When Hansi-Dieter Flick was appointed as Bayern Munich’s interim manager in November, there was a widely hheld view that he was merely warming the seat for a higher calibre coach going into this summer, with Mauricio Pochettino and Massimiliano Allegri potentially waiting in the wings. Fast forward six months, Flick is the first Bayern manager to win at least 22 of his first 25 games in charge, dating back to their promotion to the Bundesliga in 1965.
Pochettino and Allegri still remain unemployed, yet their next destination won’t be Munich; Flick was given the full-time job in April, signing a contract until June 2023. Flick’s tactical acumen has made Bayern into a feared giant that can compete on all fronts, recovering a level of balance and efficiency that has been missing since the departure of Pep Guardiola in 2016.
Squad Makeup and Formation
Under ex coach Niko Kovač, Bayern never quite established a preferred formation or a consistent starting 11. Flick, however, has consistently employed the 4-2-3-1 shape, with 10 out of the 11 starting players remaining constant.
After a brief spell at Red Bull Salzburg’s sporting coordinator, Flick worked for 8 years as assistant coach to Joachim Löw for the German national team, where he was heavily influenced by Löw’s 4-2-3-1 shape. Similarly to Löw’s use of Phillip Lahm as a holding midfielder in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Flick has achieved great success by taking Kimmich out of the right back position, where he has mainly played since joining Bayern in the summer of 2015, and restoring him to his original position in midfield.
Before joining Bayern in the summer, Benjamin Pavard had played at center back for club level, with his only experience at right back coming in the 2018 World Cup for France. Alphonso Davies, on the other hand, played as a winger for the Vancouver Whitecaps before leaving for Bayern in January 2019. Both players have proven to be revelations in albeit unnatural positions, emerging as Bayern’s first-choice fullbacks. Whilst Pavard is more of a conservative fullback, preferring to exchange short passes with the midfield in the build-up, Davies has the skill and speed to run at the opposition and attack open spaces.
Flick chose his center back pairing out of necessity, with Jérôme Boateng and David Alaba filling in for the injured Niklas Süle and Lucas Hernandez. Whilst both Süle and Hernandez have returned from injury, Flick has stuck with his tried and trusted duo.
Photo: A. Beier/Getty Images for FC Bayern
The primary midfield double pivot consists of Kimmich and Thiago Alcântara. Kimmich has provided defensive steel to midfield, and in turn, Thiago has been afforded more freedom to drift from his position to get on the ball in advanced areas. Under Kovač, Thiago was mostly played as a single pivot, and the extra defensive responsibility placed on the Spaniard forced him to be more conservative with his movement and dribbles when Bayern were in possession.
In attack, Thomas Müller has returned to his favored position on the right wing, where he can drift centrally, exploit dangerous areas, and link together the team’s attacking play. It has been quite the turnaround for the Raumdeuter, who often found himself on the bench or out of position under Kovač. Prior to the Croat’s dismissal in November, Müller had gone 21 straight league games without a goal.
Leon Goretzka and Philippe Coutinho have battled for the #10 position all season, although since the return of the Bundesliga, Goretzka has been preferred due to the Brazilian’s ankle injury. It should be noted that, coupled with Coutinho and Thiago’s injuries over the past few weeks, Goretzka has mostly played next to Kimmich in midfield, whereas Müller has shifted into the #10 role.
This has temporarily coincided with Kingsley Coman, who has mainly operated on the right wing since the restart of league play, returning to the starting line-up. Serge Gnabry typically starts on the left, although given his ambidexterity, he has thrived on either flank for the Bavarians, moving to the right when Ivan Perišić is rotated into the side. With Robert Lewandowski up top, Bayern have arguably the best center forward in football to knit together their attack.
Bayern have averaged 60.6% possession under Flick, slightly lower than their share of 66.4% under Kovač, but with far more purpose on the ball. Like most possession-based sides, Bayern carefully build through the back, but with a vital focus on getting into the opposition half as quickly as possible. They do this by splitting the build-up into two clear phases, the first phase being the defence who form something of a bowl shape, the second being two midfield pivots who occupy space in between the lines.
Bayern attempt to maintain a numerical overload in both phases so that they can transition from phases one to two quickly and into the final third. By maintaining an overload, Bayern always have a spare passing option who isn’t being marked, making it easier to play through the press. They actively aim to invite a press from the opposition and free up space for the attacking players higher up the pitch.
As shown above, Bayern have numerical overloads in both of the two key early phases. In the first phase, they have a 4 v 3 overload, with Pavard unmarked on the right. In the second phase, Mateo Kovačić focuses on closing down Kimmich, leaving Thiago unmarked in Bayern’s 2 v 1 overload.
