Stopping Bayern isn't impossible, but under Pep Guardiola it's pretty close
Pep Guardiola's Bayern Munich are unique. Most teams that are as successful as they have been during the past two and a half seasons are built around a few stars and what they do best. Whether it's Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid, Barcelona's current magical three pronged attack or even the Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta trio of Guardiola's Barcelona days, most great teams have talents that are so superior that it would be silly for everything not to flow from them.
The dynamic at Bayern is different. The way the talent is distributed from top to bottom, and the way the team's biggest stars are also its most versatile, gives Guardiola the freedom to mastermind an approach that is unlike anything at the upper echelons of the game.
Bayern's most valuable players are also its most versatile, guys who possess a specifically defined skill set that can be deployed in a number of different positions. In attack, Thomas Muller always, always shows up at the right time who no matter where he plays. Guardiola can deploy him as a lone forward, in a band behind the striker or on the wing and he's still reliably going to show up and score. That gives Guardiola the freedom to customize the other attacking options around him.
On the left side, Bayern have David Alaba. The young Austrian is one of the most thoroughly well-rounded soccer players in today's game; whether he's deployed at left-back, center-back or in the midfield, he boasts the skills of all three positions.
Then there's Philipp Lahm. Guardiola's first grand experiment upon arriving at Bayern Munich was to move Lahm from right-back, where he might have been the best in the world, to the center of the pitch as a defensive midfielder. He's mostly moved on from that experiment but not because Lahm has failed -- instead, Guardiola now has him move into those central positions from his starting right-back slot. During the course of the game it's not at all uncommon to see Lahm both do normal full-back things -- move up the right flank in support of a winger in attack -- and completely unconventional things like dropping between the two center-backs during sustained spells of possession.
That kind of versatility is the key to Munich's execution of the system Guardiola has implemented and the term "juego de posicion" is currently en vogue when it comes to describing Guardiola's methodology.
The idea is that the team's offense is conducted by all of the players moving together and in relationship to one another. So depending on where the ball is, different players have different responsibilities and need to take up different positions in relationship to each other. The result is supposed to maximize passing options (both long and short) and dangerous attacking opportunities, as well as enhancing ball-retention possibilities at all times.
On one level, juego de posicion is just a description of playing good attacking soccer. What distinguishes it is that it focuses on the process as opposed to the result. For most teams and players, good functional attacks are the result of somewhat individual instructions coming together -- for example, a winger told to cut inside to exploit a full-back repeatedly combined with a full-back told to overlap aggressively. Hopefully, the result of these collective individual instructions is something that looks like a healthy positional attack.
Juego de Posicion focuses on the positioning first and foremost. So a winger's job is not to cut inside, it is to move to a certain position in relation to other players (which will sometimes mean he cuts inside). A full-back's job is not to overlap; it is to get to a certain place on the field in relation to other players (which sometimes results in overlapping).
Given that approach, it's easy to see why Guardiola depends so heavily on the versatility of his squad. Bayern often line up in what is nominally a 4-1-4-1 alignment. In the band of four players behind the striker, there will usually be three players who seem to play like traditional wingers. With Douglas Costa, Arjen Robben, Kingsley Coman and a newly healthy Franck Ribery, Munich are brimming with attacking wing talent. It's not at all unusual to see Munich have four or even five attacking players probing an opponent's back line at the same time.
For most teams, this would lead to a large traffic problem in midfield. After all, with half the outfield players ahead of the ball and two or three behind it, there are going to be very few options available to a midfielder on the ball should the opposition close them down. That seldom becomes an issue with Bayern because even in those hyper-aggressive moments there is always a plan. It usually involves either Alaba or Lahm being exceedingly comfortable doing things that most orthodox players deployed at their position wouldn't be comfortable doing.
That doesn't mean that Guardiola has developed some sort of magical soccer wizard elixir to guaranteed success with juego de posicion. But by combining positional ideals with an extremely talented and versatile squad, his team moves more aggressively and in more varied ways than any other team out there.
But all that movement takes time. For example, a right-back moving between split center-backs while a right winger drops down the right flank, and an "inside" winger moving to the right as the striker drops deep so that the left winger can make a run in behind is the kind of intricate move that is terribly difficult for defenses to cope with, given all the moving parts. It's also the kind of thing that takes a lot of time to develop, but Bayern make time for themselves because it's so hard to get the ball off of such high-quality players.
But mistakes happen and if they happen at the wrong time, Bayern can be left astonishingly open.
Many of soccer's most dominant teams get the ball into the opposition zone first and then pin them back. Bayern can pin people back first with the amount of bodies they throw forward, and then bring in the ball. It changes where their vulnerabilities are. Playing deep and compact against Bayern is a fool's errand for most teams; it simply gives them the time and space to shift in ways a defense won't be able to follow. They'll open up holes in parts of the field where you could swear there were three defenders just seconds before. Bayern are built to have a genuine, never-ending stream of passing options with which to break apart a defense.
Pressuring them can lead to disaster but it also takes away much of the versatility they rely on. At best, it forces the kinds of mistakes to which Bayern are uniquely vulnerable, where they are caught midmove and suddenly find themselves painfully outgunned in defense. Moves like that are how both Barcelona and Real Madrid knocked them out of the Champions League during the past two seasons.
At worst it turns Bayern Munich into a conventional, if still great, team. Without time for all the intricate movement they have to resort to a more basic (though still effective) game plan of pressured defenders moving the ball forward to pressured midfielders, who in turn move the ball up the field to wingers and forwards who then get to pick on isolated defenders.
Bayern Munich aren't a perfect team, they're just a very unique one. The combination of their incredible talent and their incredible versatility means with Guardiola's staunch belief in complex positional play that Munich throw waves of attacking play at opponents in ways that nobody else in the world can do.
Stopping them means you take away that versatility. Eliminate the time required for all of Guardiola's intricate positional adjustments. Make them conventional. If you can do that, keeping their defenders in defense and their midfielders in the midfield, the only job left is stopping one of the best conventional teams in the world. It's a daunting task, but at least it's possible.
Mike L. Goodman is a Washington, D.C.-based soccer writer and analyst covering primarily European soccer. Follow him on Twitter @TheM_L_G.