Hans-Dieter Flick took over on an interim basis after Nico Kovač was dismissed ten matches into the campaign, after which Bayern Munich sat in fourth place in the Bundesliga. However, the performances from the club – a 15-1-2 record in the league that has given them a seven-point lead at the top of the table at the time of writing – earned Flick a permanent deal until 2023.
Flick brought in a number of changes to the side. The most notable one has been the consistent use of the 4-2-3-1 formation with Joshua Kimmich and Thiago Alcântara occupying the double-pivot positions. The two deep-lying playmakers have been marvellous together, and sit at the heart of Bayern’s dominance in attack and solidity in defence.
This tactical analysis will look at Kimmich and Thiago’s partnership in this midfield. We will look at various data metrics comparing the two against the best midfielders across Europe, before taking an in-depth look at the tactics Bayern utilise in each phase of the game involving the midfield pair.
This data analysis will allow us to get an idea of the dominance Kimmich and Thiago have had in some primary attacking and defending statistics over the course of this campaign. The two Bayern midfielders have some key differences in their styles that allow them to complement each other extremely effectively. However, they both share abilities that give Bayern two of the best midfielders in Europe on both sides of the ball.
The two categories we will look at in this data analysis are passing and ball progression along with defensive actions. In the first set, the two metrics involved are ‘Passes acc. % x Progressive passes per 90’, while the second set focusing on the defensive side of their game will involve ‘Defensive duels won % x PAdj Interceptions’. These metrics will allow us to see how Kimmich and Thiago compare to some of the other top midfielders across Europe in their positions.
Passes acc. % x Progressive passes per 90
Using these two metrics, we are able to get an idea of a players ability to move their side forward while also keeping their efficiency in possession at a high rate. The upper right quadrant represents the players who excel specifically in these two metrics used. Here we can see Thiago and Kimmich’s ability in these statistics. Both sit well into this top right quadrant. Their mix of attacking intelligence – Thiago averages 13.68 progressive passes per 90 while Kimmich averages 12.33 – and ability to avoid losing possession with their passing – Thiago has a 91.8% passing accuracy while his partner’s average sits at 90.44% – gives Bayern an unmatched amount of potential in possession from this area. Their company is also held in high regard, with Marco Verratti, Sergio Busquets, and Miralem Pjanic representing arguably the best midfield pivots in their respective leagues.
Thiago and Kimmich rank one and two in the Bundesliga in progressive passes per 90 as well. The most telling statistic of this is the distance covered in these passes. The Spaniard’s average distance covered in his progressive passes is 417.12 metres, while Kimmich closely follows his colleague with 396.56 metres covered. These numbers best the next best in Germany by a little over 70 metres.
Defensive duels won % x PAdj Interceptions
Defensively, we will observe defensive duels won % against PAdj Interceptions. PAdj stands for ‘possession adjusted’, meaning that a side’s pure possession time is taken into account to determine a player’s average interceptions per 90. This type of statistic is particularly important for players in a side like Bayern Munich, who tend to dominate possession for the majority of time in their matches.
Once again, we see Bayern’s midfield pair comfortably sitting in the upper right quadrant of this graph. Both players produce very similar statistics in these two categories, with Kimmich slightly bettering his teammate in PAdj interceptions – 8.67 to 8.36 – while Thiago edges the German international in defensive duels won percentage – 67.16% to 65.54%. These numbers indicate the ability of the two midfielders in recovering possession for their side while also being very intelligent in their selection of defensive actions as to not leave their defenders exposed in the event of losing out in the duel.
Defensive structure and counter-pressing
One of the foundations of Bayern’s dominance in their possession-based style of play is their defensive solidity. Specifically, their counter-pressing structure allows them to win back possession extremely quickly after it is lost, and keep opponents pinned into their own half of the pitch.
