Pep Versus Tuchel Part Two: To React Or Not To React
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 second part: Bayern Munich versus Borussia Dortmund in the 2015/16 season.
Written by Erik Elias.
Theme: take the ball, pass the ball. But not against Bayern.
It is October 2015 and Pep Guardiola’s Bayern are dominant as ever, but with slight changes to the team they were in 2013. While a lot of the principles to bring the ball out from the back remain the same, the 2015/16 squad is more cross-heavy. There is a stronger emphasis on isolating wingers in one-versus-one situations on the flanks, and there are more quick combinations between winger and fullback.
This style of play brings the best out of their numbers nine and ten. Just like in the current Bayern of Hansi Flick, Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller are practically undefendable. The two would score an obscene 74 goals combined in all competitions in 2015/16.
Dortmund are in a different place. Their last dance under Jürgen Klopp has been stiff. A badly functioning attacking game sees them struggle in games where opponents retreat and close the spaces. The counterpressing After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. is still good but no longer excellent. Add a long-sustained finishing slump on top of this and it results in a seventh place in the league.
When Thomas Tuchel was appointed as Klopp’s successor in the summer of 2015, he came in as a manager with lots of success at Mainz, but without a style of play set in stone. After thrashing J-League side Kawasaki Frontale 6-0 in a friendly, he decided that his Dortmund team should play a possession-oriented style of play. Their tactical approach was also outlined in this excellent article from 2015 by René Maric – yes, the René Maric who will be Dortmund’s assistant coach next season.
How Dortmund had played in the first months under Tuchel was not that far off from Guardiola’s Bayern, meaning this showdown in October would be quite the match. Both teams were unbeaten up until that point, though Bayern had won all games and Dortmund had drawn two.
The subtlest positional change in the game
Against Dortmund, Pep threw open the full register. The formation he chose is best described as a 3-1-4-2 shape. Thiago often moved into a left back position in the buildup. Philipp Lahm showed up in the number ten zone at times. It’s what Bayern did after being coached by Guardiola for more than two years: there were no fixed positions, only positions to take in to offer an option for the player on the ball and to be in a good place to counterpress when the ball was lost.
Crucially, Tuchel adjusted too, moving away from the 4-2-3-1 formation he had used in the first months. Instead, Dortmund went into the match with a 4-3-1-2 shape against the ball. His Dortmund also stood five to ten yards closer to goal than usual during the opponents’ buildup.
Dortmund’s 4-3-1-2 shape against Bayern Munich’s buildup in October 2015.
After an opening twelve minutes that were close, but arguably favorable for Dortmund, Guardiola made the subtlest positional change possible: he switched his central defenders. Jerôme Boateng moved into the middle center-back spot in the buildup, Javi Martínez moved out wide right.
The cross-field pass from Boateng (or Xabi Alonso, or even Manuel Neuer) to either winger was always a great weapon of this Bayern team. In the first ten minutes, Dortmund had nullified this well, most notably through Henrikh Mkhitaryan pressing Boateng when the latter had the ball. After a few possessions of Martínez standing in space and not driving the ball forward or playing a successful long ball, Guardiola made this change.
Boateng started spraying balls forward from then on, with the Dortmund attacking trio not adjusting well to his new central position. In the 24th minute, Boateng played a ball over the top for Müller, who finished and puts Bayern 1-0 up.
24th minute: Boateng plays a ball over the top against Dortmund in October 2015.
Now, this subtle switch is in line with both manager’s approach to tactical changes. Both are not afraid to draw up onorthodox tactical plans beforehand, but Guardiola is more reactionary than Tuchel in-game. If Pep does not like how something plays out, he’ll make a switch, which can be big or small. Tuchel is more of the school: ‘this is the plan, we’re not carrying it out well, but we need to improve the execution, not change the plan itself’.
Müller scored, Dortmund collapsed and lost all access to Bayern’s buildup for the entirety of the first half. At half-time, the score was 2-1. When the second half began, Guardiola appeared to have switched his system to a more traditional 4-2-3-1 shape; the perks of having Lahm on the roster, who was world-class in midfield and at fullback. Dortmund also moved to a 4-2-3-1 shape, with Gonzalo Castro on the right.
It made no difference, as we got to see another Boateng assist, now just twenty seconds inside the first half and with his supposedly weaker left foot. This time, Lewandowski was the intended target, he was put in a one-versus-one situation with Roman Bürki and, naturally, scored. Bayern dominated on the pitch and on the scoreboard: 5-1.
Both teams in fairly common buildup and pressing shapes as Boateng assists Lewandowski in October 2015.
