Tactical Observations and Talking Points of the 2010/11 Bundesliga Season

While the Bundesliga may not necessarily be known for the tactical nous of Seria A it has become increasingly more aware of modern trends and more and more coaches are putting an emphasis on the tactical aspect of the game.  This season saw several bold moves being made by coaches throughout the league.  Whether it was deviating from the norm or taking a risk in their approach, there were several tactical talking points or trends of interest.  Here are some of the more noteworthy tactical observations of the 2010/11 Bundesliga Season.

Hannover’s Refreshing Counter Attacking System

Under Mirko Slomka Hannover streamlined their approach and became one of the most efficient sides in the league.  Instead of adopting the increasingly popular styles from around the league, Hannover carved out a tactical niche and shocked everyone by nearly grabbing the final Champions League spot and ending with their best ever league finish.

While sides like Bayern Munich and Hamburg emphasized possession and Dortmund and Mainz became aggressive pressing teams, Hannover took another more old-fashioned route and created a system that suited their personnel and eventually got the best out of each player.  Slomka fashioned a disciplined and ruthless counter attacking style that caught most sides off guard.

Hannover - set up to counter.

With a sitting backline and two capable distributors in front, Hannover had a solid foundation and ultimately the league’s 6th best defense.  Ahead were quick players like winger Konstantin Rausch and the mobile striker Ya Konan whose primarily role was to receive and move the ball as quickly as possible.  Rather than slowing down the tempo the side’s de facto playmakers, Sergio Pinto and Manuel Schmiedebach, would dispense the ball with great efficiency to the waiting attackers.  That proficiency showed and Hannover scored no less than 14 goals that lasted under 10 seconds.  It was a refreshing change from the contemplative play that has become so popular all across Europe recently.

Smaller Sides Adopting Attacking Approach

The stereotype that German football is rigid and defensive still holds up in many parts of the world but a glance at its own league reveals that it could not be farther from the truth.  German football as a whole has already adopted an attacking philosophy from its youth academies all the way to the Senior National Team but this season in particular saw several “smaller” clubs shy away from the conservative approach that is generally associated with teams trying to avoid the drop and instead adopt an adventurous aggressive attacking style of play.

Teams like Freiburg, Nürnberg, Kaiserslautern, Gladbach and Mainz all played, or tried to play, a confident brand of attacking football throughout the season.  Dieter Hecking’s Nürnberg and Thomas Tuchel’s Mainz both benefited from utilizing and trusting in young technically gifted players and had impressive seasons, Mainz earning a spot in Europe and Nürnberg just barely missing out.  Robin Dutt took the same approach with Freiburg and competed for a European spot for most of the season despite being touted for the drop at the beginning of the season.  All three sides utilized potent attacking fullbacks in players like Christian Fuchs (Mainz), Felix Bastians (Freiburg) and Timothy Chandler (Nürnberg), a welcome return considering the rather conservative nature of fullbacks in the league over the years.

Meanwhile, Marco Kurz’s Kaiserslautern who had just been promoted had their best finish in 10 years thanks to their brave approach.  Kurz often fielded four attack-minded midfielders and turned the forgotten Christian Tiffert into one of the league’s premier playmakers. That culminated in one of the season’s most impressive and one-sided displays, the 5-0 win over Schalke.  Their courageous approach was also evident in Kaiserslautern’s consistent willingness to go for the win away from home and finished with the league’s 6th best away record by season’s end.

Acceptance and Widespread Use of the 4-2-3-1 or Single Striker Formation

It took German football a bit longer than other top leagues and teams to accept this tactical trend but this season has seen the majority of Bundesliga clubs adopt the one striker formation, and rather successfully at that.

Mario Gomez (l) and Lucas Barrios (r), two of the league's best strikers.

In his first year, Bayern coach Louis van Gaal built his team around the double pivot of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mark van Bommel and Thomas Müller and Ivica Olic up top.  The striker pair provided a useful mobility and interchangeability for Ribery and Robben to play off and Bayern won the league and reached the Champions League final.  That setup isolated record signing Mario Gomez however and Olic’s long term injury ahead of the season meant that Van Gaal had to reevaluate his tactics.  The result was a 4-2-3-1 that essentially catered to Gomez’s game and allowed Ribery and Robben to cut inside more than they did the year before.  Bayern underperformed as a whole but their attack was formidable, scoring the most goals a Bundesliga had in some 25 years while Gomez became the league’s top scorer in emphatic fashion.

Similarly, the league’s two best sides, champions Dortmund and runners up Leverkusen both played with a lone striker.  Leverkusen coach Jupp Heynckes originally played with both Kiessling and Derdiyok up top but realized that he was better off playing just one for the remainder of the year.  Leverkusen’s best results came while playing with a striker on top and a creative playmaking type like Brazilian Renato Augusto behind.  It also made better use of their width as fullbacks had more freedom to come forward.  Champions Dortmund meanwhile were convincing precisely because Barrios was able to utilize space ahead of his team, opening up channels for players like Götze and Grosskreutz to run into, something that would have been more difficult with another striker next to him.

