Analysis: Guardiola’s use of rotations and substitutions

Yesterday’s 1-1 draw at the BayArena in Leverkusen emphasised the fact that Guardiola still has plenty to work on. Not so much on his players but rather on his rotations and the timing of his substitutions, perhaps the only aspect that was criticised during his tenure at Barcelona.

In what was surely one of the two trickiest away matches of the season, Guardiola prescinded of the services of his main striker and his second-best winger. In place of Mario Mandžukić and Arjen Robben, he went with Thomas Müller alone up front again and Xherdan Shaqiri on the right wing. Rotations, it happens everywhere, but there’s a time and a place for them and they should come against sides like Eintracht Braunschweig and not Bayer Leverkusen.

There is no arguing that the replacements are not as effective as those who they replaced. Müller employed as a false 9 to gain more numbers outside the Leverkusen area, shaped Bayern at times as a 4-1-5, as Guardiola rightly predicted that they would have a large amount of possession in their opponent’s half. After the excellent midweek performance against Manchester City (1-3), the only change was the Swiss winger for Robben, and the system apparently the same, so there was no reason to believe that the result wouldn’t go the same way or even better.

Leverkusen have looked tight defensively this year, perhaps inspired by the mindset of their manager, once a centre-back himself. This could have implied that chances would not come as easily as a gung-ho team with the firepower that Manchester City had, whose wide 4-2-3-1 could not compare with Leverkusen’s compact 4-3-3, right? Wrong. Leverkusen allowed 27 shots in the whole match, of which roughly 20% of them fell to their main ‘striker’, Thomas Müller. Müller had a torrid time in front of goal yesterday and yet Guardiola, at 1-1 for over 50 minutes, left him on the pitch, where he squandered chance after chance. Mandžukić was visibly restless on the bench and Guardiola brought him on with 10 minutes to go.

With such a physically-dominating centre-back pairing like Leverkusen have, of Emir Spahić and Ömer Toprak, Mandžukić could have ruffled their feathers a little bit more than Müller did all game, as Bayern’s most dangerous attacks came from the flanks despite Guardiola insisting on going through the middle. Leverkusen’s aerial superiority was not addressed at any point by Guardiola and yet Bayern’s most dangerous chances came from positions in which having aerial ability would much improve the team’s chances of scoring. Müller, got himself into goalscoring positions that no striker would miss, chances that players with the abilities of Mandžukić would not miss and yet Müller did, mainly because Müller is not a striker and does not have that special instint. There are very few doubts that Mandžukić would not have got on the scoresheet yesterday if he’d have started.

Player positions. Leverkusen – blue; Bayern – orange ©

A similar case happened with the right wing. Xherdan Shaqiri, despite all of his effort and momentum, does not have the impact that Arjen Robben has in opposition defences, almost as if he plays with too much acceleration. With such a disproportionate level of quality on the flanks, Leverkusen and Bayern drifted towards the flank where Franck Ribéry was (graph, above), making life for the Frenchman a bit more difficult than usual in terms of opponents encountered on his runs. As a result, the right flank went unused and despite the fact that we know that Guardiola enjoys interior play, Bayern can cause major damage with their wingers and yet, they were only playing that card at 50%.

Again, same situation. Robben only appeared after 71 minutes and only after Shaqiri had had one or two glorious chances that the Dutchman must have craved for himself and, most likely, would have finished into the back of the net, as they were clear enough scoring opportunities for a starting Bayern München winger (although in this case, Arjen Robben isn’t perhaps the greatest example to preach, but the point remains valid). By no means is this a criticism on Shaqiri’s performance as the Swiss-Albanian put in one of good standard but the circumstances required something different and Guardiola took too long to realise.

Some say that Guardiola’s greatest weakness is his inability to come up with a Plan B. During his time at Barça, when encountered with adverse situations, mostly in the Champions League but also two or three times every season in the league and usually away from home, the Catalan manager struggled to come up with answers or did so too late. We all know that Guardiola isn’t a fan of substitutions and changing things around in the middle of a game and that when he does make them, they come around the last 20 minutes of the match.

However, Bayern’s greatest strength is their squad depth, having players that can come off the bench and turn a game around if needed even if the strongest XI is on the field. Guardiola did not enjoy this privilege at Barcelona who despite having what is (or was) perhaps the best starting XI man for man, the quality on the bench was a huge decline; Bayern do not have that problem and Guardiola needs to realise this soon as his two draws in the league (funnily enough, both without Mandžukić in the starting lineup and with either or both Ribéry and Robben also on the bench) required an impact substitute that did not arrive. Against Freiburg, Mario Götze came on for the last half an hour but he was clearly not at full fitness.

Of course, the Freiburg match was a different situation, as Bayern were ahead and conceded late, not drawing, but it also required a reaction from the bench to secure the result they wanted and that reaction came too late. Admittedly, Freiburg are a team Bayern can afford to rotate against but the circumstances of play dictated that the struggle was going to be harder than first though, a circumstance that is part of football, and a manager must adapt to the happenings on the pitch.

All in all, though, Bayern are still top of the league and still unbeaten but yesterday’s match, a match in which they had 27 (twenty-seven!!!) goalscoring chances, should have ended up with all three points going back to the Allianz Arena, especially for a team with the attacking quality Bayern have. Yes, Bernd Leno was inspired but there were chances that not even he could have saved but that the poor finishing got him out of jail, poor finishing that needn’t have happened if Guardiola had moved his subs bench more accordingly and in a timely manner.

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Aleix Gwilliam

Is a 27-year-old living in Barcelona who gets more pleasure from watching German lower-league football than from going to watch his hometown team at the Camp Nou every other week. Passionate about European football, its history and culture, you can follow him on Twitter at @AleixGwilliam

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