Tactical problems and solutions on MD14: Bayern need a halftime switch to overcome Mainz's diamond

Hi there! First, I want to say sorry for the hiatus, but life and some new work prospects/projects (will be revealed in due course) have gotten in the way of this newsletter, which as a result is now likely to be free and perhaps less frequent in the immediate future. I still watch just as much Bundesliga as ever (well it’s kind of my job for TV), but don’t always get around to writing about it. It also doesn’t help that with the compressed season, there are so many matches that I don’t always have the additional hours required to rewatch\write, and my own standards don’t really allow me to release things that I deem as not quite good enough.

Now that we got that out of the way, I’d like to write a little about MD14 from the perspective that I try to watch\understand football. Although I don’t disregard the physical, motivational, emotional, randomness, etc elements of football, my POV has been heavily influenced by an analytical/tactical way of looking at the game.

Tactics, as Rene Maric puts it:

“For me, it's definitely not a specific match plan with pre-determined sequences, situations, or moves. In my mind, tactics describe the sum of a team's decisions about how they're going to solve a particular situation. Tactics is, for instance, a player recognising where and how he is being closed down but still managing to still see an available teammate. And also how that teammate has positioned himself in such a way to remain available, and then to receive a pass in the right place at the right moment. Ultimately, it's a very simple process: on the pitch, you're either protecting the ball, demanding the ball, or creating space. There is nothing else. Tactics is the mutual resolving of a situation through these actions by means of predefined playing philosophies, which correspond with the players' abilities and their understanding of the game.”

So it is with that perspective that I’m going to discuss MD 14 of the Bundesliga, where there’s been a slew of interesting tactical encounters, starting with table-topping Bayern, who have been experimenting with a novel idea of going behind in every match for 8 in a row.

Mainz’s merry-go around and Heidel+Schmidt finally get their man, but only before “sacrificing” Jan Siewert

Their opponents were Mainz 05, who are undergoing a terrible season and since the time of the match have now announced their fourth head coach of the season. Bo Svensson is a familiar name to Bundesliga followers, as the Dane played 7 seasons for FSV, with one as a center back partner of Neven Subotic in Jürgen Klopp’s last Mainz campaign before joining BVB. The 41-year-old also played 100 Bundesliga matches under Thomas Tuchel, “without whom I would have never become a coach” he says in a 2018 interview. Upon his retirement in 2014 he would go on to join the staff of Martin Schmidt, before coaching the U17s and U19s very successfully (2nd place with the U19s in 2018\19), and then going off to lead RB Salzburg feeder club FC Liefering to a 3rd place finish last season before leaving them in 2nd place (currently) in Austria’s second division. His connections to long-time Mainz architect Christian Heidel -calling him a sporting director would do disservice to the word, for the former car salesman really did everything at the Karnevalsverein for the better part of two decades - are obvious. Heidel who returned less than a week ago and appointed Martin Schmidt as the sporting director, which meant the end of Rouven Schröder’s reign (the two were always unlikely to work together). Schröder, who had succeeded Heidel after his ill-fated departure to Schalke in 2016 was let go, despite the board granting him a contract extension until 2024 in February. The 45-year-old former pro has taken a rather unique career path: after his retirement in 2010, he became an assistant at Bochum’s second team, before becoming the video analyst of Dieter Hecking at Nürnberg alongside some scouting duties. (From a person familiar with the situation, such a dual job title was not uncommon at many yo-yo clubs or in the 2.Bundesliga at the time). At Fürth Schröder became director of football and worked with Achim Beierlorzer, then the U17 coach, closely enough to immediately appoint him as Sandro Schwarz’s successor, despite Beierlorzer getting fired by Cologne after just 10 points in 13 matches last November, including an embarrassing 3-2 loss in the Pokal to eventual semi-finalist 1.FC Saarbrücken, who then were playing in the FOURTH DIVISION! Although Beierlorzer did have some nice wins - the 5-1 against Hoffenheim in one of his first games and the two-goal win against Dortmund on MD33 of last season - and kept Mainz in the league, he was not really popular with the players. The COVID pandemic also took away Mainz’s business model of finding gems in the surrounding leagues (France) and selling them for profit after 1-2 successful seasons, but also neither he nor Schröder came out looking like roses in the Ádám Szalai scandal about reduced wages. Sending the popular Hungarian - also one of the team captains and a beloved player thanks to his stint with Tuchel’s Bruchweg Boys in 2009\10 - to the second team and not allowing him to train led to a player’s strike. When Mainz got crushed by Leipzig and Stuttgart in the first 2 rounds it was time for Beierlorzer to go, but eventually as Mainz’s season continued to unravel Schröder ultimately took the fall. Once Heidel and co returned, the departure of Jan-Moritz Lichte, was a formality and former BVB II (two 4th place finishes despite at least half a season of Amos Pieper and Cebio Soukou of Arminia Bielefeld alongside Erik Durm and Alexander Isak) and Huddersfield Town coach (6 points in 19 matches) Jan Siewert was understood to have only been given the Bayern match before returning to the U19s and head of academy position. Let’s see what the “Klopp protege”, who only met his mentor when he coached against him, losing 5-0 in April of 2019, would come up with against Bayern.

