Tactical Analysis: Schalke 1 – 3 FC Bayern

Schalke 04’s 5-4-1 vs FC Bayern’s 4-2-3-1

Andre Breitenreiter fielded his Schalke side in a 5-4-1 basic shape that would be transformed into something like 3-4-3 during attacking build-up. This was a defensive-minded approach with a deep block and quick counters whenever the opportunity occurred.

Keeper Ralf Fährmann was shielded by a five-men-back shape, consisting of Sascha Riether and Dennis Aogo at right and left back, while Joel Matip, Benedikt Höwedes and Roman Neustädter played as the central defender trio with Matip on the right half-back and Neustädter on the left.

In S04’s middle-line, there were Leroy Sane and Maxmilian Meyer on both flanks, but they made a lot of “inverted movements” (toward the middle) to attacked or defended more centrally. Finally, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar lined up as Schalke’s lone striker.

Now for Bayern’s line up. This season, Pep has lined-up with double-pivot shape more often than not. This match was no different. In the second-half, he put Xabi Alonso and Arturo Vidal as the double pivot, occupying the six, which tactically contributed to Javi’s goal. With the Chilean was more vertical than Xabi.

For his back line, Pep played a back four of Philip Lahm and David Alaba on the wings and Mehdi Benatia and Javi Martinez as the centrral defenders. Thomas Müller, Arjen Robben, and Douglas Costa filled the attacking midfielder roles without any fixed positioning, as they swapped areas a lot. These attacking midfielders supported the unorthodox 9, Robert Lewandowski.

Schalke’s shape allows for overloading

Lining up in a 5-4-1 basic shape enabled Schalke to maintain their structure despite using a man-oriented approach, defensively. The marking assignments were standard. For example, S04’s wide midfielder (either Sane or Meyer) marked the opposite full back (Lahm or Alaba) and S04’s fullbacks (Riether and Aogo) marked Bayern’s wide midfielders (e.g. Müller or Robben). Meanwhile, S04’s more central players (Goretzka and Højberg) marked Bayern’s central players (Costa and Javi).

Schalke’s initial defensive scheme.

Additionally, Schalke’s central defender trio man-marked any Bayern central presence (mostly the 10 and 9).

Crucially, S04’s wide midfielders kept their positioning narrow, securing the “half-space,” forcing Bayern to play wide. The twin 6s, Goretzka and Højbjerg, opposed Bayern’s double pivot or any central presence (the inverted winger or the dropping-deep 9). Even Huntelaar, the 9, adapted his orientation depending on who came into his territory, mostly Xabi or any Bayern’s center-half. For example, Huntelaar would try to block the passing lane (put the opponent behind his cover-shadow).

During their first wave of pressing, rather than pressing high-up the pitch, Schalke opted to press with a middle-block, waiting for Bayern to come close. If Bayern managed to beat it (as they did over and over), then Schalke would fall back and “park the bus” in a very deep-block.

Breitenreiter decision to opt for a 5-4-1 as the basic defensive shape worked, because it enabled Schalke to create a compact defensive shape, as well as creating valuable overloading, both on wide and central areas for his side. The key to this effect was the “3-chain” of central defenders:

Illustrative graphic of Schalke flexible 5-4-1 and possible adjustment on right shifting.
A graphic illustrating Schalke’s flexible 5-4-1 shape and possible adjustments on shifting right.

In this example, Schalke adapted their shape by shifting to the right, creating a 5v4 numerical advantage with Höwedes or Højbjerg as the spare-man). If Hojbjerg decided to move to the ball-side half-space, then Meyer covered the Dane’s vacant space, ensuring that the far ball-side area remains stable with Höwedes staying back. On the other, if Matip decided to help out Riether or Sane and create numerical superiority, then Höwedes covered his man, in this case, Müller. Furthermore, in this situation, Neustadter might move centrally, let Aogo man mark Lewandowski with Meyer dropping deep to keep an eye on Robben. By playing with three central defenders, Schalke were able to remain stable, defensively.

A similar approach was used when Schalke defended on the opposite flank, as in this example from the 6th minute:

Schalke defending the right flank.
Schalke defending the right flank.

When Bayern played the ball to the half-space to Xabi, Vidal pushed forward, occupying the 10 space. Matip moved up becoming a defensive-midfielder to deal with Vidal, allowing Goretzka and Hojbjerg to defend centrally. In another situation, when Xabi played it to Alaba, Vidal dropped slightly deeper to Schalke’s middle-third, letting Costa and Alaba get into the 18 yard box. This shift led Vidal to be marked by Goretzka and Riether, while Sane tracked back to cover Alaba and Costa. Such coordinated movement gave Matip a better chance to cover for the Sane-Rieteher partnership while also creating a 3v2 advantage for Schalke over Alaba and Costa. The numerical advantage helped Schalke repeatedly stop Bayern’s attack, as you can see in the video below:

Another effective element of Schalke’s defensive scheme was their ability to defend centrally without leaving the (far ball-side) flank left vulnerable. Again, the “3 chain” of central defender made this possible when combined with a deep defensive block of midfielders.

Graphic 4. Schalke shifting structure. 7v6 situation, in the favor to Schalke, on the right flank. An open chance for Xabi to switch the ball to the far ball-side flank. But the positioning of Aogo had stopped Xabi from doing so.
Schalke’s shifting structure. Here we see a 7-vs-6 situation favoring Schalke on the right flank. Xabi has the chance to switch the ball to the far ball-side flank, but the positioning of Aogo prevented this action.

