How Hansi Flick Revived Bayern Munich
At the biggest and most historic clubs, winning is no longer the only thing that matters. Such is the nature of the modern day European super club: success is to be achieved following a positive style of play, which itself is to be drawn from history and subjected to the stringent scrutiny of supporters. Luckily for Bayern, new head coach Hans-Dieter Flick understood how important this was, as he began a revival that has led the club back to the top of the Bundesliga and re-established them as favourites in Europe.
Written by Manasvin Andra.
“We are addressing things, but the boys are not implementing it that way right now. It’s not about tactics, but rather about moving the ball from point A to point B. That’s how you achieve dominance and that’s what it’s about.”
Niko Kovač likely expected some reaction following these comments, but getting fired probably did not enter the Croatian’s thoughts. For Bayern, the Kovač era ended as dispiritingly as it had begun – after all, it was he who had ended the venerable Jupp Heynckes’ time at the club when his Frankfurt beat Bayern 3-1 to lift the 2018 DFB-Pokal.
More importantly, Kovač’s sacking came at a crucial time, with the departure of legends Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry beginning a much-delayed period of transition for the Bavarian club. The end seemed near for a group of players that had been together since Heynckes achieved the treble in 2013 – it appeared that the time was ripe to phase out the old guard and usher in the new era.
However, it turned out these predictions were largely unfounded, as Bayern looks refreshed and rejuvenated under the management of now permanent head coach Hans-Dieter Flick. Though the German holds the distinction of serving as Joachim Löw’s assistant during Germany’s 2014 World Cup winning run, it is his stint at Bayern as a midfielder from 1985-1990 that has proved key to his seamless transition to the position of head coach. He has ushered in a new era at the club by smoothly navigating the transition period. The blending of experience and youth has resulted in the emergence of a potent outfit that looked set to continue Bayern’s dominance of the Bundesliga and mount a serious challenge for the Champions League.
The resurgence brought about by Flick has been the product of three interrelated factors: smoother buildup play, complex wing-oriented attacks and a renewed emphasis on effective counterpressing. To understand these is to understand how Flick revived the halcyon days of the Guardiola era, leading Bayern back to their place as the domineering overlords of the Bundesliga.
Improvement in buildup play
For a group of players that was trained by Guardiola on the art of bringing the ball out from the back, it comes as little surprise that Kovač’s methods appeared to be rough and rudimentary. While the quality of Bayern’s players ensured that issues with buildup play could be overcome to a greater extent in the Bundesliga, Europe posed an altogether different test for the club.
The first half hour of the game against Tottenham Hotspur bore this out, as the home side exposed the visitor’s frailties despite being thoroughly beaten: Bayern appeared overmatched against the high press applied by Spurs in the first half hour. Pochettino’s high energy 4-4-2 diamond structure proved almost too much for Kovac’s team, as Spurs overloaded the midfield and shut down the wings before gradually scaling back their press. Bayern were forced to go long during this period, as their individual quality failed to count against a superior and more organized structure.
The return of positional play
However, the nature of Bayern’s buildup has been transformed under Flick, with security in buildup and control of midfield receiving increased focus as the key aspects of possession play. Impressively, Flick demonstrated his grasp of these key tenets in his first game in charge – a game against Borussia Dortmund that was essentially a baptism by fire.
While the 4-0 victory was primarily achieved through Bayern’s superior individual quality and Dortmund’s own mental block, Flick’s focus on the key aspects of Guardiola’s positional play was clearly visible. Against Dortmund, Bayern built from the back using central defenders and Joshua Kimmich in the holding midfield role, but crucially saw Leon Goretzka drop deeper to serve as an extra midfielder to shield and progress the ball. Interestingly, Thiago made only a brief appearance in this game, which would continue to be the case for the next three matches. Since then, he has established himself as the best player in the team, becoming an indispensable starter as the controller from his position at the base of the midfield.
With Goretzka moving deeper, the fullbacks were able to push high and wide, creating the sort of ‘box’ possession structure that has become a common feature under Flick. Here, the idea is to ensure numerical superiority in order to guard and progress the ball, without disturbing the positioning of the attackers in the process. As it so happened, Dortmund proved hopelessly incapable of breaking Bayern’s ball retention, and unsurprisingly succumbed to a heavy defeat.
Notice the proximity between Bayern’s players during the buildup phase; this is a direct result of Flick’s focus on numerical superiority when bringing the ball out from the back.