Amongst Europe’s top sides, it has become fashionable for one of the fullbacks to move inside to form a back three in possession whilst the other fullback pushes forward into the midfield line. However, Flick has maintained a more traditional approach, building possession in a 2-2-2 shape. The two center backs, two fullbacks, and two central midfielders all move simultaneously up the pitch to advance possession, providing the verticality that Bayern need to progress into the opposition half quickly.
Two of the attacking quartet (in this case Müller and Gnabry) will drop deep to aid the midfield pivot, allowing the midfielders to have a passing option when being pressed.
The first leg against Chelsea, which Bayern proceeded to win 3-0, was probably Bayern’s best performance so far under Flick. However, they struggled to play through the intensity and energy of Chelsea’s high press in the first 15 minutes. Flick showed his game awareness and made a quick adjustment 18 minutes into the match, dropping Kimmich into a back three in the build-up, whilst Thiago held his position near the halfway line.
In the above picture, the emphasis of the build-up here centers around Bayern’s most press-resistant player, Thiago. Due to Kimmich dropping into the back three, Thiago is left isolated with four Chelsea players in close proximity as he receives the pass from Alaba.
However, the former Barcelona man has two key tools in his locker to cope with this: his ability to dribble, and his ability to play long range passes, two important tools to bypassing the press and moving the opposition around. Thiago has averaged 3 completed dribbles per game in the Bundesliga at a 86% completion rate and regularly plays over 10 long range passes a game at a completion rate of 77%. It’s these two skills which give Flick and Bayern the confidence to use Thiago as the reference point.
If Thiago is tightly marked, he can recycle the ball sideways to Davies, who also has the capacity to evade the press with his speed and passing.
If Pep Guardiola’s Bayern of 2013-2016 was all about patient build up play and controlling the middle third of the pitch, Flick’s Bayern is almost the polar opposite with a greater emphasis on generating forward momentum and getting the ball into the front four as quickly as possible to hold possession in the final third. While there are various sectors of the Die Roten fanbase who would love nothing more than the return of ‘Pep ball,’ this current squad only boasts one quality passer in Thiago. On the other hand, Guardiola had pass masters such as Toni Kroos, Xabi Alonso, Bastian Schweinsteiger and a peak Javi Martínez within his artillery to choose from.
In many ways, Kovač attempted this idealistic approach to relaunch Pep ball, but he simply didn’t have the players at his disposal to pull it off. Flick, on the other hand, has taken the pragmatic stance and adjusted his team’s playing style to suit the players he has, which in turn, has switched the focus to the front four.
Chance Creation and Attacking Play
Bayern have become one of, if not the best side in Europe going forward under Flick, scoring 3.2 goals a game and averaging just under 20 shots per game, astronomical figures in comparison to Europe’s elite (for context, Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool average 2 goals and 16.2 shots per game in 2019-20).
Under Flick, Bayern are not reliant on one player or automatism to create opportunities; instead, they have established multiple methods of attacking. As seen in the image below, Bayern look to overload the box plenty of runners exploiting different spaces. The winger on the blind side, in this case Müller, makes a run to the far post, rather than following Thiago and Lewandowski for the near post.
Bayern exploits Dortmund’s compact defensive shape, with Perišić having plenty of options to cross to, including Coutinho, who makes a run towards the middle of the box. The goal eventually comes via an own goal at the near post from Mats Hummels, but it’s Müller who helps set it up.
The Raumdeuter stays on the edge of the 6-yard box whilst the other three head to the middle. His movement off the ball goes hand in hand with Flick’s philosophy of width and overloading the box. It’s no coincidence that Müller is playing his best football in years under the Heidelberg native.
Whilst Flick places a huge emphasis on width, Bayern can also create chances in central areas with the use of a number 10. The excellent final third passing quality from Coutinho in the attacking midfield role and the movement from Lewandowski facilitates these chances in central positions.
Some teams try to prevent the interchanges out wide by pushing their defensive line high (as shown by Bremen here). However, the disadvantage of playing a high line is that it becomes hugely susceptible to through ball passes. Rather than trying to filter the ball wide, Bayern instead look to expose this defensive method through Coutinho, who releases Lewandowski through on goal.
Defensive Organisation and Off-The-Ball Work
Whilst it is the attacking display that catches the eye, Flick hasn’t neglected his defence, with Bayern conceding just 0.64 goals per game so far. The Bavarians play a high defensive line in order to facilitate their high pressing. Here, Bayern press Chelsea high and try to force them wide, using the touchline as an extra barrier. In doing so, they can stifle Chelsea’s build-up and potentially win back the ball in dangerous scenarios.
As seen below in the 5-2 victory against Eintracht Frankfurt, Bayern’s back four made as many tackles in their own half as they did in Eintracht’s half. This is a proactive style of defending which allows Bayern to remain compact while pressing the opposition high up the pitch. Bayern also utilize the offside trap with great efficiency, catching the opposition offside 2.2 times per game.
