Tactics corner: How might Bayern Munich approach Der Klassiker against Borussia Dortmund?


Bayern Munich face Borussia Dortmund once again on Matchday 27. So, how might Thomas Tuchel set up his team to maintain his perfect Klassiker record at the helm of the defending Bundesliga champions?

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Bayern struggled in their build-up play from a back four in their recent draw away at Freiburg, so Tuchel opted to change things to a three at half-time, with Leon Goretzka dropping in as the left centre-back in possession. It worked well for the defending champions and has since become a standard feature of their build-up with the ball. It’s seen Goretzka in particular shine in a new role where he’s able to move with the ball at his feet and open things up from deep.

One reason such a switch has become possible is the emergence of Aleksandar Pavlović and his ability to occupy the centre of the pitch. He’s Bayern’s top player for Pressure Handling at 70 percent, which is how often he’s able to retain possession for his team when pressured by opponents. It’s also a higher rate than any Dortmund player. The 19-year-old is key to this new structure as he patrols the pitch in holding midfield.

Bayern have been building up with a back three and one midfielder in front. - DFL Deutsche Fußball Liga

When attacking, the two full-backs push high and wide. These defenders usually act to provide width and drop back into the build-up depending on the situation. The nominal No.10, who has been Thomas Müller of late, shifts forward to form a front two alongside Harry Kane.

That allows the nominal wingers Jamal Musiala and Leroy Sané, who both like to be inside anyway, to come off their flanks and occupy more central positions in the half spaces. Should Bayern require reinforcements in the middle then either Kane or Müller can drop deep. It creates good coverage of all attacking angles as well as two trios on either side who combine well with each other.

Bayern have been playing in a 3-1-4-2 when in possession. - DFL Deutsche Fußball Liga

The strengths of this 3-1-4-2

The clear advantage of this approach to build-up is that Bayern still have a numerical advantage if the opposition presses with a front two. If the opposing team opts to sit back and attack with just one striker, like Freiburg did, then it allows one of the two wide centre-backs to dribble out with the ball and open up the play.

There was an ideal example of this in the last game against Darmstadt. Goretzka comes forward with the ball up the inside left channel, goes past a defender and creates a scenario where nobody can press him because of the triangle ahead of him – Goretzka’s presence makes it a diamond – where he can always combine with a teammate. If the Darmstadt defender wants to cut out the ball through the middle, which Goretzka ultimately plays, then he needs to be in front of the attacker, which opens up a pass through anyway.

Bayern create diamonds and triangles out wide. - DFL Deutsche Fußball Liga

There’s a lot of movement in Bayern’s attack. If Goretzka isn’t able to dribble past his man, then the full-back comes towards him. If Alphonso Davies or Raphaël Guerreiro go towards him, then they draw the opposition full-back out of the back line. That then allows the left striker – Kane in the example below – to attract his marking centre-back into a wider position, therefore creating space for the left No.10 behind him.

Bayern’s full-backs coming towards the ball actually creates room in behind. - DFL Deutsche Fußball Liga

Punishing defensive displacement

The logical answer for defenders appears to be to shift players across. If Bayern are attacking down one half of the pitch, then they need more players there to help. But that’s where Pavlović comes into play. The central midfielder is so good at remaining open to receiving the ball and withstanding pressure that he provides the perfect connection between the two halves of the pitch. Bayern can attack up either wing and switch the play with ease when required.

A great example of how they can take advantage of the smallest defensive mistake came against Freiburg. Eric Dier, playing on the right of the three in this game, dribbled out to the flank and drew the opposition striker out of position. He was meant to be covering the holding midfielder, meaning another player had to move towards Pavlović. The 19-year-old received the ball and played it back to Goretzka in defence (at the time in the centre of the three). A foul by Roland Sallai on Pavlović was aimed at disrupting the play, but Goretzka took the free-kick quickly, moving the ball out to the left where there was space for Musiala to do what he does best by running with the ball to put the Munich club 2-1 up.

Eric Dier’s dribble into midfield created space to shift the play, with Jamal Musiala scoring to make it 2-1 in Freiburg. - DFL Deutsche Fußball Liga

A compact 4-4-2 out of possession

Tuchel has also made some changes in how Bayern operate when not in possession. Top teams nowadays have developed a habit of falling back into a 4-4-2 when they don’t have the ball, making space tight and compact, and then pressing in that shape. It was something we saw quite a bit from Bayern in the first half of the season, but now it’s the preferred approach.

The advantage here for Bayern is – aside from the newly found compact structure that they had been lacking at times – the position of Müller. The vastly experienced 12-time Bundesliga winner is a very good at organising things when not on the ball, often acting as the pressing coordinator from the front. It means Kane alongside him, as well as Musiala and Sané behind him, can clearly see his signals. When Müller is more withdrawn, he needs to communicate with words, which can be tough at times in loud stadiums, like we’ll see in Der Klassiker.

Bayern drop into a 4-4-2 shape when they don’t have the ball. - DFL Deutsche Fußball Liga

Challenges posed by Dortmund

Dortmund will likely also start in a 4-2-3-1 formation but will build-up with a 4-1 or 3-2 approach. Should they try and build-up with a back four and one holding, then a flat 4-4-2 will likely work well to counteract that. That will see the two wingers get close to the BVB full-backs.

If Dortmund opt to have three deep with two in front, then Bayern’s centre won’t be strong enough and they won’t need to cover both flanks with only one occupied. Tuchel will therefore need to think of a plan to pack the middle of the park. Perhaps he’ll ask the wide player on the side where the play isn’t happening to step inside. The winger on the side where the ball is will then support in pressing the back three. But that’s just one of a number of options to react to the known challenges that Edin Terzić’s tactics will pose. It will then come down to which coach has more – or better – ideas, and how well the players implement them.

How might Dortmund approach Der Klassiker?