When Germany took the field in Washington D.C. ahead of Sunday’s friendly against the United States, Joachim Low submitted a teamsheet that included one, perhaps two, members of what would typically be his preferred 11.
Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund had contested the Champions League Final the previous weekend, and just a day earlier, Bayern had completed a historic treble with their 3-2 win over Stuttgart in the final of the DfB-Pokal.
Deprived of his two major providers of players, the Germany manager was forced to send out what was very much his second-string side, and despite a disastrous start that included a horrific Marc-Andre ter Stegen own goal after just 16 minutes, his team managed to roar back in a second half it dominated, albeit coming just short at the final whistle and losing 4-3.
But while Low’s Germany had a mostly different physical appearance to it at RFK Stadium, the look—from a bird’s-eye view, anyway—was very much the same.
Positions that would typically have been filled by the likes of Philipp Lahm, Jerome Boateng, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mario Gotze were instead populated by Lars Bender, Stefan Reinartz and Miroslav Klose.
And while there was obviously a drop-off in quality, it didn’t come because the system had changed. If anything, the system had allowed Germany to keep things closer than they might otherwise have been.
It’s not at all uncommon for a system, for a particular football tactic, to be mimicked once it has seen success.
From Herbert Chapman and the “WM” to Rinus Michels’ “total football” to Arrigo Sacchi’s abandoning of the sweeper, tactical innovators—like any innovators—have inspired copycats whose imitations have experienced varying degrees of accomplishment.
In most cases, attempting to transplant a template from one club to another proves futile because the transplanting club simply doesn’t have the players who established the template in the first place. Ideas, grand as they may be, can only be implemented if the personnel are in place to do the implementing, and as that is almost never the case most of the imitators fall back on something rather more familiar and cautious.
Given Bayern Munich’s overwhelming success this past season, it can be tempting to wonder what sort of copycats will come after them—that is, of course, until you realize that most clubs are already playing a variation of Bayern’s 4-2-3-1 formation, anyway.
Bayern are simply doing it better; the players available to former manager Jupp Heynckes and incoming boss Pep Guardiola are smarter, better athletes and more programmed to that system than any other group, anywhere on the planet.
This was especially evident in their 7-0 aggregate destruction of Barcelona—the same Barcelona that had, themselves, been the subject of impersonators after a sustained period of success.
Where the 4-2-3-1 had previously been found wanting—in the centre of the park where a trio of playmakers, such as those employed by Barcelona, had often been able to run the show—at Bayern it was able to thrive as Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez tag-teamed the Catalan engine room to unprecedented, and deadly, effect.
Schweinsteiger and Martinez are examples of central midfielders built to precise specifications for the 4-2-3-1. They are superb athletes, have a high level of tactical nous and play a wide variety of passes with appropriate measures of weight and precision.
And stitching everything together for Bayern is one of Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller—specialists who excel at a support role in the attack, whether that means operating off the centre-forward, drifting out wide or dropping deep to lend a hand.
If there is a side that approaches Bayern’s near-perfect execution of the 4-2-3-1 it is almost certainly Dortmund—an outfit that managed to keep its shape against Bayern in the Champions League Final, being beaten only because Bayern’s personnel was more suited to the system, if ever so slightly.
When a club so dominates its opponents as Bayern did in 2012-13, and when that club is made up predominantly of home-based players, it’s not at all surprising that the national team manager will look to transplant its system into his own squad. In fact, it’s the norm.
Spain have done this to unprecedented success in recent years, winning the 2008 and 2012 European Championships and 2010 World Cup with two different managers, an assortment of players but one very consistent system.
Vicente del Bosque, in particular, has taken Barcelona’s fluid, short-passing 4-3-3 and put it to use at international level. It’s a system that relies heavily on Barcelona playmakers Xavi and Andres Iniesta, as well as a defensive tandem accustomed to how and where they like to receive the ball in their own third of the park.
Like Low last Sunday, del Bosque could be given an entirely different 11 and still get something out of them by making like-for-like changes in a system that has won trophies, that everyone associated with his setup has long bought into.
Low is doing much the same thing, and as Barcelona are the primary inspiration behind the current Spain team, so Bayern Munich are with Germany. And once Schweinsteiger, Lahm, Boateng, Badstuber (when he recovers from a serious knee injury), Kroos, Muller, Gotze and Reus are available to him, he’ll have the tools to replicate at international level what Bayern have accomplished in the club game.
That bodes well for them ahead of next year’s World Cup.
It worked for Spain, after all. Could Germany be next?