Not long ago Niko Kovac was announced as the new head coach of Bayern Munich. Compared to former coaches of Bayern, Kovac cannot exhibit a great career as a coach so far. This lead to a lot of scepticism, especially among the supporters of the German record champion. However, the first results in the Bundesliga spreaded more optimism since Bayern was able to dominate their opponents and won the matches.
But what tactical trends are noticeable and is the approach of Kovac a promising one in respect of the Champions League?
Formation and roles
To clarify, Kovac will not reinvent the wheel or establish a new style of play at Bayern. In general, the Croatian manager will continue a lot of aspects of the Bayern philosophy in recent years. But there are some small adjustments which might lead to even more dominance of the reigning champion.
To begin with, Bayern set up in a 4-3-3 formation against Stuttgart. With Ribery, Robben and Lewandowski up front, the line up reminds of the Guardiola era at Bayern. However, the formation will not tell much about the style of play Kovac will deploy. He already confirmed that he also wants to adjust his formation to the opposition during his time in Munich.
The roles that the players take over might reveal some of the tactical ideas Kovac bears in mind for this season. In their match against Stuttgart, Thiago played the position of the holding midfielder. Dropping between both centre-backs or between centre-back and full-back, the Spanish international should prepare the final breakthrough with intelligent passes.
Boateng often acts in a higher position than Hummels. He plays laser passes into midfield or occupies opponents with dribblings in order to play diagonal balls to switch sides. At the same time, Hummels covers Boateng’s movement preventing counter-attacks on the halfway line.
Kimmich and Alaba support Ribery and Robben on the wings and situationally take crosses from there. Goretzka and Müller stay between the lines to connect defence and attack in the centre. And last but not least, Lewandowski either drops into central areas or provides depth while waiting for goal scoring opportunities.
U-shape to break a compact block
Munich players position themselves around the compact block of the opponent. This is a consequence of the assumption that a really compact opponent with short horizontal distances to the next player might be penetrable with passes around the block. The compactness of the defending team avoids them to cover the full width of the pitch. Therefore, the team in possession might be able to progress up the pitch on the wings after switching sides quicker than the opponent can shift.
The picture above shows the positioning of each Bayern player in possession. FCB circulate the ball around the block with seven players, whereas two players stay inside the block and the striker stays up front.
The two advanced central midfielders are the only two players that are positioned inside the opposition block. Situationally, Lewandowski drops into space inside the block. The most common pattern in Bayern’s play is then to play a pass inside the block and from there outside again. By playing into the centre, Munich plays into a highly underloaded zone where they occupy a lot of opponents. This leads to a numerical superiority outside of the block, that FCB can utilise to break through on the wings.
Attacking on the wings
Moreover, Kovac lays emphasize on attacking in wide areas. Kimmich and Alaba as the full-backs move up the pitch and serve crosses from the flanks. Thereby Munich make use of the heading abilities of Lewandowski as well as the central midfielders Müller and Goretzka.
The picture above shows a typical situation in Bayern’s match against Stuttgart where FCB attacks over the left wing. Müller, Ribery and Alaba create a 3v3 situation on the left flank. Thereby, Alaba gets into a position where he can take a cross. Lewandowski already awaits the cross and Goretzka joins his teammate in the penalty box with a run on the blind side of his opponent.
Ribery, Robben, Gnabry and the injured Coman are unpredictable on the wings. All of them can either cut inside or stay outside and take crosses as well. Kovac utilises his wingers’ abilities in dribbling situations for the breakthrough. This is a key concept for sides that have such high possession rates like Bayern since most opponents keep spaces tight with a low defensive block. The ability to outplay one or two players by dribbling can create spaces somewhere else on the pitch.
Niko Kovac sides are known for a high amount of scored goals after winning the ball back. One of the most noticeable aspects of Bayern in their first matches was their good structure allowing them to counter-press immediately after losing the ball. All players move towards the ball and shut down the passing lanes. This enables Bayern players to recover the ball with interceptions since the opposition still needs to organise and lacks orientation in a lot of cases.
Especially the centre-backs follow the opponent’s strikers to prevent any short passes. That way Bayern prevented Stuttgart from progressing up the pitch. The side if Korkut was not even able to produce a single shot on target. However, this opens up huge spaces in behind which poses a risk. Whereas Stuttgart was not able to exploit these spaces, teams that leave one or two men further up the pitch could use it for dangerous counter-attacks.
Chasing the ball and opponent
Being out of possession, Bayern chase the ball with a really high intensity. Thereby, one player presses the ball and the other players position themselves between opposition players. Due to this clever positioning, Bayern can successfully press the opposition with fewer players since they create situations where one player can defend two opponents.
The opposition often reacts with a long ball to decrease the risk of losing the ball in an area near their own goal. As Munich mostly press only with three or a maximum of four players, they have enough players to gain the first and the second ball and thereby recover possession. This proves that Bayern will aim at dominating the game over possession. In their match against Stuttgart, FCB had a possession rate of 68%.
To sum up, Kovac combines a simple but effective tactical approach with great individual players. Especially the Gegenpressing of Kovac worked out perfectly against Stuttgart. So far, Bayern did not struggle with any opponent.
However, it will be interesting how Munich act against Champions League teams that they can not control over possession. But it is also imaginable that Kovac will decide to play in a more defensive manner against the top teams in the international competition. No matter what, the Croation coach proved his tactical knowledge in the first matches and one can already look forward to Bayern’s performance in the Champions League this season.