It supposed to be a comfortable win for the best European team these days. No one expected a close encounter between Lokomotiv Moskva and Bayern Munich at a cold Tuesday evening. Even though Bayern showed defensive issues, there start in the season was good. The dominance developed under Hansi Flick continued and it looks like Bayern again belongs to the heavy favourites for the Champions League title. Flying to Moskva to face Lokomotiv, therefore, shouldn’t be a game to worry about. However, many teams struggled in recent history against the Russian or Ukrainian sides. Real Madrid will definitely confirm this. Tactically disciplined, the coach of Lokomotiv selected a match plan which is rarely seen in European football.
In order to stop Bayern’s dangerous offense, Marko Nikolic decided to make the centre as compact as possible while isolating the attacks on the wing. To do so, he decided to go for a formation often played by the great AC Milan under Carlo Ancelotti. The 4-3-2-1, or in Germany called the Christmas tree formation, leaves barely any space in the centre and naturally steers the offensive actions towards the sideline. Lokomotiv managed to stay compact throughout the whole game, even though conceding and early goal after Goretzka finished a technically outstanding attack through Tolisso and Pavard.
The big advantage of the 4-3-2-1 is not only the compact centre but also the positioning of the players in respect to the line in front and behind them. Basically, the holes of each line are covered by the line in front of them, thus making it extremely difficult for the opponent to penetrate. Even when successful, the receiver can be pressed from three different directions. This way, Lokomotiv managed to break the rhythm of Bayern as well as gaining the ball regularly in a promising position to counter-attack.
Taking a closer look at the 4-3-2-1 reveals the basic idea behind the formation. Not only are the spaces between defenders well covered, but it also allows for cutting the available space for the team in possession in half. Basically, the formation functions as a wedge forcing the opponent to one side and then pressing aggressively. The striker plays the decisive role in steering the build-up of the opponent. Zé Luís often positioned close to the centre-backs and moved right between them once Bayern came closer to Lokomotiv’s half. By cutting the passing lane to the respective centre-back partner, the striker cuts the available space for Bayern in half. The effectiveness of the wedge has to do with the concept of relatively width which I’ve briefly explained in this Twitter threat.
However, the position of Zé Luís varied. Sometimes, he remained in front of the back-four in order to help the number tens to control the defensive midfielders of Bayern. He then would occasionally pick a pass or an action to press, for instance, once the centre-back faces the fullback he would move forward and urges him to pass the ball to the wing. Here, Lokomotiv seemed to focus more on Bayern’s left side, probably expecting more threat through the build-up from Alaba. Besides, the Austrian’s performances were poorly in recent games, so maybe Nikolic hoped for chances after individual mistakes made by Alaba.
By leaving the striker a bit deeper, Lokomotiv sometimes allowed for the switch through the back-four but remained more compact in the centre. Along with Smolov and Kulikov, Zé Luís formed a tight triangle effectively cutting the passing lanes to Bayern’s defensive midfielders. While the striker would close the diagonal passing lane in the centre, there was no need for the ballnear OM to stay narrow, thus he could move wider to block passes into the halfspace. Once again, Lokomotiv would form a triangle multiplying the space covered. Simultaneously, the ballfar number ten would move slightly towards the centre to be able to press once the pass is played to either Kimmich or Goretzka.
Bayern occasionally reacted by dropping Kimmich to from a back-three in possession. Even though this move makes it harder for the 4-3-2-1 to deny the switch, the advantages created a minuscule because the ballnear number ten is also able to close the passing lanes for a wider centre-back advancing with the ball. Nevertheless, it was surprising that Bayern did not select this tool more often. Especially, in the second half, holes would open up because the 4-3-2-1 is quite intensive in terms of shifting from one side to the other.
Even without the deeper Kimmich, Bayern managed to move the ball quickly from one side to the other which is crucial against the Christmas tree. Of course, the heavy focus on the centre comes at the cost of being exposed at the wings. Usually, the ballnear CM is responsible for moving out of position to press the fullback once he receives the ball in a wider position. A deeper winger can also be pressed by him. The fullback, in contrast, would face the winger in a high position. Coman and Zhivoglyadov duel is the perfect example. Usually, the diagonal structure would support the fullback because the CM is always close to help. Together, they can effectively defend both directions in which the winger can dribble. Due to the positioning of the number ten, the CM can fully focus on defending the diagonal line towards the goal. It is the responsibility of the OM to immediately attack a back pass to, let’s say, the defensive midfielder.
In general, this approach seems to be a reasonable choice against a team as dominant as Bayern. The disadvantage of struggling to press higher can be disregarded because pressing Bayern effectively won’t be possible over the course of 90 minutes. Nevertheless, Lokomotiv managed to do that in the opening 10 minutes by moving the block higher up the pitch. However, they’ve lost their precision in shifting over the course of the match. Additionally, Bayern intelligently used the available space of the 4-3-2-1 in the first half.
