Signings, philosophy, tactics & more - How Bayern Munich's defence has gone from horror show to world class

After years of disastrous defensive performances, the Bavarians are rock-solid at the back. takes an in-depth look at the reasons for their impressive form
By Clark Whitney | German Football Editor

The rate at which a team’s reputation can change in modern football is truly something to behold. Coaches and personnel are so often replaced that the very essence of one team can be lost and replaced in a matter of months.

Take Inter, for example, who had the world’s mightiest defence in May of 2010 but returned to action less than three months later more aggressive up front, while an absolute mess at the back.

Bayern Munich have experienced a switch that is quite the opposite. In Louis van Gaal’s reign from 2009 to early 2011, their defence ranged from unstable to disastrous. Since Jupp Heynckes took over in the summer, however, the Bavarians have been an altogether different proposition. The Bundesliga record champions have conceded just one goal in 11 matches in all competitions, and star signing Manuel Neuer has had almost nothing to do in goal as he recorded nine consecutive clean sheets.

This all prompts the question: how could a team that was so hopelessly poor in defence undergo such a drastic transformation in such little time? The answer is quite complicated.
Bayern's back five

Philipp Lahm

Holger Badstuber

Jerome Boateng


Manuel Neuer
Superficially, it is easy to see the individual improvements made in Bayern’s back five this year relative to the last. Neuer is in all ways a better goalkeeper than both Thomas Kraft and Hans-Jorg Butt, while Jerome Boateng is an improvement upon Daniel van Buyten in most regards. Rafinha, meanwhile, has ended a two-year stint in which Bayern, rather inexplicably, lacked a proper full-back opposite Philipp Lahm. The three new signings have proven to be just what the German giants were missing under van Gaal.

However, to simply attribute Bayern’s defensive improvement to the personnel changes would be woefully short-sighted. At the very heart of their renaissance is the altogether new philosophy that Heynckes has brought.

"For me as a coach it is important to put together a team that not only blends, but finds the right balance between defence and offence."

- Jupp Heynckes

Under van Gaal, the greatest priorities for Bayern were to keep the ball and score goals. Defence was considered unnecessary, and only had a purpose if the midfield did not properly do its job monopolising possession. Practice of dead ball situations was simply non existent during training. And the result? Bayern were regularly punished from free kicks, corners, and counter attacks.

Heynckes, by contrast, has identified balance as his top priority. Instead of 'defending by attacking', his team stops opponents in a classical sense. The team moves as a unit, adapting to play at any depth of the pitch. The holding midfielders are always wary not to leave too much space between them and the back line, and even the forwards drop back to provide cover as necessary. And yes, in training, Heynckes practices set pieces.

Aug 13
Aug 17
Aug 20
Aug 23
Aug 27
Sep 10
Sep 14
Sep 18
Sep 24
Wolfsburg (A)
Zurich (H)
Hamburg (H)
Zurich (A)
Kaiserslautern (A)
Freiburg (H)
Villarreal (A)
Schalke (A)
Leverkusen (H)
W 0-1
W 2-0
W 5-0
W 0-1
W 0-3
W 7-0
W 0-2
W 0-2
W 3-0
These tactical changes have played a major role in reforming Bayern’s players individually. Bastian Schweinsteiger, for example, looks at home in a system that is, in many ways, similar to that of Joachim Low’s Germany. He tends to stay closer to the centre-backs than he did in 2010-11, and from his deeper position is able to read the game more closely. His anticipation and strong tackling have cut off countless potential counter attacks before they had the opportunity to begin.

The greatest beneficiary of Heynckes system, however, is Holger Badstuber. After having his confidence torn down under van Gaal, who famously castigated him last season for a mistake, the 22-year-old is beginning to show just why Low kept faith in him despite his poor club form. He is neither quick, nor agile, nor powerful, and thus struggled under van Gaal in a Bayern team which so often left defenders in one-on-one situations. But in the current system, in which there is organisation at the back and support, his real quality has been evident. He makes up for his lack of explosive pace with quick thinking, and is alert to foresee danger before it is created. A common adage is that the best defenders ply their trade without having to be flashy. Badstuber is just this type.

The cynics will claim that Bayern’s defence has yet to be tested by a world class attack like Manchester City’s - a point that is valid, if misleading. The likes of Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid and AC Milan have all conceded multiple goals against lesser opposition, and in fewer games.

Tuesday's match offers a chance for the Bavarians to prove the naysayers wrong in what will prove to be a real litmus test. If they pass, surely the last remnants of their old reputation will be thrown out of the window. And all this just five months after van Gaal's sacking. How quickly the tides turn.

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