The Lineups They Carried: Reviewing the Bundesliga’s Tactical Formations from 2013/14

The 2014-15 Bundesliga season starts in a matter of weeks. The transfer market is humming along to its usual dadaist tale, while our jangled nerves rest after the extra summer assignment of World Cup viewing. Meanwhile, in picturesque country towns, Bundesliga clubs are training and even playing friendlies. Bayern has even already won its first trophy this season.

While all these things are true, I still have last season on my mind. Particularly, I’m thinking about the lineups featured by all 18 Bundesliga clubs during the 2013-14 season, especially as we move into the 2014-15 season. It’s always interesting to see where the league left off a year ago, as we anticipate news trends for this upcoming season.

Tactically, 2013-14 was officially the “Year of Pep’s 4-1-4-1.” And all the usual 4-2-3-1 rubbish. All else is chaff blown in the wind. At least this thinking might form the popular narrative of our most recent season’s tactical significance. And yes, Pep’s 4-1-4-1 was hot stuff – probably the hottest stuff. But after surveying the lineups used by every club, I can safely conclude that there is more to this tale – this story of the 2013-14 Bundesliga season.

Before jumping into the land of starting XIs, I’m going to recycle my disclaimer about tactical formations from a year ago:

“Writing about tactical formations is tricky. On one hand lies the danger of over-attributing what happens in a match to the formation used. When this issue occurs, observers tend to over-generalize about the tactical events that occur on the pitch; that is, abstractions are formed, which invariably, will depart from the match’s events. A particular way this issue emerges is when a flippant causal connection is drawn between formation and result. On the other hand lies the danger of simply concluding that formations are wholly meaningless beyond giving players somewhere to stand at the opening whistles of the first half, second half, and after goals are scored …. Oh, don’t forget about the descriptive danger, too: one observer’s 4-2-3-1 might be other observer’s 4-1-4-1, depending on when during a match the formation label is slapped down. Besides, “complex team invasion” sports (like fußball) are fluid – duh – and players move around the pitch a lot – duh. Tactical formations shift, then shift back. Again, play is fluid. Besides, discussions about tactical formations need to account for the opposition’s play, game states, etc. Anyhow, you could argue that other tactical elements are worthy of more attention, namely, certain real-living-breathing events that occur within the match. So yeah, tricky.”

Football is fluid and lineups are merely placeholders, almost category-buckets, for the 22 players on the pitch. Individually, players shift around ceaselessly, but they also shift around collectively, oftentimes  into alternative formations, as Lee Scott recently reminded us in his piece on Tuchel’s coaching at Mainz 05.

So why do I bother? Again, here’s what I said last year:

For the sake of moving forward, I’m going to posit this simple idea: within a match, the chosen tactical formation acts like a gravitational force that pulls (disciplined!) players back to their certain designated areas of the pitch – sure, they’ll wander around a bit, but they’ll (time and again) make their way back home, only to wander a bit again, and so forth. (Heatmaps somewhat convey this idea of a formation’s gravitational pull.)

My idea here is that formations act as a gravitational force, pulling players back to focal points upon which to base their next set of pitch actions. After another year of watching football, I would also add the claim that tactical formations are worth paying attention to because they can show us what kinds of players both are needed and are effective within current tactical trends. This claim, in turn, can add some fun intrigue to our pre-season nosiness, as we try to predict how new players will fit into our clubs, what tactical trends our coach will pick up, etc.

With these disclaimers and claims in mind, let’s take a look at the formations Bundesliga clubs used during the 2013-14 season.

The Big Picture

Despite all the deserved fuss over Pep’s 4-1-4-1 formation, Bayern is only one club, which means 17 other clubs might’ve been up to something different, tactically. And for the most part, they were doing doing something different.

