Tactical Analysis of Favre’s Flexible 4-4-2 System against Leverkusen

Around 3-4 years ago, the 4-4-2 system was considered extinct, because of the ease by which this system could be dominated by a system comprising 3 central midfielders (e.g. Mourinho’s 3 midfielder system as a prominent example). However, in last couple seasons, the 4-4-2 formation has had a bit of a renaissance with teams such as Simeone’s Atlético and Schmidt’s Salzburg and Bayer Leverkusen (B04) deploying this formation. Since the 4-4-2 formation heavily emphasizes horizontal compaction, the midfield players rarely lose their battles, while the 4-4-2’s narrow shape means that the midfield can be supported by the attacking line, wide players, and full backs.

Lucien Favre’s Borussia Mönchengladbach (BMG) is also one of the sides newly deploying the 4-4-2 shape. And for Favre’s Foals, the results have been immensely successful.

Although a fielding 4-4-2 on paper, Gladbach’s shape frequently resembles a 4-2-3-1/4-5-1 as Raffael drops back into the midfield, forming a effective midfield barrier in Favre’s defensive scheme. The Foals’ wingers – Patrick Herrmann and Fabian Johnson – defend narrowly (covering the half spaces), taking on the opposition’s wide players trying to break through wide areas, and, if needed Gladbach’s wingers can support the defensive midfield double pivot of Christoph Kramer and Granit Xhaka.

Withdrawn striker (Kruse and Raffael) in Gladbach's flexible 4-4-2 system under Lucien Favre.
A withdrawn striker shape (Kruse and Raffael) in Gladbach’s flexible 4-4-2 system under Lucien Favre during matchday 32’s home win against Leverkusen.


Another interesting facet of Favre’s 4-4-2/4-5-1 hybrid system is Gladbach’s ability to transform their basic shape into something like a strikerless formation. In short, Favre’s side are flexible in a very structured system.

Gladbach’s Build-Up Phase : Two #6’s Supporting Deep Deployment

Against Leverkusen, Favre opted for his side to build play from the back. In this early phase of attack, the two central defenders (CDs)- Tony Jantschke and Roel Brouwers – held their position as the back line, but shifted wide to cover the width of the field across the back line:

Against Leverkusen, Gladbach's attack began with deep deployment from the very back.
Against Leverkusen, Gladbach’s attack began with deep deployment from the very back.

The CDs shifted this way, because one of Gladbach’s Number 6 (e.g. Kramer) dropped back to create a defensive 3-on-2 overload against Leverkusen’s Hakan Calhanoglu and Stefan Kießling, who were pressing forward into the Foal’s back line.

In general, BMG’s deep deployment consists of three lines in the basic shape of 3-3-4:

  • Line 1 = two CDs + one Number Six (either Kramer or Xhaka) form the first 3.
  • Line 2 = one Number Six (either Kramer or Xhaka) + two pushed-forward full backs (Oscar Wendt and Julian Korb) for the second three.
  • Line 3 = two advanced wingers (Johnson and Herrmann) + the striker duo (Kruse and Raffael) form the last 4.

By developing the play out of the back in this three men-wide shape, Gladbach covered the pitch’s width better and initially made it more difficult to be pressed against, since Leverkusen must commit to more running into space, but couldn’t concentrate on a specific space. However, Gladbach’s set up also had downsides in that there can sometimes be too much distance between the back three for safely circulating the ball between them. Until BMG implemented this strategy, Leverkusen pressed the Foals well, managing to force frequent passes back to keeper Yan Sommer.

In response to Leverkusen’s high pressing – a Roger Schmidt trademark – Gladbach used the other number six, usually Kramer, who dropped slightly deeper supporting this deep deployment phase of the attack. As Kramer dropped slightly deeper, he created additional passing lanes near the ball carrier, which enabled Gladbach to move the ball up the pitch and continue their play into more advance areas.

In this phase, we can clearly see the duties of Favre’s Number Sixes, who (1) dropped back into the same line with the CDs (e.g. Xhaka) to overload this area an ensure they had enough bodies to deal with Leverkusen initial press; and who (2) were the pivots enabling transitional play (e.g. Kramer), who has skillful off-the-ball movement to find space and provide a new passing lanes for the back line.

On many instances of build up play, Gladbach number sixes performed the transitional role very well. Xhaka and Kramer enabled BMG to escape trouble or switch play from one area to other area. For example, you can see this effect at 23′ when Xhaka received the ball in the middle third of BMG’s left half of space. Suddenly, Xhaka made a good long diagonal ball (to the right touchline) finding Patrik Herrmann. Xhaka’s good passing vision enabled Herrmann and Korb to create an attacking combination through the wide area.