The role of Müller and the fullbacks made the difference
It didn’t take a lot of time until Bayern managed to find a way through the defence of the Russian side. Hansi Flick might not be known for spectacular in-game adjustments, however, the plan he develops for his team is often quite precise, thus changes are rarely needed. Against the 4-3-2-1, Bayern aimed at switching quickly through diagonal balls to their fullbacks. The first goal was a great example for this move. However, in the end, Lokomotiv managed to stop those moves quite often through compact and precise shifting.
As always, Flick’s team created an overload between the defensive line and the first midfield line. Therefore, they had quite a presence in the box once the opponent would cross the ball in.
Furthermore, they focused on stretching the defence of Lokomotiv, an effective way to create problems for the 4-3-2-1. Even though, the vertical compactness is great and opponent’s regularly despair on finding space in between the defensive shape, its biggest strengths creates its biggest weakness too. The Christmas tree formation is not particularly compact horizontally. Due to the low number of players in the midfield line, the fullbacks of Lokomotiv moved long ways to make the centre compact leaving the ballfar players completely open.
The example above perfectly illustrates the issues Bayern could create through their relatively wide formation. Especially, the CMs Krychowiak and Ignatjev had to cover a lot of space because they were the players moving out of the block to press on the wing. Therefore, after quick switches, Bayern potentially could have create more dangerous scoring options, however, they failed to do so consistently. Two things were decisive for that. One was the fact that the 4-3-2-1 effectively cuts switching options through the centre due to its structure. The switch through the centre-backs is quite often possible but takes a great amount of time, thus giving the defence enough time to be back in position.
As a consequence, the offense needed to play long diagonal balls to take advantage of the poor occupation of ballfar spaces. Those passes are difficult from a technical standpoint, whilst being easier to defend once the receiving player can not immediately attack. Only a few times Bayern could effectively use that tool against the Russians. One of it led to the goal. Here, another component of Bayern’s attacking plan paved the way to glory – their fullbacks.
Their French worldcup winning fullback duo posed a lot of issues for Moskva’s defenders. Usually, the CMs were responsible to press Bayern’s fullbacks, especially, when they were in a wider position. Bayern took advantage of this reference point and constantly changed the way the fullbacks would act. For instance, Hernandez would often move in the halfspace between fullback and centre-back while Tolisso, the nominal number ten would move deeper and Coman stayed wider. Then, Lokomotiv struggled to defend it properly. Doubling the French winger was probably the main plan. By moving the fullback outwards and having the CM covering the diagonal lane to the goal, the 4-3-2-1 is in theory well prepared to defend quick wingers. Both ways are defendable while an overlapping fullback can easily be picked up by the fullback of Lokomotiv.
The situation looked quite differently once the fullback was inverted. Now, Moskva’s fullback wasn’t sure whether he would stay narrower or would still press the wide winger. Occasionally, Lokomotiv decided to move the CM out to press, which opened the halfspace a little bit. In case Coman would win the 1v1 duel, the halfspace could be penetrated and Bayern would have successfully reached the box. Consequently, the ballnear OM would drop to close this gap. Then, however, Lokomotiv lost the advantage of the 4-3-2-1 to immediately put pressure on the back passes.
As one could see in the situation in which Bayern scored their first goal, Kulikov, the nominal DM was occupying the OM position for a brief moment but then decided to drop, thus Tolisso had all the time in the world to play the diagonal ball in the space behind the leftback.
Quite often, Lokomotiv struggled to shift correctly once a player from the line in front dropped deeper. If it wasn’t enough, the fact that Müller would rarely stay wide but function as a free-floating player between the lines forced the DM to stay more centrally or the ballfar CM and fullback to move closer to the centre. Consequently, Lokomotiv either struggled to support ballnear or to defend the far side properly. Using a late approaching Pavard on the right opened up dangerous situations for Bayern after switches to their right side. Again, the goal was the perfect example.
Overall, the game showed, however, that the 4-3-2-1 can be an effective way to break the rhythm of the offensive team and force them to the wings. Even though Lokomotiv tended to stay to flat with too many players on the same horizontal line, Bayern had a hard time to find space between the lines. Due to the fact that switches do not particularly belong to the strengths of Flick’s team, Lokomotiv was capable of making one of the best offenses on the planet relatively ineffective. Along with their good work in possession, they even had the chance to win the game.
Nevertheless, the game not only showed why the 4-3-2-1 can be effective but also highlighted a few potential tools against it. Especially, the clever use of the fullbacks and the role of Thomas Müller can be potential starting points for the development of perfectly working tools against the 4-3-2-1.
I will probably discuss how to play against the Christmas tree formation over at my patreon site. If you enjoy my analysis, make sure to support me for only 1€/month and receive exclusive content and directly interact with me. Every support is very much appreciated.