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How Bayern Munich’s attack is evolving without the talismanic No. 9

Robert Lewandowski, the number 9 who broke so many Bayern Munich and Bundesliga goals records in his eight-year career at the Allianz Arena, traveled to Barcelona last month. His departure marks the end of an era for the club.

With Bayern going without their top scorer for the past eight seasons, a big question arises: how will coach Julian Nagelsmann organize his team in 2022/23 without their superstar striker? Now that we’ve seen the German Super Cup (a 5-3 win over RB Leipzig) and Bayern’s 6-1 win over Eintracht Frankfurt, we can analyze what might be to come.

Lewandowski’s role over the years

It’s important to realize that the way Lewandowski was deployed under Nagelsmann was different than in previous years.

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Since Bayern took Lewandowski from competitor Borussia Dortmund in 2014, managers from Pep Guardiola to Hansi Flick have preferred to play a one-forward system with him at the center of their attack. In most of those games spanning eight seasons, Lewandowski’s main positioning focused on central areas of the field, not just the middle of the last third.

One of his jobs was to occupy the space of both centre-backs and force those defenders to cover him (aka pinning back), making it more difficult to defend in unison with the rest of the defence. From there, Lewandowski could jump between the lines to take part in Bayern’s connection game or attack the space behind the defenders. This task was ideal for him because he started in central areas which made it a nightmare for those defenders as he could use every possible route and angle. He had more attacking opportunities than his opponents could cover.

Considering there are no restrictions on where Lewandowski could go from center court, he could attack spaces in front of or behind a defender into the space out of their field of view. This, coupled with the striker’s world-class technical ability, defiant dribbling and balance of skills every striker needs, explains why he was able to break multiple records held by Bayern legend Gerd Muller.

Ultimately, Lewandowski was also supported as a star by the politics of FC Bayern Munich. Star players are generally made happy for their place with no real challenges. This allowed him to be front and center with his replacement Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting lucky enough to come along.

Naglesmann implements change

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Arne Friedrich explains why Bayern Munich hope Sadio Mane can replace part of Robert Lewandowski’s production.

When Nagelsmann was appointed Bayern coach last summer, it didn’t change Lewandowski’s role or range of motion in possession, but the manager increased the number of attackers in the penalty area so the Poland international was still not restricted by his position on the pitch , but was instead disrupted by its own players. We know this because his expected goals per shot were exactly the same as in the 2020/21 season under Flick, but Lewandowski scored fewer goals. We have plenty of examples of Bayern overcrowding the penalty area, most recently in their Champions League quarter-final defeat to Villarreal last season.

It was Nagelsmann’s idea that more players in the penalty area would generate more offensive danger and thus more chances to score, since the Bayern players would have a numerical advantage to pick up second balls or defectors. It didn’t matter who came, as long as one of them came.

But his role also changed outside of possession. In front of Nagelsmann, Lewandowski would lead the press from a central position, forcing the opponent to dodge and blocking his passing paths into the center of the field. With Nagelsmann as head coach, that all changed when he used more players up front to put opponents under pressure. So Lewandowski was pushed to the side instead of from the middle. If Bayern won the ball, he was in a worse position to counterattack.

Mane marks the beginning of a new era

With the signing of Sadio Mane from Liverpool earlier in the summer, I predicted he was likely to be played up front rather than on the wing unless Serge Gnabry considered leaving, but he ended up signing a new contract. Now that we’ve seen the German Super Cup and its opener in Frankfurt we know that’s true, but it’s not an absolute replacement as I originally thought – and it changed Gnabry’s role too.

Against RB Leipzig and Frankfurt, Nagelsmann played both up front in a 4-box-2 formation, with Jamal Musiala and Thomas Müller as half-wingers (not as wide as a typical winger but not as central as a No.10) behind them. This gives Bayern incredible flexibility as Musiala and Müller slice inward and occupy central areas between their opponents’ lines, freeing Mane and Gnabry to drop onto the wings or attack the space behind their rivals’ last line of defense.

This setup allows attackers to switch positions frequently, disrupting the opposing team’s ability to stay organized while chasing Bayern. This worked perfectly thanks to each player’s individual profiles: Mane’s combination of quickness and finishing allows him to constantly attack the spaces behind the defense; Gnabry’s technical ability and pace help him equalize Mane’s runs backwards as he falls between the lines.

Musiala’s finesse at dribbling in tight spaces and Muller’s ability to find space provide the strikers with the perfect balance to leave their positions as Muller and Musiala are able to cut inside (see above). As soon as a player occupies a new area, another player takes over his old position and so on, which is why it is so difficult to fight back.

With Leroy Sane and Kingsley Coman, both more traditional wingers who like to stay further than in the half-spaces, Nagelsmann can also bring more speed, directness and – if necessary – width into his game.

Nagelsmann continues to rely on the same structure mechanics as in the previous season. These include Benjamin Pavard, who stays deeper and helps his team’s centre-backs build play, and Alphonso Davies, who pushes higher. The double pivot consists of one pivot player (usually Joshua Kimmich) staying just ahead of the centre-backs and a higher one helping at this stage of the game (usually Leon Goretzka, but so far it has been Marcel Sabitzer).

Bayern have combined their strengths (ball movement and fluid play within the front four) and taken a big step towards redefining their attack. Instead of relying on a single player, they can now spread the attacking threat across their back four, which saw them score 10 goals against RB Leipzig and Eintracht Frankfurt.

It’s been a great start to life without Lewandowski and it remains to be seen how players like Sane, Coman, Ryan Gravenberch or young Mathys Tel will complement Bayern’s revamped attack as the season progresses.

https://www.espn.com/soccer/bayern-munich-gerbayern_munich/story/4718075/life-without-lewandowski-how-bayern-munichs-attack-is-evolving-without-the-talismanic-no-9 How Bayern Munich’s attack is evolving without the talismanic No. 9

Emma Bowman

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