Pep versus Tuchel part one: getting to know each other
Teams of Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel have met seven times before, split into three episodes of club football. In this mini-series, building up to the Champions League final, we play back the tape and go over the main tactical themes of those seven meetings, divided into three acts. In the first part: Bayern Munich versus FSV Mainz in the 2013/14 season.
Written by Erik Elias.
Theme: possession versus smart and aggressive pressing.
It is easy to forget when watching Thomas Tuchel coach at Chelsea, but he came onto the Bundesliga stage in 2009 as a very reactive manager. His early Mainz teams ruthlessly exploited opponents’ weaknesses as Tuchel often tried to mirror the opposing shape in whatever formation was needed, resulting in an impressive ninth place in his debut season.
This approach was not born out of luxury. According to Tuchel, the newly-promoted team he started with was not Konkurrenzfähig, which translates literally to ‘not able to compete’. After scraping together results in the first season, Tuchel added more positive elements in possession to his versatile Mainz squad. He would stay in the job for an impressive five full seasons and would face Guardiola for the first time in 2013.
Pep Guardiola, of course, was coaching like Pep Guardiola back then. The Catalan is often miscast as an attacking manager. What he craves more than anything else is control, especially in moments of transition. His Bayern team was exceptionally well-drilled in that phase of the game; it’s fair to say the 2013/14 Bayern Munich was the most energetic of all Guardiola teams we’ve seen so far.
The German Laufpensum and never-say-die mentality coupled with Guardiola’s tactical framework made that early Bayern squad a dominant force of nature that took the game to their opponents with a fantastic rhythm of play.
When Bayern Munich and Mainz met for the first time in the Allianz ArenA in October 2013, reactive Tuchel rolled out a 5-2-3 pressing shape that is more common now in European top football than it was back then. The smart positioning of Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Nicolai Müller next to striker Shawn Parker made life hard for Bayern when they started their buildup and Bayern hardy connected with their attacking players.
Tenth minute of Bayern Munich – Mainz, October 2013.
There are certain passes that acted as pressing trigger, when the entire Mainz team took a step up and the ball was pressed up front. What stood out in all of these moments of pressing was the aggression. After four Bundesliga seasons, Mainz were now very much Konkurrenzfähig and they made life hard for Bayern’s incredibly stacked midfield trio of Philipp Lahm, Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger
The plan worked. Throughout the half, Mainz caused a couple of turnovers in midfield. The plan then was to quickly look for striker Parker who could hold the ball up as either Choupo-Moting or Müller made runs into space. Just before half-time, Parker scored the opening goal from a breakaway move.
The answer to this was – of course – unorthodox. Chasing the game, Guardiola made a double substitution at half-time. He introduced David Alaba and Mario Götze, who will both play a key tactical role to break Mainz down.
In the first half, Mainz’ central defenders regularly stepped forward whenever Geis and Baumgartlinger pressed the Bayern player on the ball in deeper areas. To counter this, Guardiola found a way to pin them down closer to their own goal; he did this by introducing Götze as the number ten and by letting Thomas Müller play on the inside more, with Lahm now switched to fullback to cover the width on the right.
Essentially, Bayern played with three central strikers in these moments, with Alaba, Schweinsteiger and Kroos behind the ball to protect against counterattacks.
46th minute of Bayern Munich – Mainz, October 2013.
This way, space was created in the right halfspace, in the back of Baumgartlinger. Mainz defenders could no longer step out to press the ball, because they would leave a hole in their backs if they do. Bayern went on to score two goals in seven minutes, both from the right side of the pitch.
Guardiola’s biggest innovation in Munich of course was his use of fullbacks on the inside, acting as midfielders. In the second half against Mainz, Alaba did this very often, with one key difference to what would be expected: no left winger. On the right wing, Robben often drifted towards the center of the pitch as well, overloading Mainz even further centrally.
50th minute of Bayern Munich – Mainz, October 2013.
Bayern overran Mainz and won the game 4-1, but afterwards, Guardiola was full of praise for Tuchel, according to this article. “We played against Mainz (…) and they actually wanted to win against us! Many teams park the bus and are happy if they don’t lose too big. But he really put us under pressure. With Mainz! I have huge respect for him.”
The game that will follow in Mainz in March 2014 was less spectacular from a tactical point of view, but still impressive. Mainz now played a less aggressive and more conservative 4-2-3-1 shape, before switching to the good old 5-2-3 formation again.
They held their ground for a long time – this time more by virtue of compact and deep defending than with smart pressing from a medium block – until Bayern scored in the 82nd and 86th minute.
Zero points from two games, but clear signs that Tuchel was destined for clubs bigger than mid-table Mainz. Virtually every time a manager got the sack in Germany between 2013 and 2015, Tuchel’s name circulated in the media as a potential successor, making a renewed meeting with Guardiola all the more plausible.
The two managers would meet again in real life before they met on the pitch, in a bar in Munich, where Guardiola’s words fully reflected the seeds that were planted in their first matchups on the pitch. Their next sportive meeting would be in Der Klassiker, which will be focus of the next part of this mini-series.