With yet another victory to add to the collection this week, Bayern Munich seem to have reached a point in their pursuit of perfection that all but the number of goals they win by seems to be a foregone conclusion no matter who or where they play.
The Bundesliga has all but bowed down to its retaining masters for yet another season, and if preliminary results in Europe are anything to go by then it would seem that the Champions League doesn't hold much hope of resisting either.
Yet underneath all that success, gloss and sheer strength there is a battle going on between Pep Guardiola and himself. For even though Bayern are still winning week in and week out, their face changes with every game.
In one of the first top-of-the-table clashes in the Bundesliga this season, Bayern travelled to Gelsenkirchen to take on a faltering Schalke side with the 4-1-4-1 formation that Pep had heralded as his new direction for the club.
This meant a standard set up with Mario Mandzukic up front on his own, a flat four of attacking midfielders—Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery—supported by the ever-reliable Philipp Lahm in his new defensive position in the middle of the pitch.
The Bavarian side dominated the game as one would expect to the tune of four goals to nil, with a stand-out performance that underlined Guardiola's alteration tactics for the side. His new formation had beaten one of the country's top clubs by a considerable margin, confirming success for his earlier theories.
Manchester City (October)
Then came the Champions League and with it the opening tie against former Premier League champions Manchester City.
This game was a strong test for the new coach and his ever-changing side, and so Guardiola opted to stick with the 4-1-4-1 tactic that had done him so well up until that point. The same midfield was deployed with Lahm in the holding role, while Thomas Muller took to the task of playing as the lone striker.
As we saw in that game, Bayern completely dominated throughout as Manuel Pellegrini's side struggled to cope with the possession and dominance of the European champions. Most stat websites put the German club's share of the ball at just over two thirds that night, yet the most interesting point is the fact that Muller was only called offside once.
Guardiola's team played as a front five with the striker pulling back to play in the hole between City's midfield and their back line. This hybrid tactic of Guardiola's new total football was alive and well in Manchester that night.
Then something changed. And from the working 4-1-4-1 tactic that was working so well for Bayern up until now, Guardiola went back to the drawing board and changed his side again.
In truth such an evolution was all but forced upon the coach due to the long-term injury of Schweinsteiger and Mario Gotze's return from injury.
The former Dortmund midfielder was indeed that—a midfielder—but he wasn't the kind of player who could simply slot in to the middle of Bayern's flat four in place of Schweinsteiger. As such, Guardiola was forced to expand his trio in midfield and push one player forward to become something akin to a No. 10.
This was first made clear when the side played Dortmund back in November. Ribery was out injured and Jurgen Klopp's own side were plagued with injuries, but Guardiola chose to go with a 4-2-3-1 against a major side for the first time this season.
As we can see, this meant starting Kroos in the more advanced role while Muller was pulled over to the right-hand side and Robben on the left. While Javi Martinez was drafted in to play a midfield role alongside Lahm that was not too dissimilar from the one he did so well with Schweinsteiger last season.
Bayern went on to win the game with relative ease in what was a defining moment in the title race between the two sides, but in the context of how Guardiola looked at his side, it does seem to have been a turning point in his reliance on the initial 4-1-4-1 formation.
Manchester City (December)
If Guardiola did still have ambitions for his first tactic, they were well and truly killed when Man City arrived in Munich to face Bayern in the final game of their Champions League group stage just a few weeks after the Dortmund clash.
Bayern did, in fact, revert back to the 4-1-4-1 formation for the two following games against Eintracht Braunschweig and Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga after the Dortmund match and as such the Catalonian coach opted to stick to his guns and face City with the same formation that had beaten them so well in Manchester.
This amounted to a flat four once again, but with Thiago Alcantara in Lahm's place while Kroos and Gotze sat in front of the Spanish midfielder, with Muller and Robben on either wing.
Yet Guardiola's initial fears of playing Gotze as a central midfielder were well and truly realised when Pellegrini's side surprised us all with a well-earned 3-2 victory at the Allianz Arena.
Bayern had their chances, of course, and they controlled possession as they normally do, but without Lahm in midfield or a battler such as Schweinsteiger or Martinez, they looked vulnerable and as such were picked off by the Premier League side.
That was the last time Bayern started a game in any competition with a 4-1-4-1 formation.
Which then brings us quite conveniently to the match against Arsenal this week in which Bayern tossed and turned but ultimately won by two goals to nil.
If we look at how Guardiola chose to set up his German and European champions in this important clash, it's evident that Bayern were playing in a simple 4-2-3-1 that doesn't look too different from the one that won them the competition last May.
Thiago and Martinez were tasked with holding the midfield figure, while Kroos played as the traditional No. 10. Gotze, who Guardiola has all but given up hope of converting to a striker or central midfielder, was once again on the left wing while Robben played on his usual right.
An initial scare from Arsenal was later dealt with through a red card—an unjust one at that—to the home side, and Bayern's own solution by moving Lahm back into midfield and pushing Martinez back to centre-back.
Such tactics seem like no more than common sense when one is asked to put together a starting 11 from Bayern players, but it is important to note the journey in which the shape of this side has taken over the course of the season.
From a new, brave 4-1-4-1 hybrid formation that clearly had influences from his former Barcelona days, Guardiola has now all but given up and confined his side to tactics that were doing so well from the start. Die Roten have stopped playing Barcelona football and reverted back to their Bayern roots.
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