Tactical Analysis: Bayern’s 4-1-4-1 in German Super Cup

Match Preview

This match was touted as being “the one to watch” across Europe because of the escalating rivalry between these two sides. Last year, Bayern were the dominant force across all competitions, yet with Guardiola now at the helm, a new era of Bayern dominance has seemingly just begun. On the other hand, Borussia Dortmund (BVB) was viewed as a wounded animal after finishing 2nd to Bayern last season. A win for BVB in the Super Cup would send Bayern the message that Die Schwarzgelben shouldn’t be taken lightly, not only by Bayern, but by the rest of Europe. Of course, BVB’s loss of young superstar, Mario Götze, to Bayern only increases the intensity of this match up.

So the scene was set, Pep’s Bayern vs. Klopp’s Dortmund, with more at stake than ever before.

Team Sheets

Klopp’s Dortmund side  specializes in a 4-2-3-1 system, which allows BVB great mobility and freedom for its attacking quartet. The balance and energy provided by the double pivot complements the attacking style of BVB’s fullbacks, who provide the width on the pitch.

For Dortmund, Gündogan was given the responsibility of filling the Götze-shaped void that had been left in the team. Großkreutz played as the right back in the absence of Piszczek, while Sahin resumed his role as the deep-lying playmaker, a role he excelled in prior to joining Real Madrid.

Bayern, however, were an unknown quantity. With new players coming into the fold, squad players being given a chance, and a new manager in charge, it was difficult to predict what exactly Guardiola had planned for Bayern in a game that would test his abilities against one of the most dynamic and innovative managers in football today. So far during the preseason, Guardiola has been experimenting with a 4-1-4-1 formation which resulted in a win over his old side, Barcelona.

bayern formation
In the Super Cup final, Sahin and Bender are the “pivots” in Klopp’s 4-2-3-1. Meanwhile, Thiago is the deep-lying midfielder, sometimes joined by Kroos, creating a double pivot for Bayern.

For Bayern, Thiago most frequently played as deepest midfielder with Kroos dropping deeper, sometimes creating a double pivot. Müller would look to burst centrally and be a reference point for the attacks when Mandžukić was instructed to go into wide positions, then leading Shaqiri to drift infield, playing in the hole.

Guardiola’s 4-1-4-1 : Time to Adjust or Time to Ditch?

Guardiola often played with a 4-3-3 with Barcelona, more often with a False 9 in place, or he would switch to a 3-4-3 to counter certain situations. With Bayern – and an incredible new squad at his disposal – commentators see a chance for Guardiola to implement new ideas without the burden of having to play through Messi. It seems like the 4-1-4-1 formation is the system he has decided to implement, but does it work at Bayern? Before that question is answered, let’s look at the standard dynamics of the formation.

4141formation_diagram captureThe 4-1-4-1 formation: dissected.

The 4-1-4-1 system can be used as a defensive and direct formation that encourages counter-attacking play. It is easy to misconstrue a 4-1-4-1 for a 4-3-3; after all, if you move the two wingers further forward then that is exactly what you get. However, the positional depth of the two wide players (when the ball is in midfield) encourages the team to use shorter passing options and build play slowly up the field, rather than using the wide players as outlets to penetrate the opposition defenses quickly.

As seen by the yellow shaded area, the distance between the fullbacks and their respective wingers is smaller than what you would find in a 4-3-3. This shortness of distance has two effects:

  1. In defense, the distance that the winger has to cover in order to double up the flank with his fullback is less, and therefore less energy is wasted in this transition. This dynamic favors teams who prefer to drop deep and create a solid block of players, rather than press high up the field (something Guardiola’s Barcelona was exceptional at).
  2. In attack, the distance needed for the fullback to overlap the winger and create either a 2 vs. 1 mismatch or create a penetrative decoy run to take an opponent’s defender away player away is less.

The defensive midfielder plays a critical role in this system, as a single pivot. His role is twofold. First, when in possession, he must utilize the midfield options ahead of him in order to build the attack. The difference between a single and double pivot (e.g. in the 4-2-3-1 system) in this sense is that the single pivot encourages more forward passes, rather than lateral passes to the opposite pivot. Second, he must position himself appropriately to ensure that he is always free when the ball is in wide positions. The double pivot has the advantage here due to each pivot controlling one half of the pitch, but with a single pivot, unless a central midfielder drops into a less threatening position deeper in midfield, the defensive midfielder must always stay in a position to receive from the flanks.

The two central midfielders are pivotal in the 4-1-4-1 system. If they drop too deep too soon, then – although there will plenty of passing options – their positioning will slow the tempo, making it easier for defenders to read and intercept passes. Furthermore, if two central midfielders are positioned too high too soon, then the players behind them will struggle to link up with them and can become isolated. Balance is key with this formation, the central midfielder must move with the ball up the pitch, allowing the wingers to move ahead, providing a forward pass outlet.

