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Bayern Munich's Tactical Tweak Flicks Switch On Thomas Muller
What do you get if you add four, two, three and one? A 3-1 win, it seems. For the first time since taking over at Bayern Munichin the summer, Carlo Ancelotti abandoned his 4-3-3 formation at kick-off for Friday night's game in Mainz and went for the setup that worked so well under his predecessor, Pep Guardiola. The effect was magical.
"We haven't played like we played in the first half for weeks," Arjen Robben said after his 150th Bundesliga appearance, per Bayern's official website. "As a player, it's really fun. We had a lot of movement, a lot of surprise, and I think that we have lacked the element of surprise in recent weeks."
The initial surprise was upon seeing the lineup given Ancelotti's stubbornness in sticking to his tried-and-tested strategy. There was less surprise on the pitch, though, as Bayern, whose players have been crying out for the switch, reverted to the type of 2015/16.
As Bild stated: "Carlo wins with Pep plan." There was movement, and just as there had been under Guardiola, there was goal threat—everything that had been lacking for much of Bayern's season so far. They had 71 per cent possession, and though that may not be entirely abnormal for Bayern, they did a lot with it in the opening period at the Opel Arena.
"In the first half, we were really good and should have actually scored more goals," Robben added, per Bayern's official website. He was right.
The pairing of Robben with Franck Ribery for the first time in the starting lineup since March played a part in what was certainly Bayern's best first-half performance this season. Robbery were their usual selves, providing pace, trickery, crosses and shots from wide positions—notably the Dutchman, who wonderfully teed up Robert Lewandowski for the first goal and scored the second himself.
But it was their understanding with each other and with Thomas Muller in particular that provided the key to Bayern's much-improved display, as the three behind Lewandowski were superb before the break.
The way they fluidly switched positions caused all sorts of problems for Mainz and rolled back the clock 12 months. Look at where Muller crossed from for Robben to score Bayern's second: Muller was on the right, Robben was at the back post and Ribery was through the middle.
That sort of movement is a nightmare for defenders, who are creatures of habit and like to know exactly from where and from whom the danger is coming. It was easy to see what Robben meant about the element of surprise.
The biggest impact of the tactical change was on Muller. He had been a shadow of the man who claimed a career-best 20 league goals last season, playing in a wide position in Ancelotti's 4-3-3. Though he remains without a goal in the Bundesliga this season, the Germany international's contribution in Mainz was immense.
"When the coach told me that we were going to play differently, I was naturally happy about that," Muller said, per Kicker. "The pressure was high, though. I was going to play in my preferred position, so I had to deliver."
He certainly did that. Twice inside the opening 12 minutes, he dashed in behind the Mainz defence. The first time, the pass to him was cut out by a desperate stretch from a Mainz defender; the second, which showcased Mats Hummels' ability to pick out a laser-precise long ball, found its target, and only a sharp instinctive save from Mainz goalkeeper Jonas Lossl prevented Muller opening his league account for 2016/17.
Shortly afterward, he tried a half-volley from a tight angle that Lossl did well to save at his near post and then attempted a backheel that nearly played Robben in on goal. It smacked of a player full of confidence, revelling in his role on the pitch, and it was different to the man we have seen in recent months.
The fact Muller was not only dangerous in the final third but also covered more ground than any other Bayern player—despite being substituted three minutes from time—merely added to the impression that he was in his element. "Today, it was fun," Muller said, per Bayern's official website.
The placement of Muller in the middle of the pitch also made a difference to Lewandowski. It is surely no coincidence that the Poland international struck twice, ending a run of three games without a goal and after having scored just two goals in his previous nine league outings. The Pole was so much more involved in his team's play and looked much less isolated with Muller, Ribery and Robben buzzing around him.
Perhaps most importantly, the man himself felt the difference. "Through the new system, we have more opportunities to play attacking football," Lewandowski said, per Bild. "A lot goes through the middle of the pitch. The system worked well. For me, it's important to have Thomas behind me. And it's better for him that he can come from further back."
Muller, like his team-mates, was less effective in the second half, but even though they only had a one-goal lead, they had such a stranglehold on the match that no one expected anything less than a Bayern third to kill the game off. That it came so late—from Lewandowski in added time—was the only surprise.
"I was, above all, happy with the first half," Ancelotti said, per Bild. "We made some nice combinations."
It remains to be seen whether he was happy enough to ensure a permanent change of heart. But surely what he saw in the opening 45 minutes was enough to convince him he has to at least again try a setup in which his players clearly enjoy playing.