Bayern are the best defensive team in the league in part because of their high press. Because of their compact shape and intense pressing style, the Bavarians prevent the opposition with getting into dangerous scoring areas. This is a team effort that is led from the back by their sweeper keeper Manuel Neuer.
As with most sides that aggressively press, the opposition will attempt to catch the defensive line out with long balls and exploit the space in behind. On the rare occasions that the opposition beats Bayern’s offside trap, Neuer is quick off his line to sweep up the danger and close down space. It’s a risky, yet calculated approach; there is a method to Flick’s madness.
Can Bayern Win the Champions League Again?
Since 2001, Bayern Munich have been managed by the likes of Ottmar Hitzfeld, Jupp Heynckes, Louis van Gaal, Pep Guardiola, and Carlo Ancelotti. Those five managers share 10 Champions League titles between them, and yet, Bayern have won just one Champions League in the past 18 years, under Heynckes in 2013.
After defeating Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund at Wembley in 2013, Bayern have failed to reclaim their spot on Europe’s elite. Three of these exits have been down to to costly tactical misjudgments:
In 2013-2014, Real Madrid comfortably eliminated Bayern as Guardiola went with an attack-minded 4-2-3-1 set up in the second leg to try and claw back a 1-0 deficit. The formation left the midfield double pivot of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos massively exposed against the pace and quality of the Real Madrid counter attack through Gareth Bale, Ángel Di María and Cristiano Ronaldo. The tie was over after 20 minutes in Munich, as Bayern panicked and chased the game too early, going on to lose 5-0 on aggregate.
Photo: Adam Pretty
The following year, Guardiola came up against his former club Barcelona. This time, Bayern set up in a 3-4-3, leaving them completely overran in midfield and exposed in defense to the trident of Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar Jr. The tie was over by the end of the first leg, as Bayern struggled to cope with 1v1 duels against the Blaugrana front line.
Last season, Bayern once again faced the eventual champions, this time Liverpool in the Round of 16. Rather than being too attacking, though, Kovač’s side were far too conservative and passive in the first leg, securing a stalemate at Anfield but failing to get the vital away goal. In the second leg, Sadio Mané put Liverpool ahead early, and Bayern would spend the rest of the game chasing a result. Liverpool caught them out on the counter time and time again, going on to win 3-1.
Individual mistakes have proven costly too. In 2016 and 2018, Bayern were well-placed to reach the Final, but a missed penalty from Müller and a catastrophic error from Sven Ulreich saw them eliminated by Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid, respectively. While it is impossible to limit all individual errors, Flick must find an approach that minimizes potential mistakes and provides the greatest balance possible. To do so, he must start by focusing on his midfield controller.
Despite his world class talent, Thiago has often underperformed in Europe, with the most recent example being Liverpool last year, where he was outrun by Klopp’s midfielders, unable to cope with the intensity of their pressing, and got caught out in dangerous areas by trying to be too clever with the ball. Flick must adapt Thiago’s traditional style to a more pragmatic approach, one that compensates for his physical deficiencies and forces him to remain disciplined on and off the ball.
Photo: Christof Stache / AFP via Getty
All things considered, Bayern are the hottest team in Europe right now, and with Liverpool out of Europe, and with the likes of Barcelona, Juventus and Atlético Madrid looking far weaker than they have recent years, they should be considered favorites to win the Champions League — if it does play out to its conclusion.
Despite not making a single signing (save Álvaro Odriozola, who has barely played since his loan arrival in January), Hansi-Dieter Flick has completely turned things around in Bavaria. With five games left in the league season, Bayern currently sit seven points clear of second-place Borussia Dortmund, and should they continue their excellent form under Flick, they will win their eighth straight league title with relative ease.
While Flick played 104 matches for Bayern between 1985 and 1990, before retiring in 1993 due to injuries, his playing career was relatively understated. His initial forays into coaching weren’t wildly successful either; he spent four years at Viktoria Bammental before they were relegated to Germany’s amateur division. He lasted five years at his next job — Hoffenheim — but he was sacked after four failed attempts to reach Germany’s second tier.
Rather than try his luck at another managerial job, Flick worked on improving his craft before accepting a new position. He briefly worked as an assistant for Giovanni Trapattoni at Stuttgart, where he learned the ins and outs of defensive tactics and player relations, before working as a sporting coordinator at Salzburg. But when Löw was chosen to replace Jürgen Klinsmann as Germany manager, Flick jumped at the opportunity to learn under Löw’s wing, working as an assistant coach before leaving after the 2014 World Cup and becoming the sporting director of the German Football Association.
Two and a half years after leaving the job at the DFB, he returned to Munich this past summer as Kovač’s assistant, and when the Croat was sacked in November, Flick came to the rescue, saving Bayern’s flailing season and returning them to the zenith of German football.
Sometimes, it’s better to wait in the shadows and learn from the greats than put yourself in the spotlight and try your luck immediately after failure.
Featured Image: @GabFoligno