In Bayern’s counter-pressing structure, both Thiago and Kimmich hold positions at the edge of the final third. Their positioning moves dependent on where possession is held. Flick has often implemented a system resembling a W set-up in defence. Thiago and Kimmich shift from side to side in support of where the ball is. On the left, Kimmich takes up a centre position while his Spanish partner shifts over into the left half-space. Here he protects the space in behind Alphonso Davies. Thiago’s presence gives the Canadian the freedom to express himself in the final third and use his electric speed to look to get in behind the opponent’s defensive line from the touchline.
On the opposite side, Benjamin Pavard moves inwards to position himself to offer defensive support should it be necessary. However, because of the attacking principles used by Bayern that we will detail later, this opposite-side full-back remains within touching distance of the touchline to provide an outlet.
This system is the same for the opposite side, with Kimmich moving to occupy the right half-space and Thiago moving to control play from the central area. This dynamic allows either of these holding midfielders to drop in and cover at the full-back position in the event that the true full-back is caught high up the pitch. In the image below we can see Bayern lose possession as they look to move into the attacking third. Notice Pavard has moved into a very advanced position to support Kingsley Coman from a wide position. With possession lost, he is now out of position and Antonio Rudiger moves forward immediately down this channel to try and exploit this space.
Kimmich and Thiago quickly move together to react to the situation. In this specific scenario, Thiago was occupying a deeper position than his teammate which meant he moved to fill in at right-back. As he drops in to slow the speed at which Rudiger is moving forward, Kimmich retreats back into this space quickly to offer support. He makes an intelligent run on the blindside of the Chelsea centre-half. Once he reaches a point in which he is able to cover this position, Thiago now has the ability to step in and attempt to make a challenge on the ball which results in Bayern winning possession back and halting Chelsea’s forward progress.
Thiago is typically Bayern’s trigger player in their defensive schemes. The Spaniard is second in the Bundesliga in average total recoveries per 90 with 12.91. He also leads the league in counter-pressing recoveries per 90 with 7.18. A lot of this comes from his ability to read the game at an extremely high level. His anticipation allows him to position himself to make these defensive actions, and the presence of Kimmich alongside him gives Thiago the freedom to move out wide or forward in search for these opportunities to get his side back in control of the match.
In Bayern’s match against Union Berlin, they attempt to push forward in attack. Berlin’s centre-half is able to make a tackle as the away side looks to progress into the final third as you can see above. The defender wins possession and moves forward attempting to start an attack for his own side. However, Thiago’s anticipation allows him to jump forward into this gap in the middle of the pitch and dispossess the Berlin player. His quickness in winning possession back for his side allows them to continue to push forward themselves and attempt to catch the home side out with one of their defenders now out position.
Due to the tactical flexibility Thiago and Kimmich possess, we are able to see Bayern utilise a variety of different structures in their build-up. These are often dependent on the different systems used against them. With the intelligence of these two midfielders along with the centre-halves, Bayern is able to seamlessly shift between these systems between matches and during.
Bayern’s traditional build-up structure has Thiago and Kimmich positioned behind the opponent’s initial press on the same line with the full-backs holding the width on either side of them as you can see below. Here they look to move the midfield line of their opposition’s defensive block to create room for themselves or teammates higher up the pitch. In Bayern’s matches this season, opponents have utilised a one-striker formation 60% of the time. The reason for the frequency of opposing teams leaving one player in the initial press is to put more numbers in behind the ball. However, the downside of this tactic is it allows Kimmich and Thiago more freedom to find space higher up the pitch.
Another dynamic we see includes one of Thiago or Kimmich dropping into the defensive line. The defensive intelligence of both players allows them to fill in these areas. We see this when opponents play with a two or three-man initial line. In matches such as Bayern’s 3-0 victory over Chelsea or their 0-0 draw with RB Leipzig, this was a very common theme as Flick’s side built their possession.
Typically we will see Kimmich as the one to drop into the defensive line. The German’s experience as a right-back in previous seasons as well as on the international stage as well as his time at centre-half during Pep Guardiola’s tenure has moulded his defensive positioning and awareness in these areas. Thiago, in this situation, moves centrally to create a diamond shape. In the image below, you can see this Bayern shape against Chelsea, who are using a 3-4-3 system to press the away side.
