very complicated, is as simple as that: we’ll get the ball and just let them try and take it off us; let’s pass it between us as much as possible and see if we can score a goal”.
Interviewer: It’s obviously working very well for you, but could you give me an idea of your principles or strategy of how you’d like Bayern to play?
Pep: I am a trainer at a big club and we have to play for respect, for history, and try to play as well as possible for our fans. The big clubs always have to be offensive no matter the style. The idea is to try and dominate the game and to play as well as possible. That’s all, It’s simple.
Interviewer: You have the highest average possession rate in Europe, do you look at that statistic and look at the quality of where the possession is on the field?
Pep: Possession is important when you create chances, so possession for itself is nothing. We try to have the possession in front because sometimes you have loads of possession but do not create chances, just to defend and defend, because when you have possession, you have the ball and it is impossible the opponent can score a goal. Also If you have a high percentage of possession you have to be organized when you lose the ball, to not receive counterattacks from the opponents. But I like possession because I like it when my team has the ball, but always you have to try to have good possession because i repeat possession for itself is nothing.
Interviewer: Do you like to have possession higher up the pitch?
Pep: Yeah, I like to have possession(higher up the pitch) because when the ball is far away from our box I am happy, I am calm, I am not nervous, but when the ball step by step is closer to my box i start trembling. So that’s why i prefer to put the ball far away as possible.
Interviewer: What’s the importance to you as the coach of the tempo at which the game is played? The speed?
Pep: I will like to play in a high high speed. To change the rhythm you must play at a huge speed, because It’s only when you play with a huge speed that you can change the rhythm. You have to try to stay aggressive without the ball and with the ball we try to play quickly but in the right moment to make a change in rhythm.
Interviewer: Is it important to you that players can interchange the position they play in?
Pep: I like to (inter)change. We need intelligent players to know when to change position, when another player you know can use this position. I like it more when the ball goes to the position of the players more than the players moving a lot. So maybe in the future the players can understand better what we’re looking and for the natural way they (inter)change but in the beginning it’s better to stay in the position and try to move the ball as quick as possible and go to the positions where you have the players
Interviewer: How far are the players from grasping your ideas?
Pep: Far away. Far away is not true but, we played five, six, seven games at a huge huge level. We have played unbelievably just for six/seven months in Bayern. But regularly we’ve played okay, three minutes, twenty minutes but not constantly, but it’s normal. We change little things from ideas, and I need time. But during the process however, it’s important to win because you have more time to work. During the process if you are new and you don’t win it’s more difficult to change quickly, but still I am in a period to adapt and to know the players and for them to know me. I feel we’re still in a process to getting better and it’s easier when the results are good.”
Guardiola has often deployed a 4-1-4-1 formation which has various intricacies and variances over the course of the game. As he said, the formation is only a starting point.The 4-2-3-1 shape used a lot last season under Heynckes has also been deployed by the Spaniard.
During Guardiola’s days in Barcelona, it was Puyol and Pique who will split to the touchline as Busquets dropped into the third centerback role to pick the ball from deep. This will allow Dani Alves and Abidal to move forward to stretch the play in midfield giving the likes of Iniesta, Xavi and Messi space in the middle of the park to control the tempo of the game. Guardiola has employed a similar system at Bayern with the pivot dropping into the defensive line due to the lateral movement of the centerbacks.
Neuer’s passing accuracy under Guardiola has improved tremendously. He’s Bayern Munich’s first playmaker in transition and often provides a passing option to teammates with his high positioning. Checking heat-maps, he spends a vast majority of the game outside his penalty area.
In build up phases, Van Buyten and Dante in the CB positions spread horizontally as Neuer looks to pass the ball out of defense. Due to their wide positioning, the fullbacks move to join the midfield line.while the pivot, Schweinsteiger, drops into the space vacated by the defenders’ movement. After receiving ball, he can either play the ball sideways to centerbacks, forcing opponents to press and hence open up space, or advance with the ball into forward zones. The other midfielders drop deeper to collect ball, while the wide players stay wide to stretch play.
Bayern sometimes do play long in the initial buildup phase. Dante in particular is good at switching play with his penetrative long balls and diagonals to the wingers and forwards.Bayern’s fullbacks also take up interesting positions in build up phases.Instructed by Pep, they play as auxiliary midfielders in transition, sitting beside the holding midfielder in certain games. Rafinha and Alaba highlighted move into central positions ahead of Lahm in a 2-3-5 shape to create more passing angles for ball circulation in midfield. This offers Bayern more passing options particularly when the center-backs are being pressed. Read this in-depth article by Jamie Adams to understand the movement and positioning of Bayern’s unorthodox fullbacks.
Bayern’s pressing game allows them to overload a certain zone, which helps when possession is won.They form a lot of triangles in midfield which simply gives the player in possession, more passing options.Bayern attack mainly down the flanks. According to whoscored, 71% of their attacks have come down the wings, where ‘Ribbery’ have dominated teams.
