There are very few dilemmas for Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola when picking his best midfielders and forwards. There’s Robert Lewandowski at the front and contributing to most of the goals. Thomas Müller casually hangs around somewhere near the Pole up front to cause damage and then Arjen Robben is a bona fide game-changer on the right-wing.
However, Guardiola has shown his habit for tinkering with his formation in his two previous seasons at Bayern. He has made sure his team dominates possession like his former club Barcelona did under his guidance, while combining to great effect in attack. Yet the one area he hasn’t quite mastered is in defense.
As profound as his attempts are at shifting his defensive pack, simplicity has won most of the time. Philipp Lahm’s new-found role as a hybrid right-back-cum-central-midfielder came to an end quickly enough, while the 3-5-2 was used almost like an emergency formation when Bayern was afflicted by numerous fitness concerns.
This pre-season has been similar to previous - Bayern have experimented with different shapes, without impacting the attacking dynamics, despite the largely successful introduction of Douglas Costa who signed from Shakhtar Donestk. With essentially a full compliment to choose from this summer, Guardiola has stumbled across a tool that could prove invaluable for the season to come: the roaming defender.
The role differs from a conventional central-defender only when in possession. If a back-three is occupied with man-marking two strikers, the free man can bring the ball out of defense and start dangerous attacks from deep. It sees the holding-midfielder’s priorities change to attacking moves and offers more protection in defense.
Bigger expectations on Benatia
Following a relatively stable first season in Germany, one of the key players who could play this role is Mehdi Benatia. The Moroccan, now 28, signed for Bayern Munich for around 26 million euros from Serie A side Roma last summer. He had a bright reputation from his time in Italy for his solid defending and positive ideas when in possession.
He was an obvious fit for Bayern from a defensive point of view as well – his pace is strong over 10-15 yards and he is robust in the tackle. The Moroccan internationalist is blessed with all of the characteristics to make him the best example of a modern center-back in the game. He can do a lot of things really well, in essence.
But when Lahm is strategically shifted away from right-back, Benatia has the intelligence to follow wider to the right and cover the retired German international. This is perhaps an understated part of his game – he’s tactically very sound and reads the game very cleverly for a central defender.
He did so, to great effect in the win at Manchester City and versus Borussia Dortmund last season. It’s a reflection of Benatia’s qualities when Dortmund actively tried to stop the defender from carrying the ball out from defense.
The 28-year-old has passed through the adjusting phase and now is one of the regulars on the team-sheet at Bayern Munich. Expectations on the Moroccan will be much higher this season and he could be one of the vital players when Guardiola looks to adapt his tactics in the pursuit of Champions League success.
Holger Badstuber is another player who is comfortable in the three-man defense. While injuries have destroyed years of his career, there’s no accident that both Guardiola and former coach Louis van Gaal hold him in high regard.
The German’s passing is his strongest skillset; he’s something of a playmaker, just in the backline. He can bring the ball out of defense well and has a fine range of passing – long, short, direct – to bypass marked midfield options.
However, that question mark around his fitness remains – according to Transfermarkt, he has missed over 150 matches since 2012. Impressively, he returned towards the end of last season and looked composed, unflushed and in great physical shape.
Then there’s Austrian jack-of-all-trades David Alaba who played center-back in the friendly against Guangzhou Evergrande. What’s clear is that the excellent Alaba cannot be a backup option to play in a two-man partnership with Jerome Boateng; instead he’s a more explosive, dynamic ‘roaming defender’ who can play in a three against weaker opposition.
However, Alaba’s importance in midfield will probably take him out of contention. Consistent Brazilian full-back Rafinha has, at times, been part of a three-man defense and been fairly competent despite concerns about his quality against better opposition.
Finding the right combination is a matter of enormous importance for Pep Guardiola. His era – some would say a ‘failure’ without Champions League success – will be defined by his choices at the back. Will he opt for stability in bigger games, or continue taking risks despite the previous two semi-final defeats? If we know anything about Pep, we might need to wait.SHOW MORE