Tactical Analysis – Heynckes’ 4-2-3-1 against Freiburg

Heynckes’ 4-2-3-1 Against Freiburg

Jupp Heynckes made his 2017\18 Bundesliga ‘debut’ on the weekend as the new\old Bayern coach. The Bavarians hosted  Freiburg and earned the maximum three points with a 5-0 win. Let’s take a look at the tactics:

Bayern’s 4-2-3-1

First half formation









Heynckes was known to succeed with his 4-2-3-1 when he brought Bayern the treble in 2013. There was an impressive,  dynamic-duo in central midfield – Javi Martinez and Bastian Schweinsteiger were the two pressing machines –  that saw them dismantle Barcelona with a 7-0 aggregate win.

Against Freiburg, Heynckes fielded the basic shape of 4-2-3-1. Basti is of course no longer there and has been replaced by Javi’s compatriot, and former (and current target) Barca  Thiago Alcantara. It was a similar set up of double pivot as Javi was deeper than Thiago and protected the space in front of the central defenders (Boateng and Hummels). At times, these three formed a diamond along with goalkeeper Sven Ulreich, at other moments Javi dropped to the first line creating a 3v2 situation against Freiburg’s first line. Thiago was not only positioned higher than Javi but with his capability and his role as ‘left pivot’, as expected,  Bayern put an emphasis on ‘play making’ through the left side more often than the right one.

In the early stage of the match, there was a clear assignment of Bayern’s positional structure. On the left side, David Alaba joined Kingsley Coman and Robert Lewandowski to overload the half-space and wing. On the opposite field, there were Joshua Kimmich, Arjen Robben, and Thomas Muller. Two triangles on both sides of the field, classic positional play. At times, in build up, Thiago occupied the middle third and acted as the connector to the more advanced areas. He took the intermediate space behind Freiburg’s midfield and manipulated the press by playing a quick one touch pass to the wide players (Alaba, Kimmich, Coman, etc). You can see Thiago’s impact and his favorite targets:

In final third attack, both the Coman-Alaba and the Robben-Kimmich duo tried to open space by generating the double movement which saw them swapping positions between the near flank and half-space. On the right side, Müller also moved wide to the flank to create space for Robben to run inside (a Bayern staple over the years). To force the inattentional-blindness to the opponent’s back line, from the wide area, the ball would be played laterally to the center to Lewandowski followed by a pass into the box to access the 3rd man (Robben). Lewandowski himself, on the left side, seemed to orientate more to the left space, but the difference with Müller was the Polish striker was not as wide as Müller, as he drifted to the center and the half-space.

Thomas Müller

Despite not his best display, the presence of Müller was unique as he was tasked a hybrid role. As the nominal 10, Müller also acted as (the secondary) 8, particularly on the right half space. He dropped deeper to cover that ground because: (1) Javi occupied the deep space around the 6, so someone needed to cover the space at the right 8 and (2) Freiburg pressed with 5-3-2 which one of the weakness was the less presence on the area beside of both wide-central midfielders. For a midfield trio in a 5-3-2 it has been well-known to be difficult to constantly cover the midfield line. This was evident given that the wide area was almost always only covered by one player. This, in turn, enabled Bayern to utilize the exterior as the outlet. Müller, Thiago, and both full backs alternately occupied such a space.

Regarding Müller’s role, there was something else to that is worth talking about. His dropping movement, on one side managed to generate positive effects, as it always attracted the press from the opponent’s midfielder. Müller of course has excellent positioning. His spatial awareness has been widely known to be among the best. But, on the other hand, Müller’s profile was never a “build-up player”. He is not who can hold the ball to bring others into play. Against Freiburg, there was an example where this weakness was exposed when Müller’s lame pass was intercepted and almost cost Bayern in the first half.

Bayern’s ball circulation

The presence of the triangles on each wide areas was crucial. One of the situations when the triangle provided its best effect was when Bayern switched from the left side to the right one and Kimmich – the right fullback – stayed in the middle third as Robben and Müller occupied the more advanced area.

Kimmich’s deep-positioning was tactically important because it generated a spatio-temporal advantage for his next progression, as well as created  as sort of decision crisis on Freiburg’s press.  The latter benefited Robben and Müller because it would provide more time for Robben-Müller to generate dynamic movements. How? By staying deeper, Kimmich had gained more space to receive the pass from the left. When he moved to the higher area, the opponent’s middle line, which initially had to shift horizontally as well as to keep the spatial compactness, would have to decide to  either directly press Kimmich or keep the positioning to maintain the compactness. When Freiburg middle line stepped up to block the lane, Kimmich passed it forward to Robben-Müller, the duo would have had enough time and space for them to move dynamically (wide move and cut inside combination) thus easing it for them to manipulate the defense.

Such a situation would have not been generated if, for example, Kimmich received Thiago’s pass in the higher area, in the final third.Why? Because, by doing so, the triangle would have made it easier for Freiburg’s defense to access it and at once trap it.

Here, Bayern failed to score, but the dynamic of the right triangle obviously managed to ruin Freiburg oscillation which enabled Robben to switch again and playing it to Alaba on the left-wing.

Another good example of Bayern dynamic was the process of the 1st goal. Müller roamed from the center to the right then shifted far to the left. The dynamic between Alaba-Coman had created space for Alaba to rush forward and released a cut back to Müller and ended up with the 1st goal.

Bayern’s press

To be fair, Bayern’s press was not that perfect. Not the level of intensity of Juventus’ press in their 3-0 win over Barcelona, for a comparison. It was more to the difference of quality between Bayern and Freiburg.

Bayern pressed with a (very) high block. They pressed high into the upper final third. The central orientation was obvious. Sometimes, all the 5 upfront players (minus Javi) moved very narrow into the central corridor and left Freiburg’s full back to be dealt with by Bayern’s full back.

In fact, there is statistical evidence for this high line per Instat:

Look how close Bayern they are to their opponent’s goal (64.8meters) on average, nearly 10 yards closer than vs Hertha and 7 closer than their season average of 71m.

The trap was simple, as the goalie played the ball to the near central defender, Bayern’s player from the first line gradually got closer to the receiver and forced him to play wide. When the ball was played to the full back, the said forward would keep the distance between the previous central defender and the receiving full back, waiting for the full back to play a backward pass. In this situation, the other forward who occupied the center, did not exclusively orient himself to the opponent’s goal keeper. Instead he stayed at Freiburg’s 6 space. At the #8 line,  theBayern players maintained the compactness while trying to contain the potential/obvious options. That meant that they were more man-oriented on the ball side and the hybrid of space-oriented and man-oriented press on the far side.

One of the most striking defensive performances was that of Thiago. He was a pressing machine throughout the match. In the first half, there were 2 or 3 scenes when Thiago’s anticipation and movement right after the loss directly made or helped ball recovery. His positioning provided clear ball reference and his aggressiveness means he can move very quickly which is paramount for immediately regaining the ball.

Minor note

Spatial awareness. After a wide pass to the full back – Kimmich, for instance – by Bayern’s central defender – Jerome Boateng, for example -, Freiburg would shift and block the vertical and diagonal access from wide. In such situations, it was often identified there were not enough secure diagonal/vertical lanes to play in. Thus, the central midfielder adjusted the position by slightly stepping up to drag his nearest marker away and opened the lateral lane from Kimmich to Mats Hummels, the central defender on the far side. Unfortunately, this was not followed by the awareness of Kimmich as the German full back played it back instead of switching it to the far side. Minor one but an improvement of this area will surely provide quicker advantages to Bayern’s offense.

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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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