Freiburg had Cisse, Nürnberg used Schieber, Kaiserslautern utilized Lakic, etc. and even sides that have preferred a two striker formation like Schalke and Woflsburg have at some point dabbled in a variation of the 4-2-3-1.

Nürnberg’s Tactical Versatility

Average position of Nürnberg players vs. Leverkusen, note proximity of midfielders to each other

Some teams have defined formations that rarely deviate while others emphasize a looser and less predictable system.  Dieter Hecking took a more modern and continental tactical approach whereby he left the width up almost completely to his fullbacks and tried to fashion an interchangeable midfield and attack.  Hecking encouraged his attackers to play relatively close to each other, crowd out and close down the opponent in midfield and make their passing more efficient.  It was hard to define what formation Nürnberg lined up with.  At times it looked like a 4-1-4-1, a 4-3-1-2 or even a 4-3-3.  That variety made it difficult for opponents to predict what they were coming up against and it was different from the fixed positions most sides in the league used.  As a result he managed to take a team most scheduled for the drop to contention for a European spot.

Youth and versatility shone through at Nürnberg this season.

Despite them being out passed by most of their opponents, Nürnberg were surprisingly effective and were able to come away with wins against some of the “bigger” sides in the league, beating the likes of Schalke, Hamburg, Bremen, Stuttgart in the process as well as in form teams like Leverkusen and Hannover, going on an 8 game unbeaten run at the beginning of the year.  With Simmons the only “defined” player, the anchor of the side, Nürnberg permitted an array of attacking options, giving lone forward Schieber plenty of variety in his link up play.  Most of all, Hecking’s set up provided creative players like Ekici and Gündogan with the freedom to express themselves and play a freer role.  It was also that “crowding out” that made it difficult for Bayern to make any head way in midfield when they took on their regional rivals in a must win game, ultimately being held to a draw.  Hecking was not beyond altering when necessary either and when he needed a more direct approach he pushed Chandler into midfield and used him like a traditional winger.

Unfortunately Nürnberg have lost three players that were key in this setup in Ekici, Gündogan and Schieber, which begs the question whether Hecking can add to the great progress made this season.

Widespread Use and Importance of “Playmaker”

Italian football is accustomed to the “trequartista”, or their version of the playmaker, and has a rich tradition with such players as Francesco Totti or Roberto Baggio.  Over the years, the playmaker is said to have died out or decreased in functionality.  As such, playmaking per se has evolved and players like Messi, Özil and Rooney represent the more versatile modern “ No. 10”.  Even the Bundesliga has seen these types of players resurface.  Özil was of course amongst those prior to his move to Madrid but the league is still littered with players who share this role.

Tamas Hajnal, Stuttgart's playmaking savior.

Amongst those in particular were Stuttgart’s Tamas Hajnal and Dortmund’s Mario Götze.  The former was a Dortmund player as well until a loan move to struggling Stuttgart in the winter.  As it turned out, a player like Hajnal was precisely what Stuttgart needed and the Hungarian was crucial in Stuttgart’s second half of the season turnaround, helping them beat the relegation battle and finish as the 4th best team in the league in the Rückrunde.  Hajnal played in only 12 games during his loan stint but proved vital in Stuttgart’s play, displaying his clever eye for passing while playing in the “hole”.  He scored 3 goals and set up another 4 but was involved in most positive moves in Stuttgart’s 8 wins in the 12 matches he played.  Hajnal effectively synched what was initially a very jumbled offense and thus got the best out of Stuttgart’s array of attacking options.

Götze on the other hand started out wide but with Kagawa’s injury towards the end of the Hinrunde, Klopp asked the then 18 year old to step in.  Many thought Kagawa’s absence would put their title ambitions in danger but thanks to Götze formidable performances Dortmund secured the title in great fashion.  The young playmaker doubled his goals tally playing in the center and added another 9 assists.  The role of the modern playmaker is difficult to define and his duties go beyond just creating chances for his teammates.  Whether it was dropping deep to link up with the likes of Sahin or act as the de facto second striker, Götze balanced those duties brilliantly. Similarly, similar roles existed throughout the league.  Thomas Müller shared those responsibilities at Bayern while Raul became not only Schalke’s primary goal scorer but also their go to player for creativity.

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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

4 Comments

  1. Good stuff. Nice and concise too. I’d say Nuremberg were a 4-1-5, if anything. Simons sitting there to mop up and play the short but canny passes, and a mobile striker running left to right, deserting his nominal position to muck in.

  2. Superb analysis.Its good to see the an overall emphasis on technique n attacking style.Way to go Bundesliga.

  3. Thanks Shane!

    I’d even venture to say that the Bundesliga is more attack minded than La Liga at times. Although the defender in me does find the disregard for defensive discipline a tad worrisome.

  4. Great article. Really enjoyed it. Although I will say it’s hard to imagine how anyone can consider the league having a defensive reputation because the bundesliga has had the most goals per match of the top leagues for like 20 years now. But you are right, some people still do.

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