Gladbach’s Attacking Phase: Direct and Blunt

Against B04, Gladbach played very directly in attack. When the Foals found their way through Leverkusen’s initial press, the number six (Xhaka or Kramer) who, initially dropped back to the back line, returned to his midfield position. Next, Gladbach’s two wingers (Johnson and Herrmann) moved further forward, maintaining a four men forward shape:

Attacking shape 2-4-4. The two cubes area shows the initial combination of each Gladbach side. When the attack begun from the left side, it would be Xhaka, Wendt, Johnson, and Raffael/Kruse to create the play. But, it was not a fixed rule. The shape was developed according to the match circumstances. When the ball was played into the box, normally, Max Kruse and Raffael + one of Herrmann or Johnson would get into the penalty area. But it didn’e close the possibility fot the other players to join the attack (and got into the box).
Gladbach’s 2-4-4 shape in attack. The two cubed areas mark the Foals’ two attacking units. For example, when the attack begins from Gladbach’s left side, Xhaka, Wendt, Johnson, and Raffael/Kruse create play. However, this unit is not fixed; instead the shape developed according to match circumstances. For instance, when the ball was played into the box, normally, Max Kruse and Raffael + either Herrmann or Johnson all enter Leverkusen’s penalty area. Yet this development didn’t foreclose the possibility of other attackers joining in.

Gladbach’s 2nd and 3rd goals – triggered by longball passing plays – were perfect examples of the effectiveness of Lucien Favre’s direct strategy. The 2nd goal began with a quick long ball from Xhaka to Herrmann (on the right side). In seconds, Herrmann delivered a low cross which found Kruse on the far post. The 3rd goal began with a long ball by Yann Sommer (to the right side of Leverkusen defence) to Kramer, who flicked the ball onto Kruse, who drove it horizontally to Johnson, who finally played it to Traore. (Did you keep track of all that?!) These two goals demonstrate how effectively Favre sets up his players to maximize their speed.

Vertical play in its finest form.

One key element of Gladbach’s direct attacking play is Sommer, the keeper. His role in ball distribution is obvious. In the example above of BMG’s 3rd goal, Sommers’ long ball to Kramer illustrates his role as a key distributor. Because of time and space I will spare you the details, but you can observe many other key examples of Sommer distributing the ball. Thanks to Sommer’s skill set, Gladbach basically have an extra man in the back, who helps them find a way through the opponent’s defense along with the back chain of defenders.

Gladbach’s Defensive Shape: the Low Block and the Pressing Trap

Heat map Gladbach vs Leverkusen. A simple way to see that Favre’s Gladbach preferred to play in low block system
The aggregate heatmap of Gladbach vs Leverkusen. On the left, you can see how Favre’s has his defenders playing in a low block system.

When Leverkusen was in possession and trying to build play from their own goal, Favre instructed his two forwards (Kruse and Raffael) to move forward and pressure Leverkusen’s two central defenders, who then made mistakes or were forced into long ball passing.

The basic shape of Gladbach's low block system.
The basic shape of Gladbach’s low block system.

In the image above, you can see how Max Kruse and Raffael stay high up the pitch to prevent Leverkusen’s defenders from receiving the ball. Kruse and Raffael kept their distance until the ball been played to the Leverkusen defenders and then pressed them immediately.

Above, the dotted red lines coming from Leverkusen’s central midfielder (CM) and the dotted green line for Xhaka indicate possible changes of Gladbach’s shape. Aside from Xhaka, the four Gladbach midfielders remained on their respective lines and pressed Leverkusen’s middle line. If one of B04’s CMs moved higher or dropped back (i.e. both dotted red lines), Xhaka would follow him, especially when the CM moved higher and tried to create 5-on-4 situation in the midfield.

Gladbach’s shape clearly shows that Favre primarily cares about defensive safety. Xhaka and Kramer man-mark to ensure that the B04’s central defenders can’t make direct vertical passes to beat the press, potentially exploiting Kruse and Raffael’s high position. In turn, Xhaka and Kramer can create central pressing traps by just stepping off their men slightly – e.g. charging the ball-carrier as soon as the ball is played to one of the Leverkusen CMs. Xhaka, in particularly, is a very effective presser and great in 1-on-1 situations, so this strategy plays directly into his ability to create winnable 1-on-1 situations in the midfield.

Gladbach’s fullbacks (Wendt and Korb) are both strong defensively. In Favre’s defensive system, they are not asked to follow the opposition wingers very closely, sometimes even dropping deep back into their defensive territory. However, neither Korb nor Wendt were ever caught out directly, given how well-positioned they were. This structured movement helped ensure that Gladbach’s defense remained compact horizontally and vertically, so that Leverkusen might find it hard to play between the lines.

Because the central area – and the vertical gap between the middle and back line – were well-covered, Leverkusen were forced to play the ball out wide, triggering Gladbach’s pressing trap.

Gladbach tried to overload the touchlines by constantly having 5 men patrol this area, helping the Foals keep numerical superiority, which made their press to regain possession more effective. In this phase of Gladbach’s pressing, one of the strikers (usually Raffael) approached this area and helped finalize the compact pressing shape:

Gladbach's touchline pressing against Leverkusen.
Two instances of Gladbach’s touchline pressing against Leverkusen.

