Bayern continued with the same line up that has seen them go eight consecutive matches undefeated. Ottl and Tymoshchuk again dputized in central midfield in the absence of Van Bommel while Bastian Schweinsteiger was pushed forward into a more attacking role supporting lone striker Mario Gomez.
Leverkusen also fielded a 4-2-3-1, player for player the exact formation Bayern put out although it was largely a result of circumstance rather than choice. Namely, Heynckes switched to accommodate the recent return of Brazilian playmaker Renato Augusto as well in form winger Sidney Sam. Arturo Vidal, who had recently also played a more advanced position, returned to central midfield alongside skipper Simon Rolfes.
Both teams have been on good runs of form in the last couple of weeks so it was no surprise to see them come out and play for the win right from the start. Each side was eager to get forward and pushed its players up throughout the first half. For forty-five minutes it was an exchange of attacks down the flanks without much given away in the center of the pitch.
Wide threats – flanks were both areas of strength and weakness for both teams
Both teams generally stayed out wide when they attacked. 41% of Leverkusen’s attack came from the right flank, including the one that led to their penalty before the end of the first half. 30% came from the left including Leverkusen’s best chance at a second goal, Sam’s shot from outside the box that hit the post. Lahm and Pranjic generally had a difficult time against Sam who kept switching sides during the match and running at players. He has easily been one of the more impressive players this season and is proving to be a quality purchase for Leverkusen. Word is already circulating about a call up to the national team.
Similarly, Bayern aimed 70% of their attacks from the flanks. The most notable example was their goal in the 34th minute, a great team combination between Mueller and Schweinsteiger on the right cutting in to set up Mario Gomez.
In the first half, Bayern’s fullbacks, Lahm and Pranjic, were busy getting forward and this had a twofold effect. One, it effectively pinned back Leverkusen’s fullbacks, Schwaab and Kadlec and thus took them out of the game. And second, it left a lot of space exposed at the back for Barnetta, Sam and Renato Augusto to exploit.
Teams neutralize each other
Bayern and Leverkusen’s gameplans did not differ much and because their tactics and players matched each other almost player for player the second half was very much one of attrition. After both goals were scored they were also a bit more cautious in their approach. Ottl and Tymoshchuk are both defensively inclined and did not give up much space while Vidal put in his usual energetic performance. Heynckes brought on Castro for Schwaab to anticipate the substitution of Ribery but both players ended up canceling each other out and making little impact on the game.
The final verdict: Van Gaal’s 4-2-3-1 provides much needed stability
Louis Van Gaal finally joined most other clubs in Europe and finally adopted the widespread 4-2-3-1 formation at the beginning of the season. Admittedly, he had done so more out of necessity than desire but as every coach does and should, he did so also to suit the personnel available and get the best out of his team. Bayern went into the season without the talismanic duo of Robben and Ribery as both were ruled out due to serious injuries early on. Not too long after that Olic was confirmed to be out for most of the season and captain Mark van Bommel faced a temporary injury lay off as well. This meant that Van Gaal could not resume with the same system that proved so successful last year and appropriate changes needed to be made. Players that were largely isolated last year finally got their chance, namely Anatoly Tymoshchuk and Mario Gomez.
Bayern were slow to start but as the season progressed the players adapted to the formation and their form started to pick up. They have gone nine games now without a defeat and much of it is a result of this tactical adjustment. Gomez is a specific type of striker, the closest to the traditional targetman that has increasingly gone extinct over the decade. At Stuttgart, Gomez’s success was based largely on a system catering completely to his strengths. Gomez was the focal point of Stuttgart’s attack in every sense. Bayern played an entirely different system from the one Gomez was used to at Stuttgart, which is largely why he failed to impose himself in his first year in Munich. Van Gaal had to adjust his tactics to replicate that while still maintaining his preferred possession and combination-based gameplan.
The change to the 4-2-3-1 ensures that Gomez is the primary focal point of Bayern’s attack. The attacking players are instructed to be more direct in their approach and focused with their support. Gomez has now scored twelve goals in the last eight matches. Without the double pivot of Van Bommel and Schweinsteiger in the center Van Gaal had to also compensate for the single most important tactical reasons for last year’s success. Playing two defensive midfielders instead of two box-to-box midfielders provides a defensive base for a four man attack as well as shielding a fragile defense. Despite the sluggish start, the tactical shift is the biggest reason Bayern managed to get their season back on track.
The final verdict: Leverkusen remain consistent
Leverkusen too has been struggling with injuries this season, most notably Michael Ballack, Stefan Kiessling, and on and off Renato Augusto. Heynckes has therefore had to experiment with several formations. Heynckes prefers a two striker formation but with the long term injury to Kiessling and Patrick Helmes still trying to return to full form he settled on a 4-2-3-1 which has since seen them go four games without a loss.
The formation gives Leverkusen a lot more flexibility and optimizes their strengths. Vidal and Rolfes in central midfield add an extra layer of security for a rather slow central defense. It also covers laterally for Kadlec and Castro, two fullbacks who like to get forward. Most importantly, it relieves in form winger Sam from defensive duties he had in a more traditional 4-4-2. Renato Augusto, arguably the league’s best playmaker, also has more room to create and support Derdiyok up front. In their four game run, they have only conceded two goals, a big improvement over the six they conceded in the four games before.
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