Due to Bayern’s comfort in possession along with their personnel’s tactical flexibility in assuming multiple positions, it is difficult for most sides to effectively press the German side. With Kimmich in the defensive line, Thiago operates as a single-pivot in behind the first line of press. The focus on the initial press with a system such as the 3-4-3 gives the pressing team less cover in the centre of the pitch. With more space, Thiago is able to look to utilise one of his best attributes, which is identifying space and using his agility to quickly turn into this space once he receives a pass. As you can see above Kimmich looks to find Thiago as Bayern move to progress through Chelsea’s press. As the pass is made, a Chelsea midfielder jumps forward to apply pressure to the Spaniard.
Thiago recognises the oncoming pressure and quickly pivots to turn around it. His quick movement catches his marker out and the Bayern midfielder can now push up the field in an abundance of space with Chelsea’s initial press caught out and forced to try and recover quickly.
The intelligence of Kimmich and Thiago is evident in their movement off the ball as well. Bayern excels in positional rotations to move around their opponent’s defensive structure. Being at the heart of everything, these two holding midfielders are essential in the successful implementation of these movements for the Bundesliga side. In any given match, you will see players move into different positions just as we showed with Thiago and Kimmich dropping into defence. Serge Gnabry will shift into the centre of midfield, Leon Goretzka or Thomas Müller will drop into midfield from their advance position, or David Alaba will push out of defence and into midfield or wide on the left. This ability creates a huge amount of issues for sides in their attempts to use a man-marking system when defending Bayern.
In the image above, Bayern is set up in one of their typical structures. Kimmich has dropped in front of the initial press to aid the centre-halves while Kimmich moves behind this line in the centre of the pitch. Leipzig’s defensive tactics in this match caused Bayern issues in being able to work through their usual build-up patterns, so they were forced to utilise positional rotations to break into the away side’s defensive third. Thiago thinks quickly and drops into the left half-space alongside Alaba, which allows Davies to move high against the touchline. The central midfielder receives possession from his Austrian teammate when he reaches this area and turns forward up the pitch.
Gnabry acknowledges the space left in midfield by Thiago and drops in to fill this space. As Christopher Nkunku moves to press the Spanish midfielder, he quickly plays a wall pass with the winger to move into space in the centre of the pitch. The Leipzig defence has committed forward in an attempt to create a turnover in this area of the pitch. However, in their attempts to do so they have left Davies unmarked, who has now moved forward into the left-wing position Gnabry vacated. Thiago receives the pass back and makes a perfect pass over the top and into space for Davies to run onto beyond the Leipzig defence. With these three players rotating positions, Bayern is successfully able to break down the away side’s defensive structure with three passes in between Alaba having possession in his own defensive third and Davies receiving the pass in behind.
Thiago and Kimmich’s effects on the side continue to be a constant theme as Bayern move into the final third. Thiago’s immense understanding of space allows him to be integral in Bayern’s rotation of possession while Kimmich has one of the best eyes for the final pass in the Bundesliga.
One of the advantages of a double-pivot in the attacking side of the game is the ability for both holding midfielders to get forward at different points in the match. Having two players in this area allows one to provide cover for the other in the event of one moving forward into an advanced position.
Thiago in particular likes to get forward in transition. The Spaniard’s ability in making quick movements and finding pockets of space are major assets in the event of Bayern looking to move forward at pace. When these opportunities occur, Thiago is able to make these advances without having to think twice due to his midfield partner Kimmich. In the image below you can see Bayern moving forward down the left looking to attack the Leipzig defence before they can set up in their defensive block. With two players trailing him and a full-back tracking him ahead, Thiago moves attention away from himself by passing it out wide into Gnabry.
Recognising the space in the middle of the pitch, Thiago redirects his run in behind the two players tracking him. These three Leipzig defenders tracking back are guilty of focusing too much on the ball in this scenario, and Thiago is able to find a massive pocket of space at the top of the penalty area. Gnabry identifies this and makes a quick pass into his midfielder before making a run in behind the defence for Thiago to find with a quick one-touch pass.