Mainz surprise Bayern with the diamond, Flick adjusts with Kimmich and Süle

Mainz opted for a 4 diamond 2, which was a formation that Sandro Schwarz used to employ a lot with some success, but Beierlorzer and Lichte used 4-2-2-2\4231 with occasional 343s. The benefits of the formation are explained by the wonderful Eric Laurie here:

with the idea presumably to deny the center by rotating a lot, while launching quick and direct counterattacks to the 2 hard-working strikers (so not JP Mateta), while the clever JP Boetius would deny the passing lane to the Bayern 6/DM (Kimmich). This would also direct Bayern’s play to the wings, where neither Alphonso Davies, nor the oft-injured Benjamin Pavard have been able to hit last season’s heights, with RB becoming a problematic position for Bayern, who have been forced to try Bouna Sarr, Chris Richards and even Niklas Süle there lately. Here is a little animation on it:

What it meant is that Bayern would have their 71% possession mostly in deep and wide areas, where Mainz could sit on central passing lanes in hopes of a quick turnover.

Before we get to those attacks, first let’s see how Bayern reacted.

Flick and co had 3 responses vs the diamond:

  1. using Kimmich and Tolisso in the half spaces with Pavard + Davies pushing higher, although typically done asymmetrically. This worked less well with Pavard who had 0 successful dribbles or created shots though his 52 carries accrued 142 yards. The Canadian 20-year-old created 2 shots and completed both his dribbles and was 2nd behind David Alaba with 270 yards carried. Davies played 90 minutes to Pavard’s 45, but still had few progressive passing yards.

  2. while Thomas Müller overloading the right side was able to provide an outlet, as Sané pinned the LB Mwene.

    1. Kimmich dropping into the 3rd CB spot to manipulate Boetius

this one didn’t work too well in the first half, as Boetius rarely followed Kimmich, so Bayern needed to use Tolisso or Gnabry+Müller deeper to bypass the press. This is not to say that Bayern’s usual combinations (Lewandowski and Müller halfspace movements and layoffs for midfield runners or Gnabry + Davies quick one-twos) did not yield chances. On the contrary, they were either cleared off the line miraculously (it looked like Leroy Sané could not buy a goal for a long time), saved rather well by Dahmen the debutant, or outright shanked by Tolisso on a couple occasions.

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Mainz in transition = chances galore, but there is still Neuer….

What was perhaps more surprising is the ease with which the visitors were able to play through the press and move the ball down the field vs Bayern. Mainz’s attacking woes have been well-documented so far, with just 12 goals in 13 matches in the season, but it’s even more remarkable that they were dead last in the league progressive passing yards with also the worst long pass completion rate per Fbref. In addition, their most progressive passer Moussa Niakhate missed the match due to his 5th yellow card.

In the beginning of the 5th minute, Mainz would get their first big chance via building up: LCB Alexander Hack took advantage of Sané’s angled pressing run (to keep Mwene in the cover shadow and deny the passing lane) being a little too aggressive and pirouetted free. Hack would later also have a nice cutback dribble to free himself of Thomas Müller pressing him in the 9th minute.

Whether this was the trigger for Pavard to push up on Mwene, who was now free is unclear, as the Frenchman often pushes up to high press in Bayern’s scheme, but any rate, this left a 3v3 situation for Mainz.

While this is often what Flick asks of his defenders, Quaison’s layoff was perfect and although Boetius couldn’t release Burkardt in a footrace vs Boateng, hitting Quaison in the leg.