In a post-match interview, Mats Hummels specifically said pressing Boateng had been a part of the game plan but that it was not carried out well enough by the Dortmund players up front. The first match of the Bayern – Dortmund act had clearly gone Guardiola’s way.
Two 0-0’s show Dortmund can defend after all
The 5-1 is the most memorable encounter of this act of the Guardiola – Tuchel on-pitch rivalry. The most even one was the game played out in February 2016, though, when Bayern were five points ahead of Dortmund. A Bayern win would effectively seal another Bundesliga title, a Dortmund win would set the stage for a close title race.
This time, Tuchel went for the 5-2-3 shape that had served him so well at Mainz, but had been used sparingly during his first season in Dortmund. Bayern suffered a heavy injury crisis at the back and went into the game with a center-back pairing of Alaba and a very young Joshua Kimmich. The rest of their team was as star-studded as always, set together in a 4-2-3-1 shape, but still it was Dortmund that dominated the opening procedures of the game with a very healthy 55% possession.
Not unlike his current Chelsea team, the 3-2-4-1 shape used in possession offered a very natural spacing. It is a formation that is difficult to press because it has five players relatively deep in their own half, or seven if you count the wing-backs. Bayern initially had difficulty in reacting, most notably on their left side (Dortmund’s right).
Dortmund’s 4-2-3-1 against Bayern’s disoriented pressing shape. Weigl freed up in midfield. 12th minute in February 2016.
Whenever the ball was lost this time around, Dortmund did a much better job at containing Bayern. The 5-2-3 shape offered better pressing up front, but first and foremost it was much more solid at the back. Whenever the Dortmund squad is not pressing, they sat together in a deep 5-4-1 defensive block Bayern couldn’t get past.
The most interesting aspect about this tactical approach was the role of Hummels, who stepped into midfield to track attackers dropping deeper, thus creating a situational 4-1-4-1 shape.
Hummels following Lewandowski into midfield. 15th minute in February 2016.
The game was short on chances from open play, but still racked up 28 shots in total, only to but end as it had started: 0-0. Bayern didn’t feel the need to go all out attack because they didn’t need all three points. Tuchel – but this is an assumption – liked the game state and the possibility of one counterattack winning his team the match. Once more a case of a bold tactical switch beforehand and a reluctance to change the game plan during the match.
The 5-2-3 shape was used again for the final of the German cup in May 2016. It was Guardiola’s last match as Bayern manager and Bayern played better than in the league game at the Signal Iduna Park. Dortmund’s pressing was nowhere to be seen this time around and they spent the entirety of the match camped in a deep 5-4-1 defensive shape, with only 30% possession and very little going on on the counterattack.
No shame against Guardiola’s Bayern, who were a dominant force on the day in their 4-2-3-1 formation, which morphed into the 2-3-5 setup we know all too well now, because nearly all top teams attack this way. Scoring proved difficult on the day though, but Bayern won on penalties after 120 relatively tiresome minutes, meaning that results-wise Tuchel had just one draw and four losses to show after five matches against Guardiola.
It is fair to conclude that Tuchel adjusted more than Guardiola in the second act of their meetings. A very logical and defendable move given the personnel Tuchel had at Dortmund, especially at the back. It also shows Tuchel is not an ideologue like for example Marcelo Bielsa, Maurizio Sarri or Ralph Hasenhüttl. If it works, it works, and the 5-2-3 shape with adjusted pressing and deeper defending did a relatively good job against Guardiola’s offensive behemoth.
Dortmund ended the season with 78 points, the second-best season in the top flight – 81 in 2011-12 – for the club. It is also the highest accumulated points tally by a team not to win the Bundesliga.
Sadly, the cup meeting in 2016 was the last time Tuchel and Guardiola met in Germany. One friendly between Dortmund and Manchester City followed, after which Dortmund and City were never drawn against each other in European Cups.
Many were hoping City would be pitted against Tuchel’s PSG team, a squad stacked with premium offensive talent. How would Guardiola – notorious for his elaborate tactical plans in late Champions League action that may or may not work – set up his team against the best counterattacking team in the world?
When City inevitably met PSG in the late stages of the Champions League a few months ago, Tuchel had already left for Chelsea. Fans expecting drama and a heavily overthought tactical scheme were disappointed too. Guardiola rolled out his go-to tactical setup, didn’t do anything crazy and City calmly won 1-4 over two legs.
Stay tuned for the last part, which will be posted a couple of hours before the final! We will see plenty more shapes with three central defenders there…