One of the most important aspect of Gladbach’s excellent ability to cover large amounts of space on the pitch is the positioning of their wingers, Johnson and Herrmann, who usually cover “half space.” As the result, they can press the central midfield, while still being properly positioned to cover the flanks and help the fullbacks in pressing the opponent’s wide players.

In these situations, the central midfielders – Xhaka and Kramer – staggered atop each other with the former playing a deeper role (covering the central area of defence), while the latter played a more aggressive role in pressing the opposition number 6 or number 8, then ran forward to support the attack.

During periods when Leverkusen circulated the ball in non-wide areas, Gladbach’s strikers (Kruse and Raffael) would simply block possible pass attempts, while waiting for Leverkusen’s middle line to make mistakes, allowing the Foals’ striking duo to hit B04 on the break.

Gladback's pressing trap in the form of a structured shape.
Gladback’s pressing trap in the form of a structured shape.

In this example, you can see an example of BMG using their pressing shape from a structured shape. Johnson’s counter-pressing manages to steal the ball from Leverkusen’s midfielder, which sparks the opportunity for a quick transition into attack. Because Leverkusen’s middle line is still caught in the pressing trap, Gladbach’s strikers found the most vulnerable open space in Leverkusen’s defense and were only marked by B04’s CDs.

How did this happen? Let’s break it down into steps:

1) Tin Jedvad passes the ball to Brandt; however, the excellent positioning and anticipation of Johnson enable the Foal to intercept the pass.

2) As Johnson wins the ball off Brandt and moves into Gladbach territory, Jedvad approaches him to stop the counter-attack. Johnson spots Raffael, who’s making a horizontal movement into the “half spsace” toward BMG’s left touchline.

3) Johnson passes the ball to Raffael.

4) Raffael moves into open attacking ground, guaranteeing that BMG’s counter-attack will produce a “Clear Cut Chance” (CCC).

5) Kruse receives Raffael’s pass and take an on-target shot at the goal.

Gladbahc’s ability to play the touchline pressing trap extends to other areas on the pitch as well. For example, by playing narrowly against Leverkusen, Gladbach always almost had good opportunities to pull off the trap.

In the next two examples (see the images below) Gladbach set pressing traps on both touchline and in the number six area.

Example 1:

By playing narrowly, Gladbach always almost had very good opportunity to have multi-setting of play. Here in this shape below, Gladbach had the chance setting pressing traps, both touchline and number 6 area.
Gladbhach’s pressing trap on a touchline area. As Gladbach focus on the central area and block off any pass into that area (Zone 5), B04’s Bender (the one with ball) picked up the pass on the touchline. However, BMG excellently pressed that area, creating a 5-on-3 pressing situation.

Example 2:

Gladbach's pressing trap in the center of the pitch.
Gladbach’s pressing trap in the center of the pitch.

In this example of Gladbach’s pressing trap in the midfield, Lars Bender (Leverkusen’s ball carrier) must avoid feeding the ball to Kießling’s feet, since the tall striker would not have enough support to escape the five (!) Gladbach defenders who would easily trap him.

Gladbach’s “Power-Saving” Energy System

If we compare Favre’s system at BMG with Schmidt’s own high-voltage pressing system at Leverkusen, it is clear that Favre’s system more efficiently saves energy in the running and work required from his players. Favre’s system doesn’t demand the same physcial intensity across the pitch for a full 90 minutes as Schmidt’s system.

This energy-saving element is a benefit to employing the low block and narrow-width system that Favre uses at Gladbach. The advantages are multiple: the system allows your players to save energy, soak up pressure, and obstruct vulnerable spaces than a high-block high-intensity pressing play does.

Key players

For Favre’s system, Christoph Kramer and Granit Xhaka are crucial elements. This duo are responsible for ensuring that “safety comes first” to “Zone 5” on the pitch. Additionally, when Gladbach press the touchlines, this duo is supporting/cover for the main presser (fullback and winger). Kramer and Xhaka also catalyze the actions of both the attacking line (strikers and the wingers) ahead and the defensive line behind. With the quality this duo provides throughout the entire match, Gladbach have a greater chance to keep their play fluid for 90 minutes of play.

Aside from Xhaka and Kramer, Patrick Herrmann is another crucial element in Favre’s system. Herrmann is the speed demon and chief weapon in Gladbach pacy wide attack. Moreover, Herrmann possesses dribbling skills necessary to keep deadly counter attack alive. With all of this ability, Herrmann is a perfect player for the vertical play of Lucien Favre’s Foals.

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Ryan Tank is crazy about football tactics and crazy insightful when writing about them. Check out Ryan's site, ryantank100.wordpress.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ryantank100.

1 Comment

  1. Ryan, could you tell me the match time of the two described pressing traps? I would really like to re-watch them after reading your analysis.

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