Tactical analysis: 4-4-2 surprise for Bayern against Ajax

Surprise, surprise. Niko Kovač used a 4-4-2 formation and a defensive scheme as FC Bayern München took on Ajax Amsterdam on Wednesday. It was undone by poor play under pressure.

We were fooled when the club posted the following ahead of the match on its official app:

After kickoff, the team rather adopted the following formation:

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What ensued astonished me, especially in the first half. FC Bayern played primarily defensive football, working mostly without possession. Over the course of 97 minutes, Ajax held the ball 54% of the time. That includes second half phases when the Reds Greys were aggressive going forward, in search of goals.

Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka acted as “double six” in the midfield. The scheme made both central midfielders dive into the defense without the ball. Up front, Thomas Müller moved up to play as a second striker. Wingers Serge Gnabry and Franck Ribéry stepped back on the flanks to do more defensive work and help relay the ball forward.

FCB wanted to cut off passing links in the middle. Kimmich and Goretzka were the main anchors between the back four and the front two.

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Wingers dropped back near the final third. On the play below, you can see Ribéry chasing the ball carrier and Müller marking to cut off a potential pass back to the midfield.

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Choking the Dutch

When the Bavarians had time to reset their positions, the 4-4-2 became much clearer. Two lines of four to sandwich the attack, with two strikers ahead.

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When Ajax wanted to build from the back, they either had to make an interception-prone pass in the middle or send the long ball forward.

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When they opted for the long ball, Rafinha, Niklas Süle and Jérôme Boateng ran back in an attempt to break up the play.

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Ajax, who had only 40% possession in the first match in Munich, were stumped for 60 minutes. The Kovač plan was working. With the help of wingers, Kimmich and Goretzka were highly flexible, moving around in the middle and on the wings to look for interceptions and fight for the ball.

Below is Gnabry’s deeper position. He supports the midfield and can act as a passer in the transition game after regaining possession.

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The natural outcome, when you play with a conservative 4-4-2, is forcing mistakes and looking for counterattacking opportunities. On the play below, Joshua Kimmich is near the centre line, ready to pounce on a loose pass to launch the counter. He benefits from Robert Lewandowski’s pressing up front, on the right. The pass is poor and Kimmich perfectly positioned to intercept it.

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Less oxygen

The point seemed to be choking the middle and forcing the Dutch opposition to play on the wings, where they would face double and triple teams.

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When Ajax managed to take the ball forward, Bayern tightened up and increased presence in the middle, with Goretzka and Kimmich forming the heart of a line that meant to prevent inside playmaking.

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Below, you can see that Ajax are the ones who need to bring men up the pitch and potentially expose themselves to the counter. It is fascinating to watch, knowing that FCB traditionally prefer going up with the ball and a high line of defence.

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Breaking point

Why, then, did Bayern settle for a messy 3:3 draw after a mad second half? Essentially due to their inability to defend properly for a full match. A few players such as Boateng and Müller made major individual mistakes under pressure.

On the play that led to the Ajax equaliser, the Dutch played smartly. They formed triangles (hello Pep Guardiola) to pass between Bayern players, who failed to press with enough intensity to get close.

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Right after that, all hell broke loose. On a play that he should have easily controlled in the final third, Boateng made a mistimed tackle that gave the hosts a penalty that put them ahead 2:1.

Bayern fought back remarkably to take a 3:2 lead late in the game, but a poor offside trap was their undoing. It led to Süle’s own goal.

Final thoughts

Having asked for a more defensive scheme for months, I am in no position to bitch and moan. We finally had a taste of “Kovač ball” on Wednesday night and it was fun to watch for 60 minutes. It is a shame that individual mistakes prevented the tactics from producing a convincing win.

I believe that Kovač should stay the course and tinker with the new scheme. Many Bayern fans will say that “this is Munich, not Frankfurt”, arguing that the Reds should not aim to win games with defending and countering. My counterpoint is that the current squad is in no position to blow elite teams out of the park with possession. Also, there is plenty of time for the coach to fix leaks in the defensive plumbing.

This 4-4-2 was a first step. Let’s improve it.