Bayern Munich 3-1 Manchester United: Guardiola uses his full-backs in midfield, but Bayern better with a standard system

April 10, 2014

The starting line-ups

Pep Guardiola played an unusual system, but it didn’t help Bayern break down Manchester United.

Guardiola fielded Toni Kroos in the pivot role, with Thomas Muller in midfield and Mario Mandzukic returning upfront.

David Moyes brought Shinji Kagawa and Darren Fletcher into his midfield, and recalled Patrice Evra and Chris Smalling at the back.

The pattern of the game wasn’t significantly different from the first leg, and the major talking point was Guardiola’s use of his two full-backs.

Lahm plays two positions

It was surprising that Lahm was seemingly deployed as a right-back, considering Guardiola was without both Thiago Alcantara and Bastian Schweinsteiger from his midfield zone, and therefore Lahm was surely required in the holding role he’s occupied for most of this season.

However, moving Lahm to right-back also made sense considering Manchester United’s approach in the first leg, where they left Bayern’s right-back Rafinha unattended, in order to pack the centre and use Danny Welbeck’s pace upfront. Moyes used a similar approach here, and therefore Guardiola seemingly wanted to use Lahm, one of his most dangerous players, in a position of freedom.

Lahm, however, started the match in the centre of midfield, with no-one occupying the right-back slot – Jerome Boateng was shuttling out there when needed, but he was basically a right-sided centre-back. It seemed Guardiola wanted Lahm to cover both the right-back zone, and the centre of midfield.

Alaba mirrors Lahm

Furthermore, David Alaba was fielded in the same role from the other flank. They took up extremely narrow positions, often either side of Toni Kroos, before reluctantly shuttling back into the full-back zones when Manchester United counter-attacked.

For an example of the difference between a usual full-back role and this role, here’s the passes Alaba received in the two legs (Lahm didn’t play right-back in the first game, so can’t be compared):

It was extremely difficult for Lahm and Alaba to recover their positions quickly, however, and therefore United were afforded promising situations on the break, through both Welbeck and Rooney. Welbeck again stayed high up the pitch towards the left, and there were a couple of nervous moments when Boateng was forced to sprint over to the touchline to make a crucial intervention, to prevent Welbeck getting in on goal. Boateng and Dante were forced to cover the width of the pitch by themselves, with little defensive support.

Ball retention

The intention from Guardiola, clearly, was to pack the centre of the pitch to guarantee ball retention, and therefore allow the players high in the midfield triangle – Muller and Mario Gotze – to concentrate on providing a spark in the final third, something lacking in the first leg.

The five attacking players all bunched around the Manchester United penalty area, and the away side never really relieved the pressure.

Wingers forced to stay wide

The downside, however, was that it forced Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery to stay in extremely wide roles, providing the width for the entire team. This meant they were frequently unmarked and available for quick switches of play, but the lack of overlapping from full-back meant it was more difficult for them to cut inside and shoot, which remains a speciality of both.

It also meant they couldn’t drift inside into pockets of space between the lines and combine directly, which was Bayern’s most promising approach in the first game.

It’s worth considering, too, whether their duty to stay wide means they should have switched flanks. They were both being encouraged to go down the line, so wouldn’t they have been more dangerous on the side corresponding to their strongest foot?

Ultimately, it’s difficult to see how the system helped Bayern here. It seemed to hamper the roles of the wingers, pushed Kroos into a position where he couldn’t provide incisive passes, and therefore resulted in slow build-up play. Possession dominance was the benefit, of course, but wouldn’t have that happened anyway?


Guardiola may have been influenced in this respect by Marcelo Bielsa, his coaching inspiration. With Chile, Bielsa also used full-backs making very narrow ‘underlapping’ runs, inside wide players who stayed near the touchlines. However, Chile also played extremely direct football, and the full-backs were supposed to charge forward untracked, rather than simply add to the midfield numbers game.

Another example is the role ex-Bayern left-back/central midfielder Ze Roberto played for Hamburg, combining the two roles.

Past examples

In fairness, this isn’t the first time Guardiola has used such a system. His early season experiments with positioning meant he deployed David Alaba in a similar role against Leverkusen earlier in the season. As the License To Roam blog outlined at the time, “While the young Austrian, being a left back, obviously had to spend much of his time out wide, he also showed a desire to move infield when the opportunity presented itself, and given the way Bayern dominated possession, it was not unusual to see Alaba in the central midfield zone.”

That report suggests he and Ribery caused more problems with their positioning.

It was also obvious against Schalke, as Raphael Honigstein of the Guardian noted. “Schalke, aware that the high but narrow position of Bayern’s full-backs Rafinha and David Alaba left them space to attack down the flanks, were having the better of the champions in the Veltins-Arena…Bayern line up in four lines, with two centre-backs, the full-backs pushed up alongside the deep-lying midfielder, four attacking midfielders and a striker.”

On this occasion, Bayern eventually produced what was considered, at that point, their best performance in the Bundesliga under Guardiola.

So it’s clear the system has worked in the past, but this match wasn’t a great advert for the concept.

Return to the Heynckes system

It was particularly telling that Bayern’s best spell came at 1-1, after Guardiola replaced Gotze with Rafinha, who played at right-back, moved Lahm back into midfield, and shifted Muller forward. Bayern were now 4-2-3-1, similar to the way they played last season, and were terrifyingly direct and purposeful on the ball.

The full-backs weren’t overlapping much more, but somehow Ribery and Robben seemed to find more space, and Muller was allowed into the box more permanently. Muller added the second with a classic poacher’s goal, Robben grabbed the crucial third after cutting inside, across the area, for maybe the first time in the game.

UEFA's average position diagrams - Bayern are on the left, with Lahm (21) and Alaba (27) the full-backs


Guardiola’s ability to think outside of the box, using players in unusual positions and playing formations from decades gone by- at both Barca and Bayern – has been incredibly interesting. He generally likes to risk conceding space at the back in order to provide attackers higher up the pitch, with his 3-3-4 at Barca particularly memorable in this respect, and he’s determined to have permanent width on both sides, yet cram as many players into the centre of midfield as possible, too.

It’s arguable that Guardiola’s downfall at Barca – at least in a pure tactical sense – was his insistence on evolving the side a little too much, and at Bayern again there’s a danger he’ll experiment unnecessarily at the cost of raw quality. Bayern Munich are a significantly better side than Manchester United, but United took the lead twice in this tie, and were only beaten in the 166th minute of a 180-minute tie – once Bayern had returned to their default system.

There’s clearly something to work with, in terms of full-backs providing an extra midfielder. It might be interesting to see them do it alternately, however, with the other playing a traditional full-back role and providing overlapping runs, a concept which was sorely missing throughout this game.

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