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Tactical Analysis: Pep Guardiola's 2-3-5 at Bayern Munich

We analyse the effective and outrageous 2-3-5 formation employed by the former Barcelona task master for the Bundesliga giants

Guardiola is considered by many as the best football tactician in the world currently

Pep Guardiola has always been known for his tactical experiments and this season has turned out to be no exception. He has even invited criticism for the same as former Bayern Munich manager Ottmar Hitzfeld has accused Guardiola for being a ‘tactics freak’ and not focusing on man-management or producing the desired results.

However in truth, these tactical innovations are also as a result of a combination of reasons like the injury crisis not allowing the best eleven to be chosen, the opposition’s approach to the game and identifying weaknesses in the opposition. Pep has even mentioned before that all he tries to do is try analyzing the opponent and just demolish them. 

There is no doubt that Pep Guardiola’s men have done justice to the latter part of the manager’s statement as they have gone on to demolish even some of the top quality teams like Borussia Dortmund, Wolfsburg and Arsenal to name a few. So let’s look at how the former Barcelona manager made the 2-3-5 experiment work.

The team is set up in such a way to keep the following intact:

Numbers in attack: 

Having an extra man or two to be able to hold the ball, build up play gradually, enter the opponent’s final third or to win the ball back immediately after being dispossessed is extremely important in order to play total football. The extra man would not only be a channel through which the team could move the ball from defense to attack but also a channel to spread the play to either flanks.

He would also serve as a bait to pull a man from defense out of position to help the midfield and create gaps at the back. Similarly, if a player from the attack decides to join the midfield to compensate, then the ball could be played out from the back yet again.

Moreover, the opposition forward(s) is likely to be worn out after a lot of his energy being channeled into defensive work and that in turn will affect his performance on the attack. Organization/structure remains the priority until Bayern enters the final third after which, the players up front are given complete freedom to choose the best possible option to create chances.

Maintain width: 

As mentioned earlier, the main motive is to create chances by having the lion’s share of possession. But providing width to the attack is very crucial while playing total football for the simple reason that the team would be having more numbers in the attacking half as such and it is very likely that the opposition would try to halt the attack by putting equal or more numbers behind the ball in their own half.

That is when it becomes difficult for the attacking team to break through and thus providing width becomes the key to unlock defenses. It does not mean that the chances necessarily have to come through the flanks but providing width tends to stretch the opposition defense either by creating gaps in between the center backs or between a center back and a full back.

Those pockets in between the defenders could be exploited through dangerous runs by the forward and the attacking midfielder or second striker and the defending side will try its best to avoid these gaps by staying compact, maintaining a narrow shape. If the opposition goes for the latter and remains narrow then they again run the risk of leaving the flanks open and they are likely to force their wingers to track back and help out the defense.

With the wingers busy providing support to the defense, even in a scenario where the opposition win the ball back they would not have enough players up front to initiate a threatening counter-attack. This is how it works for Pep’s men and the defensive work rate that the game demands tends to tire the opponents as the game progresses.

It is even possible that this could be the reason why the Bavarians tend to break down their opponents more often in the second half and simply take the game away from them as compared to the first 45 minutes. 

Expansion & contraction of the pitch:

The risk-return tradeoff in this system is the high line defense. The last line of defense comprises only of the two center-backs in general and the regista (central defensive midfielder) just ahead of them. Thus if the opposition have to be able to counter, they need to stay onside.

So the last line of defense being so high that the opposition will have no choice but to have all their outfielders in their own half with the forward who needs to breakthrough being the farthest. This is how the offside trap becomes offensive since when Pep’s men lose possession in the opponent’s half, they would immediately be pressed intensely and no time given to look for the forward,

Moreover, the forward’s run needs to be timed to perfection that he beats the last line of defense for pace but also remains onside when the ball is played. So the space available on the pitch to the opposition is cut into half, with the defensive line being extremely high. Once possession has been won back, Bayern reorganize themselves and build play from the center backs with all other outfielders stretching the opposition to create space. 

Analyzing the 2-3-5: 

2-3-5 vs FC Koln

This is yet another revelation that Pep has brought about this season. Bayern were lined up in a 2-3-5 in a handful of games in the 2015/16 campaign and this has proven effective especially against teams that ensure their players are behind the ball and depend largely on counter-attacking. So this is not a situation that Pep hasn’t faced before at Barcelona and he has always found ways to nullify this numerical advantage of the opposition in their own half.