They attack by creating wide overloads. The wingers often hug the touchline pulling their markers along with them, which opens up space in between the opposition fullback and centerback for Bayern’s fullbacks to attack.The wide players often make runs to the byline, where the cut-back cross is a popular tactic. With defenders being carried towards their own goal as a result of momentum, attackers often make runs into cut-back zones to receive cross, giving a better angle to shoot. The fullbacks may also make overlapping runs often sucking opposition fullbacks in, thus giving the wide players space to exploit as they come inside.Ribery’s goal against City is a perfect illustration of this. Alaba’s overlapping run gave Ribery the option to either run at Richards and create an overload, pass, or cut onto his right foot. Initially it was a 2v1 situation in City’s favor but because of Alaba’s overlapping run, Richards now has to deal with the fullback and Ribery who is able to cut inside and score.
When creating from central zones, Bayern often play balls over the top of defenses for deep runners.
Kroos in possession over here, lifts the ball over the top of Arsenal’s defense for Robben to attack the space in behind.
“I like to have possession(higher up the pitch) because when the ball is far away from our box, I am happy, I am calm, I am not nervous, but when the ball step by step is closer to my box i start trembling. So that’s why i prefer to put the ball far away as possible.”
Possession football can generally be classified as a defensive mechanism. Pep Guardiola’s teams have always defended by having the ball, because without the ball, it is impossible for opposition to score. Almeria coach Lillo said: “Barcelona(Pep’s Barca) are the only team that defend with the ball; the only team that rests in possession. They keep the ball so well, they move so collectively, that when you do get it back, you’re tired, out of position and they’re right on top of you.” Pep Guardiola also says: “We play in the other team’s half as much as possible because I get worried when the ball is in my half. We’re a horrible team without the ball so I want us to get it back as soon as possible and I’d rather give away fouls and the ball in their half than ours.”
In order to regain possession quickly, they apply pressure to opponents in very high areas up the pitch to make the pitch narrow for opponents and block passing lanes. Guardiola likes to press in a high block. They compress space and force opponents to squandering possession either with a hurried pass or a long ball forward. Evident pressing triggers include, when:
- The ball is played from the goalkeeper to the defenders.
- When the ball is played from one centerback to another.
3. When a player gets the ball facing his own goal.
4. When a backpass is made
In the above photo, Freiburg’s defender receives ball from the goalkeeper and is immediately pressurized by Mandzukic who is performing two roles here. The Croatian applies pressure on the player in possession while simultaneously blocking the passing lane to the other centerback. The midfielders stay tight to the opponents, giving the Freiburg player limited options to play out the back.
Gotze performs a similar duty in the false 9 role vs Gladbach, pressing the goalkeeper as well as blocking the pass to the right-sided centerhalf. The midfielders push up and press opposition players high
If the initial wave of pressure is breached, they don’t hurry back into their normal positional structure, rather continue to press the ball and swarm the person in possession. They normally concentrate the central areas and force opponents into going wide where there is limited space, before intensifying their pressing. Pep Guardiola once said: “The touchline is the best defender”.
Bayern may also sit in a mid-block shape when in the defensive phase.They do not press aggressively here, rather they allow opponents to keep the ball in their own defensive third where there is no threat. Mandzukic will often block the passing lane to the opposition midfielder while the midfielders press opposition midfielders to restrict opponents from advancing forward. Bayern play a very high line in defense in order to make the pitch narrow and compact for their high pressing game. They compress space in between the lines due to their compactness and offer opponents barely any chance of playing through.With the Bayern defenders situated very high up the pitch, Neuer plays as a sweeper keeper in the defensive phase, sweeping out of his goal to clear any ball played in behind. As opposition break deeper into their half, Bayern’s defense becomes very narrow as they sit in mid-lowblock 4-3-3 shape, restricting space in the center. They try to force teams backwards however with their intense pressing.
The weak point however is with the flanks, where teams normally exploit in transition due to the narrow fullbacks. BVB only two weeks ago exploited Bayern’s narrow shape on the counter, by overloading the center without possession, and attacking the flanks on the break.
Set-piecesPep Guardiola’s teams have always defended set-pieces zonally. One will wonder why his Barcelona team barely conceded at setpieces despite their height disadvantage.With the zonal marking system, each player is designated a specific zone to attack the ball. The dominant headers of the ball are normally situated in dangerous areas near the goal, while the shorter players try to block late runs into the box. One advantage of this system is, the player attacking with the keeper will be flagged offside if he interferes with play with no one marking the posts. The zonal marking system on setplays also encourages counterattacking football. 6 or 7 players attack a certain zone, which leaves about three players outside of the box for counterattacks. The likes of Dante, Boateng, Martinez and Mandzukic often attack the six yard box, while the likes of Lahm, Gotze block deep runners. The pacy players: Robben and Ribery stay high for counterattacks.
Conclusion: During Guardiola’s short stint at Bayern, the world has already had a glimpse of his tactical mastery and innovation, which will only get better as his players get familiar with his ideology and system. Over the course of the season so far, we’ve had a glimpses of his strikerless formations, unorthodox fullback positioning, ultra high line, compactness and many other systems.