Like 2012-13, the 4-2-3-1 formation reigned supreme by a wide margin in the Bundesliga during 2013-14. A distant second was the staid 4-4-2 formation. At third, we find the 4-1-4-1 formation, trumpeted by a few clubs. At fourth, we find the sexy 4-1-2-1-2 “midfield diamond” formation. At fifth, we find the direct 4-3-3 formation. Finally, other oddball formations, like the 5-4-1, were rarely featured. Our most used formations in 2013-14 list looks like this (the % of the whole each formation was used is in parenthesis):

  1. 4-2-3-1 Formation: 290 times (47%).
  2. 4-4-2 Formation: 118 times (19%).
  3. 4-1-4-1 Formation: 74 times (12%).
  4. 4-1-2-1-2 Formation: 55 times (9%).
  5. Other Formations: 27 times (4%).

For the visually-inclined, here’s the same information in a pie chart:

Tactical formations used in the Bundesliga 2013-14
Almost half the pie chart is filled with the still popular 4-2-3-1 formation.

Now let’s see the win / draw / loss records of clubs with these formations. Obviously, a formation used as frequently – and ubiquitously – as the 4-2-3-1 formation features a heavy numbers of losses and draws, so don’t freak out! Here’s the table of what percentage of the time each formation featured a win, a draw, or a loss:

Winning, drawing, losing % of tactical formations used in Bundesliga 2013-14

However, you can’t trust these percentages in a vacuum. That is, don’t simply assume that because the 4-2-3-1 formation had the best winning percentage, it is the superior formation. Consider this: 26% of the time it was used, the 4-2-3-1 formation was used by Bayern (12 times), Dortmund (32 times), and Schalke (32 times) – the Bundesliga’s top three clubs. Mainz 05 and FC Augsburg – both clubs with winning records – also used the 4-2-3-1 in heavy doses. No wonder so many wins were obtained through this formation. Or consider this fact: the 4-4-2 formation was heavily used by clubs in the bottom half of the table, like Braunschweig (14 times), SC Freiburg (25 times), and Hannover 96 (24 times). If it wasn’t for Mönchengladbach playing the 4-4-2 formation 32 times, then that losing percentage looks even worse for this formation. But this doesn’t mean that the 4-4-2 formation is crap.

Another formation that looks rosy in the table above is the 4-1-4-1 formation (thank you, Bayern and FC Augsburg!). Also notice that for all the hoopla and sexiness, the 4-1-2-1-2 with its “midfield diamond” kinda sucked. It certainly doesn’t help that Werder Bremen (15 times) and Eintracht Frankfurt  (14 times) both made habits of the diamond – both clubs in the bottom half of the table, naturally. Mainz 05 (8 times) was only winning club to try the diamond more than a couple times.

Finally, before I jump into specific formations, I’ve got to highlight that for the second season running, Mainz 05 had arguably the greatest variety in formations played: 4-2-3-1 (16 times), 4-1-4-1 (5 times), 4-3-3 (1 time), 4-4-2 (1 time), 4-1-2-1-2 (8 times), and 5-4-1 (3 times). This variety will only add to the legend of now ex-coach Thomas Tuchel’s situational tactics and lineups. However, Robin Dutt’s Werder Bremen gets honorable mention for formation variety, also sampling six different formations.

In contrast, VfL Wolfsburg was the most monochromatic club, playing the 4-2-3-1 formation 97% of the time (or 33 of 34 total matches). Dortmund and Schalke were close behind, playing the 4-2-3-1 formation 94% of the time (or 32 of 34 total matches). The shell-shocked Hamburger SV is the only wretched club from 2013-14 that you will find approaching this level of fidelity to a single formation.

The 4-2-3-1: the tyranny continues

You’ve already seen the “big reveal” that the 4-2-3-1 formation dominated the league for another season running. VfL was the main practitioner (33 times),  closely trailed by Dortmund and Schalke (both 32 times). Three other major practitioners were HSV (28 times), Hoffenheim (25 times), and VfB (21 times). Moreover, clubs like Hertha, FC Augsburg, Mainz 05, and even Bayern rocked the 4-2-3-1 a lot. Yeah, almost everyone did.