How does the pyramid 2-3-5 work?

The first question which comes to anyone who hears about the 2-3-5 is that how can a team play with emphasis merely on attacking and having just two men at the back? This is how they are set up;

So the last defensive line of two defenders comprises generally of Boateng and Benatia/Martinez, but Pep deployed Rafinha or even Alaba during times of injury crisis wherein he ran out of centre-back options. The defenders are the first attackers in Pep’s dictionary as they initiate attacks by playing the ball out from the back and thereby get past the first defensive line of the opposition.

How Guardiola’s team plays out from the back largely depends on the opposition’s approach without the ball. If the opposition have crowded the final third, then a direct diagonal ball to the wingers from the centre-back has been a viable option while if the pressure is relatively lesser, then the full-backs who are in central midfield are utilized to build play. 

The 2-3-5 is arranged in such a manner that no player is positioned 90 degrees to the man in possession or in simpler terms, no player is vertically in the same line as the ball possessor. This is done in order to create more passing lanes as this ensures more triangles are created on the pitch. 

It is absolutely essential to create triangles on the pitch as it facilitates retaining possession by providing the player on the ball with multiple options to pass to. Thus in this case, if Vidal (about to receive the ball) is pressed by an opposition player from triangle 1, he has the option of passing to either to the right winger (Coman) or the inside forward (Robben).

Similarly if pressure is from triangle 2, he has the option of passing to either inside forward (Robben) or center forward (Muller). The same applies to triangle 3, triangle 4 and so on; In other words, the player in possession has at least two passing lanes for every opposition player who is in a position to press him.    

The 5 attackers: 2 wingers, 2 inside forwards and 1 striker

Positioning on different vertical lines to ensure triangles on the pitch. 

The attackers are lined up such that there are two wingers to maintain width, while Lewandowski remains in his usual number 9 role. The wingers are two of the very few in the lineup who have a structured role and that is to maintain the width at all situations and try stretching the back four of the opposition as much as possible.

Thus the two wingers remain high and wide, hugging the touchline (wider away from the opposition full backs) at all situations and occasionally swap positions with the inside forwards. It is these inside forwards who make things happen in the whole setup.

Douglas Costa has been deployed in this position and their job is to drop deep to help out the central midfield during build-up play, swap positions with the wingers and also create problems to the defenders by positioning in between the lines and ideally between a centre back and a full back. The other inside forward would also a play similar role to that of Costa.

Thomas Muller is generally the option for this position as he naturally tends to drift into the box alongside Lewandowski and also drops deep to help the team out defensively.

In most situations, the objective of the build-up play is to create a 1v1 situation on either of the flank, from where it is the responsibility of the winger to beat his man and cross it for the on-coming Lewandowski, the inside forward and the other winger to latch onto it. If the winger does not find the situation ideal, then the ball would quickly be circulated to the other flank, wherein the other winger is handed the same task.

How numerical advantage has paid off?

Numerical advantage in attack leaves Lahm (man in possession) in acres of space in the final third.

For example, in the above image Lahm at central midfield is left completely free as the opposition has committed its full back and winger to mark Robben (inside forward) and Coman (right winger). Now Lahm can act as the third attacking option on the right flank and has the following options to choose from:

  1.  Combination play on the right with Coman/Robben.
  2.  Go for a teasing cross with Lewandowski, Muller charging into the box.
  3.  Switch play with a long ball to the left flank where Costa is completely unmarked as the opposition right back (circled yellow in the picture) is in the edge of the box wary of Lewandowski’s run towards the 6-yard box and a potential run from Rafinha towards the edge of the box as well.   

Conclusion

It is amusing to see what was called the pyramid formation back in the late 1890s, to be deployed in an era where football is fast paced, technical and highly competitive. It is that determination to win, boldness in decision-making and tactical nous of Guardiola that makes it possible for us to witness the beautiful game being played the way it ideally should be.

While it is no secret that Guardiola will not be continuing his stint at Bayern Munchen next season, there is no doubt that the Catalan will go all out in the current campaign, not only to compete for every possible trophy but also to ensure that however small a detail, his tactical experiments will not spare them from being given outright attention to achieve what he has always been after; and that is perfection.    

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