A year ago, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund played similarly attractive football that brought them to the Champions League final. Last May it was hard to argue that the German game was anything other than the best in the world, with high pressing, team defending and an emphasis on the minor details resulting in the complete obliteration of all opponents. The final itself was a beautiful game and an advertisement for the Bundesliga.
BVB and FCB's run in the spring of 2013 was the culmination of over a decade's careful work as the Bundesliga's massive investment in academies and youth national team training programs following reforms in 2000 finally afforded results that could be measured against international opponents. It was a long time coming, and the brand of football the finalists played came directly from the academy system.
For years, young German footballers have been trained to play a fast-paced, high-intensity game combining the physicality of high pressing and quick counterattacks with the technical aspects of one-touch passing in tight spaces. Movement with and without the ball is institutionalized and every player, regardless of position, is trained to be comfortable with the ball at his feet.
These principles and more are universal in German football, club academies are ultimately limited in autonomy from the central DFB (German FA) philosophy. Throughout the season, the DFB holds training sessions and extra friendlies for youth internationals, the point being to mould players to a specific strategy.
The results of the DFB's efforts can be seen at senior level in the Bundesliga. Although there are many distinct differences in playing style, the core of the approaches of many coaches in the German league is similar. The game plans of Christian Streich, Thomas Tuchel, Jurgen Klopp, Mirko Slomka, former Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes and more all place similar emphasis on pressing, quick transitions and generally playing football in a very crowded area in which neither side gives the other much space to operate.
The German model was found to be superlative in Europe last season. In the semifinals, Bayern gladly conceded possession to Barcelona but only in their opponents' own half. The Catalan giants' slow, methodical passing game never had much bite: Its lack of any noticeable pace meant that Bayern were always in position to challenge for the ball when it was finally played forward. And when they got it, the Germans were so quick to transition that their opponents—who required a high back line in order to keep possession—were often caught off guard. With 4-0 and 3-0 wins for Bayern over the two legs, the result was clear: The German model had comprehensively trumped tiki-taka.
Last year even Dortmund, with a first team that cost a fraction of their opponents' bench, managed to take down Real Madrid in impressive manner. Xabi Alonso was rendered ineffective in such a congested midfield and Pepe's lack of quality on the ball was exploited. Dortmund did what Joachim Low had preached for years: They made the simple aspects of the game—the runs, first touches and short-ranged passes—extraordinary.
"We clearly have better training in technical aspects. But the space on the pitch has become smaller, the time to act scarce. Individual skill is therefore the most important factor in training, more important than the system.
We need to make the simple into the very special: the passing game, the timing, the pressing and trapping, the game without the ball, how we deal with one-on-one situations, how we quickly find solutions in small spaces."
-Low, speaking to the Freiburg academy in 2011 (via SCFreiburg.com, h/t Goal.com)
Fast-forwarding to the present, German football has taken a step back in the current campaign. But it's not that the DFB's model has been found lacking. Rather, the shortcomings of Bayern and Dortmund in recent days have only reinforced how important the German philosophy is to the success of Bundesliga teams.
On Wednesday, Klopp's Dortmund were put to the sword by Real, losing 3-0 at the Bernabeu. BVB were decimated, their lineup containing just four of the starters that featured in their 4-1 win against the Spaniards last season.
The absence of Robert Lewandowski of course played a huge part in the result but Dortmund's deficiency was most felt in midfield. Last year, Marco Reus, Mario Gotze and Ilkay Gundogan were three options with exceptional ability to operate in close spaces. Each player has a soft first touch, exquisite dribbling ability and sublime spatial instincts to understand where and how to move before the ball arrives at his feet. These are hallmarks of the modern German philosophy and thus is why Low has for so long spoken so highly especially of Gotze and Gundogan.
Of those three, only Reus played for Dortmund on Wednesday. Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Nuri Sahin, although skilled in other ways, lacked the versatility and ability in tight spaces of Gotze and Gundogan. And Dortmund as a result were unable to keep possession and move the ball cohesively in midfield.
Without the ball, Dortmund were comprehensively outmuscled, their gegenpressing system simply not an option for the slow, 34-year-old Sebastian Kehl and physically weak and almost passive Sahin.
All the things that made Dortmund a better team than Real last season were missing on Wednesday as a result of transfers, suspensions and injuries. It may be true that lesser class among those who played was a significant factor, but the fact that they were unable to play their game—the game Low and the DFB have long pushed for—was also hugely influential and must not go unnoticed.
Bayern fared better on Tuesday and are on their way to the semifinals if results hold, but their performance against the worst Manchester United in decades—especially following poor displays at home against Arsenal and Manchester City—means that something must change if they are to stand a chance at defending the treble they won in such dominant manner last May.
Pep Guardiola inherited the best team in the world last summer but has changed nearly everything. Mario Mandzukic is no longer a full-time starter, Philipp Lahm is now a midfielder and not a full-back, Javi Martinez is now a center-back and not a midfielder. Instead of a containment and counterattack method around which Heynckes selected his team, the Bavarians are now using the same possession-based philosophy their very same players so handily overcame against Barcelona last April.
Reviewing Guardiola's game plan in Manchester, it's hard to make any sense of it. In order to keep possession, Bayern used a high defensive line and three central midfielders (Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos) who all offer similar qualities on the ball: Great distribution ability in deep areas but limited dribbling and "No. 10"-type qualities around and in the penalty area. In a sense, the three "safe" midfield options shielded the high defensive line. However, there were multiple occasions when the defense was caught out nonetheless by United's "route one" football.
Bayern's possession-first approach forced United to defend deep in their own penalty area, leaving the aging and slow Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand with little running to do—and quick, counterattacking masters Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Thomas Muller with no room to run behind the defenders. There was no pace, no counterattack, no DFB-inspired football. The only viable option in attack was to whip in crosses, but Guardiola didn't introduce Mandzukic until 27 minutes remained. The Croat's impact was felt within four minutes, when he nodded down a cross for Schweinsteiger to score the equalizer.
Bayern were tailor-made to play in the modern German mould and were dominant when they did. Guardiola has turned everything upside down and the treble winners have more often than not been found to perform beneath their ability when tested on the biggest stage. A 1-1 draw on the road is not a bad result, but this team can do so much more if used to its strengths.
Ironically, Low has come under heavy criticism for not delivering titles when it was his and the DFB's core footballing philosophy that made Bayern and Dortmund the two best football teams in Europe. Sadly, Dortmund have been unable to field the players capable of playing the modern German game while Guardiola has rejected the model altogether—potentially at the risk of the success of a German national team that contains seven Bayern players who will have played an entire year in a very different system.
Low will again take heavy criticism from fans if Germany don't manage to do the improbable in winning the World Cup in Brazil. The sad truth is, those who condemn him won't have realized that without him, Hansi Flick and the visionaries at the DFB, Bayern and Dortmund would never have contested the 2013 Champions League final.