My guess is that you’re already pretty familiar with BVB and S04’s starting XIs, so I’ll spare you and instead show you VfL’s 4-2-3-1:

VfL Wolfsburg's 4-2-3-1 formation
VfL used the 4-2-3-1 in 97% of its matches last season. (Courtesy of WhoScored.com)

With Gustavo and Medojevic, VfL had the classic “double pivot” defensive midfielders. Gustavo is the more creative, “play-maker”, of the two, but is also a feared tackler and physical menace in general. Although these double pivots control large swaths of the pitch, the fewer number of men in the defensive midfield provide space for the sensational Ricardo Rodriguez and more staid Christian Träsch to roam far up the flanks (especially Rodriguez). Meanwhile, Ivica Olic was a natural forward atop the formation (as was Robert Lewandowskit for Dortmund in the same position), who received decent service from Vieirinha and Perisic in their wide attacking positions. Finally, the whole formation was anchored by Naldo and Knoche’s ability to play relatively high up the pitch and distribute the ball vertically to the double pivots, Gustavo and Medojevic.

Another interesting example of the 4-2-3-1 formation was  FC Augsburg, otherwise a club known for playing the 4-1-4-1 formation. Last season, FCA moved away somewhat from the 4-1-4-1 by playing the 4-2-3-1 formation 63% of the time. Intriguingly, FCA had a far better winning percentage with their new 4-2-3-1 (53%) versus the 4-1-4-1 (29%). Here’s what their 4-2-3-1 formation looked like:

FC Augsburg's 4-2-3-1 Formation
FC Augsburg transitioned to a 4-2-3-1 formation in 2013-14. (Courtesy of WhoScored.com)

FCA played with this formation more frequently in the second half of the season, as they consolidated their place in the upper half of the table. In this formation, the brilliant Daniel Baier had more support in the midfield, thanks to Kevin Vogt, whose defensive work enabled Baier to move into more prominent attacking positions (Baier was among the league leaders in key passes, final 3rd passing, and other related passing statistics). A less crowded attacking line in the 4-2-3-1 for FCA also meant that Andre Hahn had more space to work with during attacks, a factor that likely contributed to his career-best season.

The 4-4-2: sloppy seconds

Yes, the 4-4-2 formation was the second most used lineup in the Bundesliga during 2013-14. However, the only successful club who used this formation was Gladbach, who played the 4-4-2 formation 94% of the time. The formation suited the pace and directness of Lucien Favre’s personnel very well:

Borussia Moenchengladbach's heavily used 4-4-2 formation in 2013-14
Gladbach’s direct 4-4-2 formation. (Courtesy of WhoScored.com)

Cramer and Xhaka were very effective in the center of the pitch, while the forwards, Raffael and Kruse, re-enforced each other as a duo, arguably the league’s best last season. With this formation, Gladbach had 16 wins, 7 draws, and 9 losses last season. Not bad.

At the other end of the table, Hannover 96 (24 times), SC Freiburg (25 times), Eintracht Braunschweig (14 times) defaulted to the 4-4-2 formation. For seasons how, H96 has been a 4-4-2 club, first as a stark counter-attacking club, but more recently as a possession-oriented side. SCF has been a 4-4-2 stalwart since Streich’s boys entered the Bundesliga seasons ago. The formation’s simplicity seems excellently suited to Streich’s strategy of constantly cycling young players through his squad, as his budding stars (e.g. Max Kruse and Matthias Ginter) are routinely bought off by bigger clubs. In this sense, the 4-4-2 formation is a survival mechanism for the small club, who has routinely punched above its weight in the Bundesliga.

