Louis van Gaal took over Bayern last year with the great expectations of bringing the Bundesliga title back to Munich as well as restoring the club to Champions League elite status, something that had been eluding them for over eight years.  By the end of the season he had turned a seemingly unproven and unimpressive roster of players into a treble contending team.  Despite the loss against Inter in the Champions League final, one cannot argue with the incredible work van Gaal has done in his first season in charge.

Prior to Van Gaal’s arrival, Bayern was for the most part a pragmatic side, both in their management style and on field performances.  Since the end of Hitzfeld’s 2001 Champions League winning team Bayern looked to reunite the blend of attack and defense that made that team so successful.  That balance between a disciplined defense and an effective and aggressive attack eluded them all decade.  They came close when Magath first took over in 2004 but were never able to maintain it or replicate it on the European stage.  Suffice it to say, Van Gaal had his work cut out for him. As evidenced by a recent interview, upon his arrival, Van Gaal immediately noticed some issues that needed ironing out, including the age structure of the team as well as some of the tactical limitations of the players.  Van Gaal promoted from within early on, bringing up Thomas Mueller and Holger Badstuber from the youth team.  He also sanctioned the sale of veteran defender Lucio, albeit under controversial circumstances.  When questioned, he boldly announced that defending in his team is not as important as the attacking impetus of a team, a brave statement considering Jurgen Klinsmann’s defensive woes the season before.

Early experimentation and the failed 4-3-3

Much of the first half of the season consisted of Louis van Gaal experimenting tactically to try and find the right fit for the team.  Injuries to key players, suspensions and the lack of personnel led to a variety of formations and game plans.  Heading into the season, van Gaal played a standard 4-4-2 with a holding midfielder, two wide players and a #10 supporting the two strikers.  In pre-season, it was worked out that Ribery would take over the role of playmaker but an early injury forced Van Gaal’s hand.  Neither Sosa nor Baumjohan were adequate replacements though and were consequently marked out of the game when used. The purchase of Arjen Robben from Madrid at the end of August was intended to give him the option of a 4-3-3, which is what van Gaal had used throughout most of his career and originally wanted to use at Bayern.  Robben made an immediate impact and Bayen recorded impressive wins against reigning champions Wolfsburg (3-0) and a rout of Dortmund (5-1) but succumbed to injuries early in his Bayern career.

The next seven matches would prove to be the low point of Bayern’s season.  It would see them winning only two league matches and see them pushed to the brink of Champions League elimination after a draw with Juventus and two consecutive losses to Bordeux.  Van Gaal was still experimenting to find the right fit for his preferred 4-3-3 formation.  The return of his captain, Mark van Bommel, who was out with a broken toe, also presented a problem as he was the designated holding midfielder in the line up. That meant Tymoshchuk, traditionally a defensive midfielder, was now pushed to a right midfield position, which did not suit his game and created deficiencies all over the pitch.  It interfered with the possession-based game Van Gaal was trying to implement. It curtailed any creativity from midfield since Tymoshchuk was neither known for his attacking prowess or his creativity but played in a role that required just that.

To try and accommodate all players Louis Van Gaal tried a 4-3-3, 4-1-3-2 and even a rare 3-3-3-1 formation, neither of which helped individual or team performance.  The constant personnel and tactical changes didn’t lend themselves to establishing any kind of team cohesion or consistency and Bayern dipped as low as 8th place in the standings while leaving it to the last game of the Champions League to secure qualification to the next round.  It became obvious that the personnel for a 4-3-3 simply did not exist at Bayern.  Van Bommel and Schweinsteiger were capable central midfielders but Bayern lacked the creative presence next to them to them to make it work.  As such, there existed no link to the attack and Gomez was not mobile enough to drop back or provide link up for the wing forwards.  Instead of optimizing Bayern’s attacking options, it clogged the midfield’s ability to move the ball efficiently into open spaces and negated Van Gaal’s original intention of making Bayern a cohesive attacking unit.

A return to tradition – The comeback of the 4-4-2

As a result, Van Gaal settled on a 4-4-2 towards the end of 2009 with two central midfielders acting as the pivot and two wide players supporting the forwards.  This was the formation that would ultimately stick and prove so effective in the second half of the season.  The tactical switch showed results immediately.  Bayern landed two impressive back-to-back results, a 5-1 and 5-2 hammering of Bochum and Hertha Berlin respectively.  The team was shaping up tactically for the first time that season.  However, Louis van Gaal’s new formation of choice was still relatively unpolished and they were still missing key players like Robben, Olic and Ribery to injuries.

The 4-4-2 remained static and predictable at first and lacked the overall mobility of other elite European clubs.  That showed when they met the offensively capable Bremen in January, narrowly beating them 3-2 from a brilliant Robben free kick.  Bayern were never really able to take control of the match and dictate the tempo against a constantly moving and creative Bremen side.  This had been the criticism of Bayern before Van Gaal arrived and he was brought in to turn exactly that around.

Since around 2007 Bayern had used this 4-4-2 to a degree of success in the league but never in Europe.  And for the most part, the 4-4-2 had been the formation of choice at Bayern in the last 20 years.  Many therefore questioned his decision initially, skeptical that a return to this formation would be effective in Europe. Ribery and Robben rarely started matches together and when they did most of the play was directed their way. One of the biggest setbacks was still the use of Mario Gomez up front.  When used, Gomez was mostly isolated and a poor link up player, which limited the overall mobility and flexibility of the squad during the course of a match.   Because Schweinsteiger and Mark van Bommel were almost exclusively deep in midfield, it meant that the rest of the attacking players had to compensate and neither of Robben or Ribery’s replacements had the ability to carry out that task sufficiently.

