How Teams Can Stop Pep Guardiola's 3-4-3 at Bayern Munich

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How Teams Can Stop Pep Guardiola's 3-4-3 at Bayern Munich
Matthias Schrader/Associated Press

Bayern Munich have a new look about them as they enter the 2014-15 season: A 3-4-3 formation that is uncommon in today's game and a tactical approach that has coach Pep Guardiola's signature.

For most of the preseason, Guardiola employed the 3-4-3 with Javi Martinez as the middle center back and a natural full-back on either side (David Alaba and Rafinha).

The rest of his lineup he kept more or less classic, using natural forwards that included a main striker as well as a left wing-back and a pair of central midfielders. The only somewhat strange part perhaps was the trainer's use of central midfielder Pierre Hojbjerg on the right of midfield.

The 3-4-3 is a formation that bears reflectional symmetry over both axes in the plane of the pitch and as such is somewhat of a geometrical wonder for coaches. It also has very obvious strengths and weaknesses by the vary nature of its balance.

On the one hand, having three players starting from a high position and supported especially by the wide midfielders makes Bayern daunting opposition in counterattacking situations.

Having wing-backs (wide midfielders) that line up in midfield is almost an open admission of their intended involvement in the attack, but having three defenders behind them is good cover; definitely better than if the wing-backs in a 4-2-3-1 were both pushed forward.

However, too much freedom for the wing-backs can also come at a price if Bayern are attacked down the flanks. And therein lies their greatest potential weakness.

With their wide midfielders having an equilibrium position higher up the pitch than that of natural full-backs and not necessarily playing an offside trap with the center backs, it's possible for Bayern's quicker opponents to find space behind the wing-backs and wide of the center-backs.

Despite their heavy loss, Wolfsburg managed to do just that several times in the Telekom Cup.

The other area where Bayern can be exploited at the back is in the air. In his most recent lineup, Guardiola started four players above six feet tall: Hojbjerg, Martinez, Robert Lewandowski and Claudio Pizarro.

Of those four, only Martinez played in defense; he was flanked by the 5'7" Rafinha and David Alaba who, despite being 5'11" has a rather slender frame. In fact, it was Rafinha who was shrugged off before Bradley Wright-Phillips' stunning strike for the MLS All-Stars in their recent friendly.

Among any of the players in the team that faced the MLS' best, only Martinez had both the size and strength to give the team confidence in their ability to defend against crosses which, if opponents can get behind the wide midfielders, will be plentiful.

If Guardiola uses the likes of Dante and Jerome Boateng once both are fully fit, however, Bayern will have a much stronger team to defend against aerial threats.

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Wright-Phillips' goal was a real stunner, but the chance could have been avoided.

Bayern are a team that play to win the majority of possession and will be terrifying when breaking forward.

It's vital for any opponents to be mindful not only of their wingers, but of the midfielders that overlap behind them. A tactically disciplined team playing with a four-man defense should be able to manage so long as their full-backs are not caught out of position.

Although Bayern will be exceptionally strong on the wings, they can be expected to turn inward as they approach the penalty area. Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben are both inverted wingers and are very dangerous when cutting inside from initially wide positions.

Therefore, it is important to keep a narrow gap between the last two bands, the center backs and holding midfielders, in order to limit susceptibility to dribbles and through passes.

The key for Bayern's opponents is to deny their wingers the inside route and force one of the central midfielders to join in the attack. Once the ball is won back, there will be only one Bayern central midfielder to defend the width of the pitch.

If Bayern's opponents start to break forward quickly, there could be the opportunity to open up a four-on-four (or potentially even better) breakaway.

Playing against Bayern is always extremely difficult and often frustrating. But if a team can exploit Guardiola's obsession with control and possession and avoid becoming frustrated themselves for spending much of the 90 minutes chasing the ball around the pitch, they will have an easier game to play.

Grueling effort aside, playing defensively and inviting opponents to attack can be a simpler and easier form of football. And it can give Bayern the impression that the onus is on them to score in order to achieve a satisfactory result, whereas keeping the terms level would be acceptable for the other team.

Bayern may at times look unbeatable and are in any case daunting opponents to face. But no system is perfect, and Guardiola and company will have their work cut out for them if they take on quick, hard-working, disciplined and confident teams.

There will be chances for Bayern's opponents; the question is whether they will have the nerve to take them.

 

Follow Clark Whitney on Twitter

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