The blue shaded area between the midfield and strikers is vacated in this system. Many formations, such as the 4-2-3-1, encourage players to operate in spaces within this shaded area, but the 4-1-4-1 system encourages players to build into that area or encourages one of the central midfielders to burst into that area and allow themselves to be unmarked for as long as possible. The striker who plays in this system must be adept at bringing others into play, looking to be a consistent focal point and ideally be a good aerial threat.

So how do these fundamental principles of the formation correlate with Guardiola’s 4-1-4-1?

Guardiola’s 4-1-4-1: The Breakdown

During the match with Dortmund, there were multiple changes in positions within the system which were used to counteract the mobile pressing of Dortmund’s team, and try and open spaces for the Bayern midfield to operate in and attack centrally.

First Half

This was the basic positioning of the players, the arrows illustrating the movements that occurred consistently during the match:

1 first half positions_captureBasic and positions and movements of Bayern’s players.

Starting from the back, Kroos would often drop into a double pivot alongside Thiago and help control the game. This allowed a safe option for Thiago to pass into, (who looked uncomfortable in his new role as the defensive midfielder). Lahm and Alaba would make their classic penetrative runs into the attacking third, Alaba more so than Lahm who is known for being as balance as any fullback in football. Müller, who operated as a central midfielder, would make bursting runs and then position himself either as the lone striker or alongside Mandžukić should he be playing centrally at the time.

The most interesting of the positional changes, however, was Mandžukić and Shaqiri’s interchanging during the match. Many times, Mandžukić  operated on the left side, staying close to his fullback (Alaba) and looking to make diagonal runs between the central defender and fullback. Shaqiri would then move into the central attacking midfield zone and bridge the gap between Thiago/Kroos and the striker(s). Once the players had moved into their new positions, Bayern’s shape looked more like an asymmetrical 4-3-3/4-2-3-1:

2 first half positions_Capture
Bayern’s shape-shifting 4-1-4-1.

It’s evident this flexible 4-1-4-1 system offers positional movement when building from the right hand side. Lahm’s technical proficiency and Robben’s direct running would have complemented Mandžukić blind side running behind his fullback, as well as complementing Müller’s occupation of the Dortmund central defenders.

The disadvantage of such a system is that, although Kroos and Thiago are excellent passers and capable of controlling a game relatively well, they are both taken away from their best positions: playing as attacking midfielders in a 3 man midfield. Having Shaqiri in this role relinquishes control in the final third, but does add the direct threat of Shaqiri’s dribbling skill and ability to shoot from distance.

Second Half

In the second half, with Bayern 1-0 down, Guardiola altered the formation’s shape slightly,  providing his team with the best possible chance of scoring. To do this, he swapped Shaqiri and Robben’s positions; Robben would now operated on the left and Shaqiri on the right. This switch allowed Mandžukić to stay central and allowed Müller to join him in creating a 2 vs. 2 situation with the Dortmund defenders. Shaqiri was more disciplined with his positioning in the second half, playing like a more orthodox inverted winger; looking to coming off the line when the ball was in his possession, rather than looking to receive on inside play. Kroos was instructed to play closer to Thiago and help Bayern build with Lahm and Alaba both going forward to provide width, matching the bodies that were gathered in the box.

3 second half changes_capture
Pep alters the formation for the second half.

The advantages of the changes made were evident with Bayern’s equalising goal, as the double pivot of Kroos and Thiago worked brilliantly with the Spaniard playing an excellent ball to Lahm, whose cross took advantage of the 4 players who were in the box at the time. The disadvantage of the changes, however, came in the form of a lack of stability and control in the midfield area, Guardiola’s Barcelona team was synonymous with universal control of the football and forcing the opposition into a box which would then be teased and incisively open.

After Dortmund went up 3-1, Kroos was positioned back into his normal place in the 4-1-4-1, ahead of Thiago, but more often than not he was forced to play back in a more defensive role, nullifying the threat that he could have posed further up the field. After Robben made it 3-2, Schweinsteiger came on for Shaqiri. Müller then operated from the right, taking away the short option for Mandžukić to play into, but gave up control in the midfield.

The Match’s Goals: How Did the Formation and Selection Affect Them?

1-0  – Dortmund Goal (Reus)

4 Dortmund first goal_CapturePositioning during Dortmund’s first goal.

Despite Van Buyten’s clear mistake in playing Lewandowski onside, the key error actually happened in the central area. The two players’ highlighted with the white shaded circle are Thiago and Kroos – neither of whom offer sufficient defensive protection and seemed to caught in two minds here: whether to close down or to defend the box. In the end, they do neither and Müller (black shade) – another attacking player asked to do a job unaccustomed to him – is caught too high up the pitch, failing to deal with Bender’s run into the box. Bender’s header leads to Starke’s poor handling and Reus has an easy finish to make it 1-0.

This error is more of a selection error, since none of the 3 Bayern players mentioned are accustomed to dealing with these kind of situations, rather they are better are defending higher up the pitch. Clearly, Van Buyten’s mistake creates havoc in all the players around him, but a more experienced player in this position, Schweinsteiger for example, may have tracked the run of Reus rather than just be a body in the box.