The 4-1-4-1: sleek and Peppy

According to some folks, 2013-14 was the year of Pep and Bayern’s heralded 4-1-4-1 formation, even if the Bavarians “only” used this formation, and fluidly at that, 56% of the time. However, die Roten did lead the Bundesliga in playing the 4-1-4-1 most frequently, especially during the season’s first half when Philipp Lahm was moved from rightback to the lone holding midfielder (i.e. the first “1” in the 4-1-4-1). This move payed off brilliantly both for Lahm and for Bayern. Thiago also  became a valuable player in this set up, playing the defensive midfielder position, but also playing centrally in the attacking bank of four. Nonetheless, besides kickoffs, you’d be hard pressed to find actual moments during a Bayern match when Pep’s boys stood in their 4-1-4-1 positions. But this is kind of the point. The 4-1-4-1 formation allows for flexibility and multiple strategies, as the formation can resemble a 4-2-3-1 at times, or a 4-5-1, depending on the needs of the match. For the sake of historical memorializing, here’s what Bayern’s most frequent used 4-1-4-1 looked like:

Pep Guardiola's 4-1-4-1 formation at Bayern Munich
Bayern and Pep’s flexible 4-1-4-1 formation. Let it be written. Let it be remembered. (Courtesy of WhoScored.com)

As you can see, Bayern didn’t lose a single Bundesliga match with this lineup.

However, I’d be remiss not to mention other clubs who used this formation: poor 1.FC Nürnberg (16 times), FC Augsburg (14 times), Hertha Berlin (10 times), and even Mainz 05 (5 times). Of course, we all know that Nürnberg were relegated last season. Naturally, they were not bailed out by sticking to their trusted 4-1-4-1 formation. This last season, they simply didn’t have a talented (or injury-free!) enough squad to pull it off. As the lone defensive midfielder, Mike Frantz was no Timmy Simons, as this valuable veteran from a season ago was dearly missed. Additionally, Hasebe and Kiyotake seemed to cancel each other out in the central attacking midfield, while the loss of Timm Klose at centerback made Nürnberg particularly vulnerable to attacks up the middle. In all, a disastrous combination of deficiencies for Der Club.

The 4-1-2-1-2: keeping up with the cool kids

As the 2013-14 Bundesliga season moved through its second half and the buzz around Pep’s 4-1-4-1 fizzed out, another tactical trend grabbed attention: the emergence of midfield diamonds, or the emergence of the 4-1-2-1-2 formation. Two clubs sort of took up the banner of this formation, while other experimented with it:  Werder Bremen (15 times), Eintracht Frankfurt (14 times), Mainz 05 (8 times), and Hertha Berlin (4 times). While VfB, 1.FC Nürnberg, and Eintracht Braunschweig all tried the formation out 3 times each; Hoffenheim, SC Freiburg, and HSV also gave it a whack.

Given the general lack of points won during the 2013-14 season (Mainz 05 is strongest club listed in the paragraph above), you’ll not be surprised to recall that this formation had a dismal winning percentage (only 29%, while 44% of the time the formation was featured in a loss).

Other than emerging merely as a trend or fad, I don’t have any other compelling reason to explain the emergence of this formation in the Bundesliga. In the United States, we are familiar with this formation thanks to the USMNT, and it being used prominently by certain MLS sides, like the Seattle Sounders or Real Salt Lake. Perhaps Bundesliga managers in the struggling clubs were looking for something like an inefficiency to exploit personnel-wise? I just don’t know.

Anyhow, here are two examples of the midfield diamond or 4-1-2-1-2 being used last season. When you look at the graphics, focus on the four players clustered together in the midfield. The idea is that you can easily creating effective passing triangles, as well as room for the “1s” in this formation to roam around as destroyers and creators of opportunities. Here’s Thomas Tuchel’s version of the 4-1-2-1-2 at Mainz 05:

Thomas Tuchel's 4-1-2-1-2 formation at Mainz 05
The midfield diamond, according to the gospel of Tuchel. (Courtesy of WhoScored.com)

Visually, you can obviously see just how flexible midfield play can become with the diamond. In general, outside midfielders, like Moritz and Soto, stay on their own sides of the pitch, but have room to influence play significantly within these spheres. Meanwhile, a holding midfielder like Johnannes Geis both breaks up opponent’s attacks and creates his club’s own by winning the ball and dribbling straight up the pitch. Geis was sensational in this role last season.