In the example from the graphic above, Höwedes was forced to press Alaba. But because Schalke was playing with three central defenders, two defenders were left to cover the central area. So Bayern played the ball back, since there wasn’t enough space to get into the box. However, since Schalke’s right flank seemed exposed, it appeared there was a good chance for Xabi to switch the ball to Robben, putting the Dutchman in a qualitatively superiority against Aogo. But Aogo positioned himself properly, preventing the potential switch-play. This simple adjustment was invaluable, especially given Robben’s well-known lethal ability to beat opponents in one-on-one situations.

Robben positioned himself much wider to the touchline to receive a diagonal ball from Xabi and Lahm took a more advanced positioning closer to Meyer; Xabi might have made the flank-switch here by playing it diagonally to Robben, putting Aogo in a one-on-one situation against the Dutchman.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out the capabilities of Schalke’s “3 chain” to successfully defend their intermediate-defense. In the frst-half, Vidal, Alaba, Robben, or Müller often occupied the between-the-line-area (between the center circle and S04’s 18 yard box), as they expected to facilitate play between the deep development and Bayern’s advanced players.

However, Schalke responded effectively with their solid back three. On some occasions, if necessary, one central defender, particularly Benedikt Höwedes, moved up to deal with any Bayern 10. This action, in turn, not only stunted Bayern’s progress, but also gave Schalke better timing to generate a central pressing trap, which would be better executed if the central defender got the better timing to move up to the area:

Schalke central trap as Howedes had enough and proper time to press Vidal. When Benetia played it to Vidal, the Chilean was “back-to-the-opponent’s-goal”.
Schalke central trap as Howedes enough time to press Vidal. When Benetia played it to Vidal, the Chilean had his “back-to-the-opponent’s-goal”.

However, the downside of Schalke deep block was clear: an extremely deep block will always open opportunities for the opponent to gain pressing access (when they turnover the ball) in deep and critical area of the defending team:

Graphic 5. Bayern gegenpressed Schalke in a high block press. For better view, you’re welcome to see the video here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=atVhAS8zcnQ)
Bayern “gegenpressed” Schalke in a high block press.

You can see this moment unfold in the following video:

Pep’s second-half tactical adjustments

In the first-half, Vidal was playing more vertically compared to Xabi. We can see him occupying the 10 or even the 9 space, as Bayern forced Schalke to sit even deeper. It was not an effective approach, because Vidal offered no impetus to the Bayern attack. On a sidenote, this lack illustrates how Bayern miss the creativity of Thiago Alcantara.

After the break, Pep adjusted. Of course.

He adapted to Schalke defensive play by varying Bayern’s attack and execution. He even tried to move his central defenders into the attack. For example, Mehdi Benatia or Javi Martinez often moved forward, like a libero, carrying the ball forward into the attacking third trying to confuse Schalke’s defense. On the other hand, such adjustments impacted Bayern’s defensive area.

As Pep needed his central defenders to move forward, he also needed to make sure that the back line was not left open, allowing huge vulnerable space for Schalke to exploit. Xabi and particularly Vidal were often found staying behind to allow either Javi or Benatia to push further forward.

In this phase of play, Bayern shape was transformed into three men behind, one player as the 6, three on the second line, two players on wide area, and two players in the central area;something 2-1-3-4 alike.

Bayern structure when Javi pushed forward. If you take notice on Vidal’s gesture, it was him reminding Xabi to also cover the right hand-side of deepest layer of Bayern structural block.
Bayern’s structure when Javi pushed forward. Vidal is gesturing to Xabi, reminding him to also cover the right hand-side of deepest layer of Bayern structural block.

Pushing Javi forward for attacking execution was an effective tactic, since Bayern needed to vary their attack, particularly their execution, as Javi Martinez’s aerial ability made this worth trying. It would be a hard task to “let” Lewandowski alone against Schalke defenders’ aerial ability. By instructing Javi (or Benatia) Pep was running on the right track. Whether Javi could finally score or not, it would be another thing, the important point was whether the tactician had been trying to take the right approach or not.


Bayern won the match, but not impressively; both Breitenreiter and Pep deserve credit. It was a resilient and good effort of defensive play by Schalke. The back 5-shape kept Schalke compact through the match, particularly prior to Bayern’s second goal.

Pep also deserves applause for his adjustment, once again. His tactical adjustment is another proof that football, formation, position, and role have became more more universal. Specifically, this is not the era of labeling formations, positions, or roles.

Rather, it is now the era of the “false.” One or two years ago it might be ridiculous to say false 10, false 8, false 6, or whatever false they are. But now, in the era of Pep, everything is “false.” A fullback is also a 10, a 6 is also A 3 or 4 or even a 9. A central defender, the way Javi and Benatia played, is also a attacking midfielder and forward. They are now changing depending on the phase of play and the process of play.

Bayern won it and they are now 8 points clear at the top of the Bundesliga 2015-16 table. With respect to all clubs, it will be a very hard task to gun Bayern down from the title. So it’s now up to Pep and his boys. It’s about how they can maintain their form, as There’re gonna be be Bundesliga, Pokal, and Champions League to beat.

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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.

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