Pep Guardiola: The Eccentric Genius and his 2-3-3-2

Josep Guardiola has only managed three clubs since he began a new chapter as a manager, and since then he’s dazzled the world with some of the greatest tactical ploys in the history of football. Barcelona B, FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich are the three clubs lucky enough to have been blessed by the mastermind, but how crazy does one have to be to name two defenders on a teamsheet? Obviously not that crazy, as Pep and his Bayern Munich side are lighting up all competitions with their aptitude for success.

Pique, Puyol and Busquets don't look happy as a lack of defenders seemed worrying for Barca.
Pique, Puyol and Busquets don’t look happy as a lack of defenders seemed worrying for Barca.

In his days at Barcelona, Pep was renowned for his 3-4-3 system, an intelligent tactic to accommodate to the likes of Samuel Eto’o, Lionel Messi, Ronaldinho, Cesc Fabregas and David Villa. They all played in different era’s of Pep’s side, but when some of them did, the side’s attack looked formidable and unstoppable. Assisted by the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas and Daniel Alves from wing-back position, they needn’t panic when caught on the break as the anchorman Sergio Busquets would always be around to help out the centre-backs. However, towards the latter days of his time in Catalonia, his abundance of centre-backs became an extremely fragile unit disrupted by injuries and departures… that of course worsened with the traumatic news of Eric Abidal’s cancer. When Barcelona played, the expectant partnership of Puyol and Pique would define the presence and ability that was required at centre-back, but the percentage of games they played together was quite worrying. The arrival of Javier Macherano and conversion of his position didn’t help too much as the defence were often sundered almost embarrassingly leaving no choice but to play 3 at the back.

Messi blossomed under Pep, but he had nothing like it when he first joined Bayern.
Messi blossomed under Pep, but he had nothing like it when he first joined Bayern.

Now then, Pep moved on to Bayern Munich after his famous tikka-takka football had been praised to the highest altitude at Barcelona, but his new squad didn’t seem as capable of the likes of Messi, Iniesta and Xavi. This wasn’t such a bad thing however, as they may have lacked the movement and patience that was key to Guardiola’s reign with the Spanish giants, but they certainly had other qualities that could be exampled under their talented new boss.

Proven in 2012-13 when Bayern Munich were crowned Champions League winners at the dispense of German opposition Dortmund, their system was flourishing and didn’t seem to need changing any time soon despite the arrival of Pep the year after Jupp Hyenckes left. The pace, power and finishing instinct made Bayern Munich a complete side, and with the arrival of Pep and Mario Götze they looked set to win every trophy imaginable once more.

This didn’t prove to be the case however in his first season. Knocked out of the Champions League in the Semi-Finals against an impressive Real Madrid sent a scare around the world that their crown may be pinched from under their noses with a new side, more complete than them. Despite, the runaway league triumph, Pep had a tactical decision on his hands… One that looks set to introduce a completely new dimension to football.

The 2-3-3-2.

The 2-3-3-2 in action against CSKA. Notice the false-fullbacks finding the half-spaces whilst the CDM's carry the ball forward leaving Alonso to add to the double at the back.
The 2-3-3-2 in action against CSKA. Notice the false-fullbacks finding the half-spaces whilst the CDM’s carry the ball forward leaving Alonso to add to the double at the back.

Okay so why play four defenders when essentially you can only have two? Well maybe three if you count Manuel Neuer as a sweeper… This crazy formation has been exercised by Pep in all competitions this year too, not just the Bundesliga. 4 points clear at the top of their nation’s division, Pep Guardiola thought it was time to spice things up with his squad and do something no manager has ever done… be risky when it matters. This stroke of genius may be a class, winning formation but will others follow in his footsteps? So here is the breakdown: Despite the media claiming it to be a 3-5-1-1 formation, my take on the matter is that a 2-3-3-2 is in place as you can clearly see from the image. Okay, so whilst Benatia and Dante hold a solid pairing at the back, a lack of support may be a worry… but no. New signing Xabi Alonso, who might I add is looking to be the best piece of business probably throughout the entire window due to his unique ability to play in this role, would sit just in front of them to provide cover from deep. Not only can Xabi defend, but his capability of spraying long balls across the field and unlocking defences from a deep-lying role is world-class and this would certainly have been in Pep’s mind when purchasing the former Madrid star. Then, accommodating him in the centre, you can see Phillip Lahm and David Alaba, both versatile but originally full-backs. Funnily enough, despite their value of getting wide and providing an option for an overlap and delivery into the box, their role in this formation is extremely different. They both have the energy and technical ability to bring the ball forward, make runs that defenders can’t track until the last second, but most importantly cover in at wing-back when on the back foot or caught on the break. Happy as Larry these players will be, as they take centre stage in probably the most crucial role on the pitch with this set-up, also sampling their favoured position at wing-back. Well as that’s the defence covered, it’s time to see the genius side of the attackers.

Now in attack, the 2-3-5 looks deadly when charging at the opposition.
Now in attack, the 2-3-5 looks deadly when charging at the opposition.

Here we have a 2-3-5. Ha, funny when you say it like that. This eccentric formation now provides the viewers with an absolute mind-boggling thought when Bayern play the transitional way. Here, when playing on the break and now bringing the ball forward this shape commences. As you can see, the three of Xabi, Alaba and Lahm sit deep whilst Bernat, and Robben in this case push on as wingers. This provides width to the attack, something that any team in the world will need, and especially Bayern who have to supply positions for the likes of Ribery, Robben and new recruit Bernat. Here is where it becomes exciting, as it seems much like the 3-1 section of the ordinary and common 4-2-3-1… however, this time it is… but with ONE more striker. The common problem when teams line up in Europe is that if they play a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 they often have the problem of their lone striker ‘going missing’ or not getting involved in link-up play enough. A frightening force of Götze, Muller and Lewandowski provide a mouth-watering combination up-front. With either one of Götze or Muller playing in the number ten position, the other can partner Lew up front to provide a scary combination of power, agility and clinical finishing. The tikka-takka may well be back amongst the front five of this Bayern side. Often interchanging and roaming, support can come from anywhere, and like all big teams need, a goal-scoring striker is hardly missing with the main man Lewandowski leading the line.

Team-mates in Germany, could these two be set to re-unite at Bayern?
Team-mates in Germany, could these two be set to re-unite at Bayern?

Recently linked with Ozil, Bayern would simply be unstoppable with him as playmaker. Despite his struggles so far in the Premier League, he plays best when he has a moment of time to look up and find a defence-splitting pass when in transition so this one would make sense. The return of Bastian/Thiago, Javi Martinez and Ribery will also be welcomed as Lahm, Xabi/ and Bernat will all have cover retrospectively. Exciting times ahead for the Bayern faithful.

So five back when defending, and five forward when attacking. An interesting, but genius response to the ordinary physics of football and formations. One thing is a slight concern, however. The only problem I can see this formation having, is the vulnerability on a fast counter attack. In terms of normal counters, Alaba, Lahm and Alonso should recover quickly enough to snuff away the danger, but up against a side like Madrid or Chelsea, these players may struggle to make it back before Ronaldo or Hazard has a part to play.

But hey, one downside to every formation is a normality these days. But this formation cannot even be described on the same level of normality. This inventive stroke of brilliance is one to watch out for… and who knows, maybe all teams will be using it if Bayern manage to secure the quadruple once more.


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