Niko Kovac has been swimming against the tactical current for the past two seasons at Eintracht Frankfurt. While possession-based 4-3-3 remains the strategical golden standard in European football, Bayern Munich’s coach-to-be has thrived using a different shape and a more direct approach.
With Eintracht and Bayern set to face each other in the DFB Cup final on Saturday, Kovac will have a golden chance to convince his future employers, fans and pupils that adopting his system could help the club surf the crest of a revolutionary tactical wave. The Bavarian giants certainly could execute this scheme, as we’ve already covered, but the question of whether they should remains wide open.
While we won’t get a definitive answer on the matter until August, when the 2018/19 season gets underway, bundesliga.com uncovers why a variation of 3-5-2 is not only a viable option for the German champions, but a potential game changer in the European tactical landscape...
Turning a weakness into a strength
The beauty of football is that no one tactic is invincible. At least not forever. Almost one decade ago, Barcelona and Spain conquered the game with their fluid passing game. While certain departures from this style have found success during this period, we are still in the age of possession and short passing combinations. Bayern’s record-breaking six Bundesliga titles on the fly following this philosophy could be seen as a sign that tiki-taka, or at the very least its most basic concept, is still going strong.
Nevertheless, a closer look at the Bavarian giants’ stellar domestic record reveals a clear chink in their armour that, if exploited correctly, could lead to a shift in the footballing paradigm. Over the last two seasons, Bayern have lost 11 matches in all competitions and, except for their 3-0 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain in this year’s Champions League group stage and their two losses in the quarter-finals against Real Madrid the year before, they were always bested by opposition using a direct approach and mostly deployed in a 3-5-2 variation.
Watch: RB Leipzig change up their tactics to beat Bayern for the first time.
The evidence is all around
Given that most of the big names on the continental stage rely on a philosophy more or less similar to Bayern’s, it’s safe to assume that they also suffer from some of the same structural weaknesses and the German champions would be wise to draw inspiration from their own defeats in order to find new ways to stay ahead of their rivals. A deeper look at the strategies employed by those who have recently succeeded in upsetting Bayern gives us a clear picture of what such methods are.
In his two seasons at the helm of Borussia Dortmund between 2015 and 2017, Thomas Tuchel experimented heavily with a three-man backline. While his overall balance against Bayern is not flattering, he did manage to successfully implement this system for a 1-0 Klassiker win in the 2016/17 season. One of the key aspects to his approach was the use of two strikers and two attacking midfielders populating the offensive third at all times, keeping the opposing defense on edge and opening space for their main threat at the time, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, to strike. Bayern could emulate this by partnering Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller up front with Thiago and James Rodriguez behind in support.
This season, RB Leipzig employed a similar shape and, perhaps more importantly, a very vertical and direct passing style to take a 2-1 win at home over Bayern. The Saxony-based side have already established themselves as one of the leading proponents of long ball play in Europe, but it is quite telling that they abandoned their traditional 4-2-2 in pursuit of an offensively-minded 3-4-3 formation where Naby Keita acted as their main playmaker. Sacrificing a defender in order to infuse more energy and pressing in the offensive third with a box-to-box midfielder in a more advanced role could be emulated at the Allianz Arena by putting Vidal at the heart of the Bavarian attack.
Watch:Hoffenheim upset Bayern with direct football and quick thinking.
What about Eintracht?
If we’re talking about teams employing three men at the back who succeeded against Bayern, Julian Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim are the prime example. The men from Sinsheim are the most successful team in the league employing this approach consistently. In four matches against the reigning Champions, Nagelsmann has a positive record of two wins, one draw and one defeat, an impressive testament to the potential of this tactic. Niklas Süle and Sebastian Rudy, two of the most important pieces at Hoffenheim before switching to Bayern this season, are already well-schooled in the finer details of this method and could facilitate a tactical switch.
Niko Kovac has also been a firm proponent of 3-5-2 with a direct approach. While he hasn’t been able to defeat Bayern during his tenure at Frankfurt, it’s not difficult to appreciate the clearly defined style that took the club from a relegation candidate two seasons ago to a threat for European competition places. The rugged defensive style and ruthless efficiency evidenced by The Eagles’ numbers this season might draw comparisons to some of the more pragmatic sides in Europe, but his approach consists of much more than just long balls and hard tackles.
Eintracht ranked 14th in 2017/18 for shots on goal with 393, over 200 less than Bayern. In contrast, they were the 8th best scoring side in the league. Here we start to see how Kovac’s disciplinarian regime has helped the club more consistently convert their chances. From a defensive perspective, they ranked third for most fouls in the league and lead the standings in terms of yellow cards, yet one could hardly speak of indiscipline at the back as they have conceded fewer goals than all of their immediate rivals.
Watch: A deep tactical analysis of Eintracht Frankfurt under Niko Kovac courtesy of Tifo Football.
While Kovac likely won’t turn Bayern into a brawny side, we can expect them to pick up some of his signature tactical features. A more solid platform starting at the back, that can consistently deliver quality long balls and direct passes, could enable their midfield maestros like James and Thiago to exploit their creativity and flare even more than now. We can also look forward to Javi Martinez enjoying yet another season of physically bossing the midfield. Will Kovanaccio prove to be an evolution on the legacy left behind by Jupp Heynckes, or will it be a revolution that changes the basics of the game at the elite level? Watch this space.
Jaime Duque Cevallos