1-1 – Bayern Goal (Robben)

5 Bayern first goal_captureThiago fakes out the Dortmund defenders.

This goal comes due to the positional changes within the system. Thiago (in possession) fakes to pass to Kroos who the Dortmund players wanted to cut out, but in doing so they allowed the space for Thiago to turn and spray the ball to the right flank where Lahm was waiting to receive the pass:

6 Bayern creating chances_captureBayern’s clever positioning led to its first goal.

The area in which Bayern chose to create a numerical advantage was the back post, because this advantage creates the most amount of blindside runs possible, therefore increasing the chances of runs being missed by the Dortmund defence – on this occasion, it was Robben’s run that was missed.

The formation was a massive help in the build-up to this goal, instead of Kroos operating next to Thiago from the start, whenever did Kroos decide to move next to him, it created an advantage for Bayern, which they used to build on with a longer pass. Had Kroos not been there to act as a decoy for Thiago, he more than likely would have been closed down and the pass wouldn’t have happened to Lahm which led to the goal.

2-1 – Dortmund Goal  (Van Buyten, OG)

7 Dortmund second goal_capture Blame the goal-scorer, Robben, for not tracking back.

This Dortmund goal was a combination of selection and formation errors. The goal came straight after Robben had scored to make it 1-1, however, his old habit of not tracking back led to Gündogan exploiting the space on his side. Robben’s error combined with Boateng slipping near the centre circle (far right), and Bayern’s “fake” double pivot not defending like a true double pivot would (i.e. by one of the two pivot players moving across to block the space, while the other moving into a central zone to protect the outside of the box). Instad, the “fake” double pivot moved across to the left hand side, but neither midfielder took responsibility in shutting out the cross when Alaba was clearly occupied with marking the Dortmund winger, Blaszczykowski.

3-1 – Dortmund Goal (Gündogan)

8 Dortmund third goal_capture
Kroos and Thiago are both involved (or not!) in Dortmund’s 3rd goal.

Earlier in this run of play, Bayern tried building an attacking, which broke down on the its left side. Kroos (white shaded circle) is looking to close down, but the play around him, leaving Thiago (red shaded circle) as the only source of protection in midfield.

9 Dortmund third goal_capture
Thiago covers ground, but Guendogan scores.

Instead of playing the ball into a central area too quickly, Dortmund intelligently play the ball into the wider area, knowing that Thiago (red shaded circle) will have to come across and cover, due to the overload Dortmund has created on that side. With Thiago vacating his position (blue shaded circle), Gündogan (yellow shaded circle) is now free to receive the ball in plenty of space. Once he receives the ball, he is able to drive towards the box and – despite Müller’s best efforts (caught too high once again) – Gündogan brilliantly curls the ball into the bottom corner, increasing Dortmund’s lead and effectively becomes the winning goal.

3-2 – Bayern Goal (Robben)

10 Bayern second goal_captureDortmund are overloaded in the midfield, just before Bayern score goal #2.

As Bayern built from the back, Kroos once again dropped deeper, creating a 2 vs. 1 against the Dortmund midfielder, a move that allowed Thiago to do what he did earlier, freeing himself to spray the ball to Shaqiri, who combines with the overlapping Lahm (due to the lesser distance needed to overlap – an advantage in the 4-1-4-1, as you’ll recall).

Once again, if Bayern had opted to start with a 4-2-3-1, more attention would have been paid to both pivots, which would force these players to operate sideways. However, due to the spontaneous positions Kroos took up during the game, Dortmund were never sure when they would need to position to protect against a double pivot rather than Thiago on his own.


Despite a narrow loss to their undoubted title rivals, Guardiola will see this as a good test as to whether his new formation will work. There is still plenty of work to be done to make it as efficient as it could be, and more focus will have to be paid to 3 central midfielders and their roles. Using outlet players like Robben and Shaqiri may have paid dividends this time, but there were plenty of occasions where the instinct to drive beyond the phase of play led to a lack of options and therefore a loss of possession. Thiago has been given an immense responsibility to play as the defensive midfielder in the Bayern setup, and in possession there are few players more graceful but incisive at the same time, however, he has been deployed too much greater effect at Barcelona and in the several Spain squads at varying levels he has been involved with.

With plenty of players to come back to fitness, including Ribery, Gotze and Martinez, it remains to be seen as to whether this is only temporary or permanently the system that Guardiola wants to continue with. As to whether it should be given time to adjust or time to ditch, there was plenty of evidence to suggest that with time, it could work but Guardiola will know better than anyone, the formation needs to fit the players, not the other way around.

Header courtesy of Patrik Stollarz – AFP

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Zaheer Shah is a Football Studies graduate from a UK university and specialises in coaching and performance analysis. During his studies, he took up writing analytical pieces which ranged from tactics, commercialisation and football philosophy. A passionate fan of football across the world, he is determined to utilise all the skills he has acquired into making a successful career in football. You can follow him on Twitter @ZazooFootball

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