However, there was also a bit of a learning curve for Flick as he attempted to figure out the best iteration of this Bayern side, and the re-emphasis on basic principles did not stop him from experimenting in the Bundesliga. Two key matches against high octane pressing sides – Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Mönchengladbach – illustrated the side’s weaknesses, and enabled Flick to finally figure out the best version of the current group of players.
Against Peter Bosz’s Leverkusen, Bayern faced a side that would inevitably come out with an intent to put them under pressure. It worked well during the initial period – a lack of involvement from Bayern’s central midfielders in defense often isolated the defense and Kimmich against Leverkusen’s speedy runners. This led to an adjustment wherein Kimmich was asked to drop between the center-backs to direct play; this allowed for more security for the defense and better access to the halfspaces which was occupied by the wingers post the switch.
Ultimately, Bayern lost due to speedy counterattacks and some last-ditch defending from the Leverkusen defense, but Flick had passed his first test against high pressing opposition. Now, a sterner test awaited in the form of Marco Rose’s impressive Gladbach.
The renaissance of Thiago
Against Rose’s team, Bayern deployed the same structure: Thiago nominally acted as the sole holding midfielder with Goretzka and Corentin Tolisso taking turns to drop deep alongside him. Here, Bayern drew Gladbach’s attention to one side by circulating the ball in a particular area – usually the right – before switching play to the opposite flank through diagonal passes from Boateng, Thiago and Kimmich.
Bayern’s right-sided emphasis during buildup. Kimmich, Thiago and Tolisso offer superb ball retention, before the ball is switched out to the wings for Davies and Coman.
This enabled the team to play through Gladbach’s press effectively, and set the blueprint for what would become Flick’s philosophy of choice. However, Rose made a superb positional tweak by instructing his strikers to stay narrow and protect the middle, which forced Bayern to pass to the fullbacks which Gladbach then collapsed on. This resulted in a rather direct and open game, with Gladbach eventually running out 2-1 winners.
It became clear soon enough that the central midfield pairing of Thiago and Kimmich was unrivalled in terms of ball control and press resistance, and Flick built the side almost entirely around the two diminutive players. Their ability to construct attacks was evident against both Chelsea and Hertha Berlin, where Bayern’s midfield pivot effortlessly ran the show.
Against Chelsea, Thiago and Kimmich moved unimpeded on the first two lines of buildup, creating back threes and diamond structures to overload the midfield and attract the opposition press. Once Bayern had succeeded in baiting Chelsea, the ball was quickly played forward to the wingers – who played in the halfspaces – or the roaming Lewandowski, who was then free to construct play in advanced areas with Müller in support.
It helped that Bayern rarely stand still when in possession, whirling around to create the kind of offense that completely disoriented Chelsea’s midfield. This is made all the more remarkable by the positional versatility of David Alaba, whose comfort in possession in areas across the pitch allows him to switch positions seamlessly. This allows the Thiago – Kimmich tandem the freedom they need to flummox the opposition with their movement, while also ensuring that the defense stays protected at all times. In many ways, this has been the key to Bayern’s success under Flick – unrivalled domination of the middle leading to complete control.
Complex wing-oriented attacks
Bayern’s offensive movements under Kovač were rather rudimentary, which is best exemplified by the ‘U’ shape that the team used to devolve into in most games. Such a shape is normally associated with inefficient attacking play since it is assumed that the team is struggling to work the ball into the center, but it formed the main method of offense under Kovač.
While such an approach made sense given Bayern’s superior personnel, the knock-on effects were detrimental: teams simply packed the center of the pitch and reduced Bayern to sending crosses into the box. Further, ineffective control of the midfield meant that the team had to cover significant ground in order to counterpress, and it was open season for the opposition if players failed to react in time. More complex patterns needed to be employed if Bayern were to break down resolution opposition: impressively, Flick has managed this turnaround in a very short period.
Occupation of the field under Kovač against Lucien Favre’s Borussia Dortmund DFB-Pokal final. Lack of presence in the centre made crossing the primary mode of chance creation.
Bayern’s wing-based attacks under Flick are based on two main planks: control of the far side during buildup and an emphasis on bringing wingers into the center. These work in tandem to enable Bayern to raid the flanks, and has proved extremely effective against both domestic and European opposition.