Enter Danny Latza, who isn’t even in the first picture, but sprints past Tolisso to play in Burkardt for a 1v1 that, as it is a rule this season, Neuer always saves in the beginning of the match…

The second benefit of Mainz playing the diamond was the occupation of the Bayern DM via Boetius. The threat of the counterattack and the Dutchman’s combination play prohibited Kimmich\Tolisso from pressing up, while Fernandes and Latza must have been instructed to play the ball over the top very quickly:

Fernandes ends up underhitting this one and Alaba can head the ball away.

There were also examples of Boetius playing the long ball himself to Burkardt, or of Lewandowski not dropping to his tip of the diamond spot to press Fernandes, who could launch the long pass freely.

Leandro Barreiro also got in on the act, after GK Dahmen found him quickly and the Luxembourgian released Quaison in the 8th minute. Quaison’s hard running and work rate did not always end up in making the most out of Mainz’s chances - though it wasn’t for Jerome Boateng, who looked like the Boateng of 2018 athletically - but it was notable that FSV had already had 5 chances before Burkardt muscled the World Cup winning CB and fired past Neuer in the 31st. The rejuvenated Neuer was the only thing standing between Mainz putting up 3 goals in the first half, though he couldn’t do much about Alexander “AIR” Hack’s header driving header, with Boateng + Pavard looking rather passive on the goal.

This chance in the 48th will probably be talked about a lot in the 05er dressing room, as Danny Latza managed to hit the post and not make it 3-0.

Kimmich leads comeback but tackling matters

As the xG suggests, Bayern were somewhat unlucky to be trailing by two goals - which they also did to Julian Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim in 2017\18, coming back to win 5-2 as well.

Nevertheless, xGs aren’t the most relevant statistic to explain the second half turnaround. Tackles are rarely the measure of a good defensive side (basic counting defensive stats are “noisy” because teams that don’t have the ball can rack them up just by not having the ball and being forced to tackle\intercept all the time), but they can explain Bayern’s effort level. Whoscored has 6 of 12 successful tackles in the first half for der Rekordmeister, skyrocketing to 12\14 in the second half. What you can see from the Opta-based data on the chalkboard is that FCB were able to win the ball much higher particularly on the right wing in the second half,

while in the first half seemingly only Corentin Tolisso was trying at all.

Certainly the effort level for Latza’s lump to Burkardt for the first goal was questionable by Kimmich\Gnabry and Davies, while neither Pavard nor Boateng covered themselves in glory in rest-defense.

In that sense Niklas Süle replacing Boateng gave Bayern a reassured presence, and of course scored the winning goal at 3-2. Aside from Quaison rattling the bar in the 59th minute, Mainz were done offensively.

The main tactical switch, which ultimately gave Bayern the offensive firepower was the move of Kimmich to RB. This break glass in case of emergency strategy was immediately noticeable for several reasons:

-unlike Pavard, Kimmich could dribble across the pitch and switch play, but also down his wing, beating Mwene badly to cross then finish up the “rebound” for 1-2

-unlike Pavard, Kimmich could also combine quickly with Müller and move dynamically into the box, dragging his marker with him and opening space for Sané to cut inside for 2-2

It was even “rehearsed” minutes before the goal, when Sané decided to pass to Müller making the run:

Sané would make the cutting run and score 3 minutes later.

In addition, Kimmich provided not only a constant attacking threat down the wing, but was comfortable coming inside the halfspaces to combine as well as show up in the box for rebounds. Moreover, his resistance to pressing, made Mainz’s scheme null and void, and Siewert retreated to a passive 4-1-4-1, while Bayern used Goretzka’s muscle and Gnabry’s dribbling to earn a penalty for Lewandowski. Musiala’s chip to Müller off a Hack turnover, and the subsequent customary assist to Lewandowski made it 5-2, a scoreline that eventually reflected the difference in quality between the sides.

Back with some more tactical analysis later this week, hoping to touch on:

-BVB struggles vs the 442 high press vs Wolfsburg -

-Eintracht man marks the 3 central mids and knows the BO4 backup FBs cant hurt em, Hinti > Schick

-Streich’s 343 vs 4231 and Hoeness’ system changes - finally works with a 3CB setup with Kramaric and Baumgartner as 8s

-Unions 532/523 stifles Werder

Until then,