When possession is established in the opposition’s half of the pitch, the roles of the two midfield pivots alters. Thiago likes to sit in deeper areas and dictate Bayern’s attack from here. This gives Kimmich the freedom to move forward when the opportunities arise. The German international loves to get into advanced positions in the right half-space. Some of Kimmich’s stats might come as a surprise given his role in the side, but the German ranks fifth in the Bundesliga for shot assists with 2.11 per 90. He also sits tied for third in assists this campaign with six. His crossing statistics also stand out. While he only averages 2.03 crosses per 90, his accuracy percentage stands at an extremely impressive 38.46%.
A lot of these characteristics come from his time spent at right-back for Bayern Munich and Germany. When he is deployed in this position, where he still regularly plays for his international side, Kimmich is always looking for opportunities to get forward and be involved in the attacking productivity of the side. Through these experiences, he has gained abilities that he has transitioned into his holding midfield position which have allowed him to be a threat from these areas.
One of the key’s to Kimmich’s game is his intelligence in spacing. Operating as a right-back without an abundance of pace, he learned how to move and create space to be able to receive possession in the wide channel and look to provide service to his attacking teammates. When he plays in midfield for Flick’s Bayern, he takes these principles and uses them to drift into spaces in between players in the midfield and defensive lines of the opposition in the half-space rather than the channel.
As you can see in the image above, Kimmich gains possession in this half-space on the right side of Bayern’s attack. The German international has found a hole in the defensive structure of the opponent that provides him with enough space to receive the pass from wide and look to make a penetrating pass in behind.
Gnabry is quick to recognise this and makes a run off the shoulder of his full-back marker. Kimmich plays a perfect ball over the top of the Werder Bremen defence that sets the winger free. His resulting attempt on target is slightly off, but Coutinho is on hand in the end to convert the chance created by Kimmich.
Bayern’s midfield pivot, and specifically Thiago, are essential in moving possession as the side look to break down opponents. One of the tactics Flick’s side look to utilise is quick changes in the point of attacks to create situations in which the advanced attacking players are isolated with one defender. This is a key reason why Bayern’s full-backs look to remain in positions where they can move to the touchline quickly in the event of possession needing to be transitioned from one side to the other.
In the image below, you can see Bayern have been working possession down the left side of the pitch through Philippe Coutinho. Augsburg have responded by shifting seven of their defenders onto this side of the pitch to restrict the home side’s attacking outlets, highlighted by Coutinho’s deep position in this wide area. Thiago identifies the need for possession to transition and the potential opportunity for an attack on the opposite side due to Augsburg’s defensive focus. He occupies a pocket of space in the defensive press providing his Brazilian teammate with an option to release possession.
Using his abilities we touched on earlier in anticipating a press and using quick turns to avoid it, Thiago quickly spins around the Augsburg defender moving onto his back in the initial image. His turn takes the away side’s press completely out of the game. Bayern now has an opportunity to attack space. Müller stations himself to receive a pass in the right half-space and has room to turn and attack down this side. With Pavard’s positioning keeping himself close to the touchline as possession was on the left, he is now able to look to quickly move forward to help Müller and Gnabry create a 3v2 scenario against the Augsburg defence. Kimmich and Thiago then shift over to provide the defensive cover for their teammates in this position.
It remains early days in Flick’s permanent tenure as Bayern Munich’s manager. The initial signs, however, are extremely positive. At the heart of the success, the German side has had since Flick’s appointment is the double-pivot in the midfield of Joshua Kimmich and Thiago Alcântara. Both possessing an abundance of individual quality, they complement each other to perfection.
Bayern’s ultimate test will always be on the European stage where they have disappointed since their latest triumph in 2013 in their treble-winning campaign. Moving forward, though, Kimmich and Thiago provide the German giants with possibly the best midfield-pivot in Europe and a great foundation to dominate in every phase of the game through the pair’s immense ability in attack and defence.