Domination of the far side has become a crucial aspect of Bayern’s offense. This was seen to great effect against Leverkusen, where Bayern very effectively exploited the tendency of Leverkusen’s players to shift towards the ball by rapidly switching play to the opposite flank. This allows Bayern to deploy their speedy players on the unguarded flank, which can be done in two ways.
The first is by positioning left back Alphonso Davies on the halfway line, with the winger shifting into the halfspace and the free central midfielder providing support on the far side to ensure that second balls are reclaimed. Alternatively, the free midfielder might attract attention by positioning himself behind the opposition pivot, opening gaps in the middle which can be exploited by a dropping Lewandowski.
In both cases, the idea remains the same – pin the opposition on one side thereby exposing the opposite ‘far’ side, which can then be attacked through players positioned in optimal areas to ensure maximum damage. This is achieved through the passing ability of Boateng, Alaba, Kimmich and Thiago on the ball side, and by the searing pace and dribbling ability of breakout star Alphonso Davies on the opposite side.
Further, Flick has engineered an intriguing overload on the far side: the winger – usually Gnabry – moves inside, allowing Davies free rein over the left touchline, and a midfielder drops deep to allow for the creation of passing triangles. This also sees Lewandowski nominally move into the attacking midfielder position, with the opposite winger – usually Coman – staying furthest forward to take advantage of his pace.
Such a structure creates staggering in advanced areas, which ensures control across the entirety of the final third while attacks continue to be built from the flanks. Additionally, the speed with which Bayern switch the ball from flank to flank makes it difficult to sit in a low block, since the opposition is forced to close down the flanks resulting in gaps in the middle.
Snapshot of Bayern’s movements against Chelsea. Notice the staggering between players in the final third – this creates optimal situations for attacks and ensures that fullbacks are in place to support the wingers.
Bayern exhibited these movements to great effect against Hertha Berlin, who were unable to control the far side leading to Bayern creating and exploiting easy overloads on the left flank. It was more of the same against Schalke, where David Wagner’s narrow shape was decimated as Bayern easily manipulated Schalke’s midfield. Going into the corona break, not a single team had managed to stop Flick’s wing patterns – it is intriguing to think about how far the team could have gone in Europe before the opposition finally found a way through.
The return of counterpressing
Bayern did not completely phase out pressing under the management of Kovač; however, inefficient occupation of the pitch meant that players had to rely on athleticism rather than structure to ensure optimal pressing situations. A lack of protection in the center meant it was easy for the opposition to carry the ball through Bayern’s midfield, with the result that players now had to run more just to catch up to the counterattack.
Given the size of the problem, it is impressive that Flick has managed to reintroduce a proper pressing structure, though this is the result of better occupation of the field resulting from Bayern’s shape during the buildup phase as seen above. Control over central areas ensures that Bayern are optimally placed to force turnovers and recover the ball, with Thiago and Müller being the major beneficiaries of this approach.
Bayern’s 4-2-3-1 pressing shape against Schalke which ensured adequate coverage of central areas.
This is due to the players needing to cover shorter distances to reach the nearest opposition player, which has allowed them to tackle and intercept at higher rates than before. A good illustration is the aggressive manner in which Thiago and Müller stepped on Jorginho and Mateo Kovačić, with wingers Coman and Gnabry marking the wide defenders. This left Chelsea unable to build from the back as is their norm under Frank Lampard, instead going long to reach the likes of Olivier Giroud and Mason Mount.
Contrast this with Kovač’s approach in his final game: with Boateng sent off, the Croatian persisted with a pressing approach that tired Gnabry and Müller out within the first half. Further, failing to accommodate for the loss of a player meant that Bayern implemented an inefficient three-man press, which was easily bypassed Frankfurt. Not till the score line was unassailable did Kovač change gears, and even then, his change affected the positioning of Kimmich who found himself occupying multiple areas throughout the game. By that point, the writing was on the wall for both manager and team – Kovač exited as swiftly as he had arrived.
To overhaul and replace one tactical philosophy with another is difficult enough; but to do it in such a short period of time in the face of constant pressure to win marks Flick out as a manager with enormous potential. While this piece has described the tactical changes, Flick’s man-management abilities cannot be undersold, as he has received the unanimous backing of a squad for whom winning is second nature.
It is difficult to predict whether we will see a resumption of the current season, but one thing that seems likely is the continuation of Bayern’s dominance in the Bundesliga. In that regard, making Flick the permanent manager is a stroke of genius – he not only ‘gets’ the club ethos but has also demonstrated the ability to implement it flawlessly.