This was soon to change though and as a result the second half of the season was almost an antithesis of the first.  Ribery, Olic and Robben all returned from injury and with them, LvG fully realized the above formation.  Towards the end of the season, van Gaal also preferred the striking partnership of Olic and Mueller, leaving out Gomez and Klose altogether.  The effect was that the team became a hard working unit that was no longer static or reliant on getting the ball out wide to Robben and Ribery.  Most importantly, it was a flexible and interchangeable system that catered to the strengths of each individual. Bayern became a possession-oriented team that stifled opponents by pressing high up the pitch and relentlessly attacking with the ball.  Because of these changes, Bayern went on a 9 match unbeaten streak in the league after the winter break and in the end surpassed Bremen as the league’s best attack while also establishing the most solid defense.  The pinnacle of the system’s potency was the 7-0 thrashing of a Hannover side battling relegation towards the end of the season.  Louis Van Gaal’s changes were on full display as Robben netted a hattrick and Olic and Mueller each grabbed a brace.

A winning formula:  The success of the 4-4-2

So why was this 4-4-2 formation so effective across three competitions without much squad rotation?

1) Van Gaal instilled in each player a winning mentality and work ethic that reverberated throughout the team. His player management raised just about every player’s level of play and in match performance.   By getting the best out of his players, he compensated for the lack of individual talent in each position and enabled the high pressing game encouraged by van Gaal.  Van Gaal’s coaching staff used state of the art player tracking technology that focused on different aspects of every player’s game.  Match performances were reviewed methodically by each player and worked on in training. The result was that many players had the best season of their careers under van Gaal.  Van Buyten, prior to this season considered a squad player, was a constant at the back while scoring nine goals in all competitions.  Van Gaal also promoted players from the youth team, most notably Thomas Mueller (20) and Holger Badstuber (21), both of whom had stellar seasons and earned call ups to Loew’s World Cup squad.  Hans-Joerg Butt also excelled after signing on a free to be Michael Rensing’s back up.  Van Gaal did not hesitate to make him Bayern’s #1.  He needed a keeper who knew how to distribute the ball and play it out quickly and Butt fit the bill perfectly as he was known for his abilities on the ball.

2) The right sided tandem of Philip Lahm and Arjen Robben. Lahm, having played left back for years, was promptly moved to right back and was by the end involved in more goals than ever before.  Lahm had preferred the right side for a long time and was played at left back initially out of necessity but van Gaal no doubt kept him there to provide Robben with the right support.  Robben not only hit the peak of his form but without the right setup he would not have been as effective as he was.  Moving Lahm to the right gave Robben one of the best supporting fullbacks around and the freedom to attack freely without needing to worry about tracking back too much.  Lahm’s ability to get forward, overlap and link up with Robben also became one of the most effective ways Bayern attacked this season.  Bayern’s right side contributed a total of 43 goals in all competitions.

3) The midfield pivot of Van Bommel and Schweinsteiger served as a disciplined defensive and attacking base and was key van Gaal’s possession game. Without possession, it soaked up all the pressure and in possession ensured that the rest of the attack had the necessary support from deep.  It was arguably the most important change made by van Gaal this season. In addition, it introduced a new level of discipline and drive to the team.  Since Schweinsteiger’s professional debut in 2002 he had been used exclusively in a wide position.  Schweinsteiger was never a creative attacking oriented player and as a result, playing him out wide never got the best out of him at club level.  Surprisingly enough, none of the four coaches he had played under realized his potential as a central midfielder.  When Louis Van Gaal moved him into the center next to Van Bommel, the difference was immediately visible.  Schweinsteiger had always been a good athlete with a tremendous work-rate and the ability to retain.  Coupled with his experience playing in a creatively demanding role and a strong presence like Mark van Bommel next to him, Schweinsteiger quickly established himself as one of the most important players in Van Gaal’s system and has played the best season of his career.  The two were a big reason Bayern were able to have the majority of possession in most matches they’ve played this season.

4) The use of Olic and Thomas Mueller, both deep lying support strikers, acted as de facto attacking midfielders. Their nonstop high energy running and chasing took pressure off Ribery and Robben to create, cut inside and take on defenders.  All the while without sacrificing the finishing.  Olic and Mueller combined for a total of 38 goals in all competitions, not bad for a free transfer and a player in his first professional season.  Because both were naturally inclined to drop deep the formation was in essence a 4-2-4, which was able to press high up the field and immediately work to regain possession after losing it.  Both players were also quite mobile.  Olic was comfortable drifting to the left, which is the side from which Olic scored against both Manchester and Lyon.  Mueller on the other hand was quite adept at playing on the right, having been played in Robben’s position earlier in the season as well as in the youth set up.

In an era where many top clubs have turned away from the 4-4-2 formations, van Gaal managed to create an efficient and successful version of what is becoming an increasingly outdated tactical option.  Of course, he did not accomplish that by ignoring the reasons for its demise.  Instead, he modernized the 4-4-2 by making it less rigid and more tactically versatile.  His team and player management optimized player and team performance and as a result allowed the system to flourish without compromising his football principles.   Barcelona is rightfully praised for their beautiful effective football and the local nature of the team.  Similarly, Van Gaal has seemingly resurrected Bayern by playing sound attacking football and doing so by successfully using homegrown talent.  Bayern fell short of the treble but the manner in which they completed the domestic double and reached the Champions League final is reminiscent of the great Bayern teams of the past and instilled in supporters hope that it is just the beginning of greater things to come.

Cristian Nyari

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Cristian Nyari

Cristian is a football writer and analyst living in New York City, fascinated with the history and study of the beautiful game and all it entails. Follow Cristian on twitter @Cnyari

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