Pep Guardiola has reformed his Bayern Munich team this preseason, switching from a system that resembled a 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1 shape to one that definitively has the shape of a 3-4-3. The club's new tactical approach is a rare one in today's game. In fact, although popular from time to time in football history, it's a system that has been devalued as the game has become faster and wider.
Thus far, Guardiola and Bayern have had only success when using a 3-4-3. They won the Audi Cup with victories over Borussia Moenchengladbach and Wolfsburg and more recently beat Chivas Guadalajara. Although it is still only preseason and many Bayern players remain on vacation following the World Cup, Guardiola's tactics in recent friendlies have shed light on how Bayern will play in 2014-15.
Overall, the 3-4-3 is a very balanced system, both horizontally and vertically. Unlike 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1, which involve more of a defensive approach or require the defenders to play higher in order to integrate them into the passing game, the 3-4-3 is symmetrical in terms of both the length and the width of the pitch. Possessing a higher order of symmetry than any other formation, it is therefore easier to manipulate in transitioning between attack and defense.
In attack, the key difference between the current 3-4-3 and the common 4-2-3-1 is that the wingers start higher up the pitch. This difference has been exhibited by Bayern on many instances during preseason, notably in this particular case against Wolfsburg:
Once the ball was won near the Bayern box, Diego Contento picked out Franck Ribery with a long, low pass. The Frenchman was approximately level with striker Robert Lewandowski at the time and quickly turned Timm Klose. From that point, the break was on and Ribery punctuated the counterattack with a shot that only narrowly missed the target.
With counterattacking wizards like Ribery, Arjen Robben, Thomas Mueller, Mario Goetze and Lewandowski, Bayern can be downright deadly in transition. Keeping the wingers in advanced positions will offer more chances to counter and will also keep Ribery and Robben, who are 31 and 30 years old, respectively, fresher over the course of a long season.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the 3-4-3 is the midfield, specifically the wide players. In other current examples of three-man defenses, the wide-midfield players often essentially function as full-backs who are given more freedom to attack than the average defender, but who still are full-backs by nature. Stephan Lichtsteiner at Juventus is an example of this.
At Bayern, Guardiola has thus far used a natural central midfielder—Pierre Hojbjerg—on the right and a pseudo left-back—Juan Bernat—on the left. Bernat especially has flown forward time and time again, helping Ribery, especially in counterattacking situations. In this particular case against Chivas, Bayern's front three have drifted to the right in what was a counterattacking situation:
Whereas a classic full-back would be far behind a fast transition like this, Bernat is level with Ribery and within three yards of playing at the depth of the other Bayern attackers. As such, he demands attention from the right of the Chivas defense, which could leave Ribery in a one-on-one situation through the center.
Additionally, the midfield wingers in a 3-4-3 formation offer a bit more flexibility between the midfield and attacking bands than a central playmaker does in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-1-2. Whereas a classic "number 10" is just one man who typically has the freedom to drift across the pitch, the midfield wide men in the 3-4-3 offer even more unpredictability for opposing defences: There are two of them, starting on the wings, and either can move into any attacking area while leaving behind a solid, three-man band to cover. In the following example, Hojbjerg cuts inside from the right:
Hojbjerg's run puts him in position to pass to all three forwards, as well as any of his fellow midfielders, should one make a run from a central or wide position. Even if there is an extra runner from midfield, the Bayern defense is well-prepared numerically, at least through the middle: There are three center-backs and at least two midfielders in position to break up play.
The midfield wingers play a key role in Guardiola's new tactical system, not only going forward, but also in defense. More than anything else, their positioning is crucial. As important as it is that they go forward to support the attack, it's equally important that they help the defense. An example of what can happen if they are caught upfield was exhibited when Wolfsburg started a counterattack in the Telekom Cup:
In that instance, center-back Javi Martinez was forced to confront Daniel Caligiuri as he chased down a pass out of defense. The Wolfsburg winger was easily first to the ball and touched on for Maximilian Arnold, who beat Martinez to set up a three-on-three break for the Lower Saxony side. Wolfsburg did not score in that sequence, but that the type of dangerous scenario that no team would find acceptable. Elite opposition, especially teams with fast and skillful wingers, will predictably rip apart such a defense.
Ultimately, selection is the most important factor to the tactical viability of any system. The 3-4-3 can look much more aggressive or defensive depending on players used and slight tweaks in terms of defining player roles. In this regard, it can be hugely versatile.
If Guardiola is aiming for balance between attack and defense, he can use David Alaba and Philipp Lahm in the wide-midfield areas. Both have the on-ball quality to play in midfield but are world-class full-backs as well. In either case, though, the option of cutting inside and playing as an auxiliary attacker would be a bit of a stretch of the imagination.
On the other hand, and especially if Bayern are chasing a game, Guardiola could use a natural attacking midfielder like Xherdan Shaqiri or Mario Goetze, or a central midfielder like Hojbjerg or Thiago Alcantara in one of the wide-midfield positions. In such a scenario, a lot would be lost on the defensive end in terms of both ball-winning ability and positioning, though there would be more versatility offered in the attacking third.
Guardiola's 3-4-3 is, typically, a rather unique proposition. Like any other, it has its tactical strong points and weaknesses but should be good enough for Bayern to regularly win Bundesliga games against teams with significantly less star quality. The real test of Guardiola's new system will come next spring, assuming Bayern qualify for the Champions League knockout rounds. There will be little room for error, and success will depend on just a few games. But by then, Bayern players will fully understand the coach's system and there will be no room for excuses. Time will tell just what they can make of it.