Our second example of the 4-1-2-1-2 formation comes from Werder Bremen:

Werder Bremen's 4-1-2-1-2 formation during the 2013-14 Bundesliga season
Werder Bremen: the Bundesliga’s midfield diamond torchbearers. (Courtesy of WhoScored.com)

Bremen was the Bundesliga leader with his formation last season. Here, focus on Aaron Hunt, who, as the main outlet for both Elia and Santo, performed finely in the playmaker role for Bremen last season.

The 4-3-3: let’s be direct

Like the 2013-13 season, Bayer Leverkusen was the Bundesliga’s torchbearer for this formation during the 2013-14 season. Die Werkelf played it 28 times. Familiar faces took up familiar roles:

Bayer Leverkusen's 4-3-3 formation during the 2013-14 Bundesliga season
Bayer Leverkusen dances with who ‘dun brought ’em to the party. (Courtesy of WhoScored.com)

Like BVB or SC Freiburg, Leverkusen is a system club, meaning that they stick to their formation and the kinds of players it requires – i.e., quick running in transition, following direct lines of attack, and disciplined tracking back. Perhaps in Leverkusen’s hands, the formation has become too simplistic for them to effectively engage the likes of (a weakened!) Manchester United in the Champions League, but in domestic play, B04 run this thing like a well-oiled machine.

Intriguingly, Bayern, Dortmund, and Schalke all trotted out the 4-3-3 a couple times each, and Hoffenheim tried it out (makes sense) 3 times. However, most clubs in the bottom half of the table didn’t touch it. Perhaps a sign of these sides’ fear of the formation’s requirement of disciplined tracking back on defense?

The Others: what the hell were they thinking?

Now for the fun “other” or grab bag special category – the flotsam and jetsam, the whimsical and experimental – sometimes known as the “what the hell were they thinking?” category. Leading us off is this experiment, courtesy of the fervid mind of Thomas Tuchel and Mainz 05 (Mr. Tuchel, we already miss you!):

Thomas Tuchel and Mainz 05's 5-4-1 formation
Need a sweeper? Tuchel’s got you covered. (Courtesy of WhoScored.com)

General mediocrity ensued for all eleven M05ers the three times Tuchel lost with this clogged pitch oddity. Next, it’s Christmas time in cheery ol’ Hoffenheim:

Hoffenheim's 4-3-2-1 formation during the 2013-14 Bundesliga season
Hoffenheim’s Christmas tree formation, also known as “the arrow of doom pointing at your keeper” formation. (Courtesy of WhoScored.com)

Surely, a promotional formation from the exciting, dashing, swashbuckling boys in bright blue. Howerver, Roberto Firmino looks unhappy. Despite the formation’s foreboding physical shape, Hoffenheim were unsuccessful.

Finally, Hannover 96 decided that Lars Stindl needed some on-the-job training. So the 96ers went with the “job shadowing” approach for the attacker:

Hannover 96's 4-4-1-1 formation during the 2013-14 Bundesliga season
Stindl’s “job shadowing” assignment. Seems like it worked wonders. (Courtesy of WhoScored.com)

Stindl seemed to enjoy his assignment and H96 won both its matches when in this formation. Causation, causation, causation – folks!

Looking Ahead

What’s next? Well, that’s what 2014-15 is for.

Already big questions are swirling: what’s up with Pep’s 3-whatever-whatever formation? A back three in Bayern! Yippy. Or, will Klopp stick to the 4-4-2 that he’s been using in the presason – especially with the absence of Lewandowski, his natural striker? However, don’t expect Kloppo to simply drop the manic pressing. Or, will the midfield diamond stick around for another season? Or, what madness from 2.Liga will Köln and Paderborn import? Questions, folks. Questions.

So keep your eyes open for how they lineup, but also look for trends around the kinds of players you notice each side craving in the transfer market or slotting in during the season. Formations need players, after all.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and sports are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Howler magazine, 11Freunde, America Magazine, The Short Pass, Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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  1. La evolución táctica del fútbol alemán. Desde Ralf Rangnick hasta Marco Rose

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