Bavarian versatility: Is the Bayern Munich model the way forward?

Bayern Munich players celebrate in front of the fans. (Photo by Visionhaus)
Bayern Munich players celebrate in front of the fans. (Photo by Visionhaus) /

The extraordinary versatility of Bayern Munich’s players has come to the fore under Hansi Flick.

Consider Bayern Munich’s last 10 signings: Benjamin Pavard, Lucas Hernandez, Jann-Fiete Arp, Ivan Perisic, Mikael Cuisance, Philippe Coutinho, Alvaro Odriozola, Leon Goretzka, Alphonso Davies and Serge Gnabry.

Seven of these players have played in more than one position in their careers. Genuine utility players are rare to find in football, and German champions Bayern probably now have the richest such group of players you’ll find anywhere in the world.

Position changes are nothing new – some of the best players in the world have changed roles at least once in their careers. Lionel Messi was converted from a winger to a false nine by Pep Guardiola. Cristiano Ronaldo has adapted himself to become a goal-poaching striker at Juventus.

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At Bayern, Bastian Schweinsteiger started his career as a winger, and Philippe Lahm as a left back.

However, there are genuinely few players who can switch positions regularly throughout their career, sometimes even within the span of a season.

The Bavarians’ dominance of the Bundesliga has been attributed to a variety of factors – their financial wealth, their excellent youth academy, their foresight in signing some of the best players in the German league.

But the fact that so many of their players are ridiculously multi-functional has flown under the radar so far. Perhaps it’s time we start paying more attention.

The Guardiola revolution

When Pep Guardiola joined Bayern in 2013, he had just overseen the most successful period in Barcelona’s history. Bayern themselves had just won the treble under Jupp Heynckes. It’s fair to say that expectations were meteoric.

While there will be people who claim that Guardiola was a failure at Bayern for not being able to repeat Heynckes’ feat of winning the Champions League, there’s no doubting the legacy he left behind in Munich.

Under his guidance, Bayern won three league titles and two domestic cups. In his very first season, Guardiola made the bold move of shifting Lahm from right back to central midfield.

By that time, the Germany and Munich captain had established himself as the best right back in the world. A midfield injury crisis prompted Guardiola to hand him a chance in the center of the park.

Lahm’s brilliant technical abilities and tactical intelligence meant that the transition was seamless. Almost overnight, he was one of the best holding midfielders in Europe.

But that wasn’t an isolated case. Javi Martinez was regularly deployed at both center back and midfield, and he excelled at both positions as well. Guardiola tried to replicate his use of Messi as a false nine with Franck Ribery at Bayern, although this change was not as successful.

Perhaps involuntarily, Guardiola had set a precedent that seems to have seeped into Bayern’s DNA.

The current crop

There’s definitely something about Bayern’s coaching setup that has contributed to the creation of utility men. Even after the departure of Guardiola, there have been numerous versatile players cropping up at the Allianz Arena.

Consider the case of Alphonso Davies. ‘Phonzie’ started his career as an explosive winger with Vancouver Whitecaps in the MLS.

The jump from the MLS to a top 5 European league is daunting as it is, but Davies is now Bayern’s first choice left back.

Technically, Davies is on par with some of the best players in the Bundesliga, and Thomas Muller recently called him ‘Bayern’s roadrunner’ when his speed and acceleration allowed him to make several defensive recoveries against Borussia Dortmund’s usually lightning-quick counter attacks.

Even his harshest critics wouldn’t object to the claim that he is among the top 3 left backs in Europe right now.

Benjamin Pavard, having played as a center back at Stuttgart, is now Bayern’s starting right back. David Alaba, who has long been first choice left back, has played in midfield for Austria, and is now first choice center back.

Lucas Hernandez played at left back for France when they won the 2018 World Cup, but starts at center back for Bayern. Joshua Kimmich played at center back under Guardiola, then as a right back. He is now among the best defensive midfielders in the world.

Jerome Boateng is generally viewed as a physical, rock solid center back, but his technical proficiency has allowed him to play at right back for Germany.Javi Martinez remains equally proficient at playing as a center back or in midfield.

But while all these players have exemplified Bayern’s concept of being position-agnostic, no one does it better than academy graduate Thomas Muller.

Muller, who coined the term Raumdeuter (meaning ‘space finder’) to explain his role, has played as a central midfielder, attacking midfielder, winger, striker and false nine.

A player who has long baffled football pundits and analysts, the 30-year-old is now back playing as a number 10.

The Benefits

What’s the point of having all these players?

The obvious answer that comes to mind is the club’s ability to cope with injuries. For instance, even a serious long term injury to Davies would leave Bayern practically unaffected, since Alaba or Hernandez could seamlessly take over.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Bayern’s Bundesliga superiority means that they can afford to experiment with midfielders playing in defense or vice versa. The benefits of having technically excellent players at the back means that Hansi Flick’s defenders serve as his first line of attack.

Even a cursory viewing of a Bayern match will reveal that the line breaking passes of Alaba, Hernandez and Boateng are often the starting point of most of their attacks.

Similarly, having Kimmich in midfield means that Bayern almost always win loose balls and recover possession when they lose it effortlessly.

The concept of multi-functional forwards has been around for a very long time in football. Players like Kylian Mbappe, Marcus Rashford, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah are capable of rapidly changing positions in the course of a match to stretch opposition defenses out of shape.

While this was a natural tactical evolution, it appears that a similar change is on the horizon when it comes to defense and midfield, with Bayern at the forefront of that change.

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The emergence of ball-playing center backs over the last 20 years, as opposed to the traditional view of hard-as-nails defenders, is the first indication that clubs and players will need to adapt or risk being left behind.