Bayern Munich's incoming Bundesliga title didn't come easy. Their 10-man victory against Stuttgart in March proves there is a way to win even with a numerical disadvantage on the pitch.
Bayern Munich didn't win their ninth Bundesliga title in Mainz as was expected of them, but with a seven-point lead and just three games to go it's a matter of when not if.
One of the turning points of this season was when Bayern Munich faced Stuttgart at home in March. An easy home win was expected but when Alphonso Davies was sent off early for a reckless tackle Bayern were down to ten men with 78 minutes left to play.
Hansi Flick lined up in his usual 4-2-3-1 formation. This set-up is popular within the top five leagues in Europe as the back four gives a natural way of covering the pitch in defence, the midfield is compact and the two central midfielders help move the ball through into attack.
The plan was to exploit Stuttgart's wide areas on the pitch and create a numerical superiority, often through a two-versus-one effect, to get them into the final third
Alphonso Davies started as the left back in Bayern's defence. He was part of the process of creating that numerical advantage in attacking the left side of the pitch, aided by the two holding midfielders. In defence, Bayern held their infamous high-line and pressed their opponents when they had the ball early on.
This all changed when Davies saw red after 12 minutes.
Flick's change of plan
Firstly, Flick was lucky that he had David Alaba in his team because when Davies was dismissed, he pushed Alaba to left back. Thomas Müller rather bizarrely became a holding midfielder (replacing the hole Alaba left) with Leon Goretzka to make a makeshift 4-4-1.
Bayern ditched their high defensive line and replaced it with a deeper and narrower one. They also did something Bayern do not often do but makes sense in this situation and that is look to counterattack more.
When Stuttgart tried to play through this, they were swarmed by their opponents who forced them into errors. This saw them regularly lose possession, especially in the centre of the field which is where Bayern's advantages came from.
Stuttgart tried a different approach and attacked Bayern's wide areas, but the hosts easily used both lines of four from their formation to shift from side to side to stop their opponents from attacking.
Flick was also fortunate that the attackers he had on were fast enough to attack the open space after winning the ball from Stuttgart. This speed made the counterattacks that led to the four goals in the first half possible.
Serge Gnabry's presence in this match was key as he is a wide player who is comfortable in more central areas of the pitch. This means that when Bayern switched to be more narrow and compact there was a player who was capable of launching a quick counterattack after the ball was won from these areas.
How to win with 10 men if you're not Bayern Munich
1. A utility player is critical
Having a player like this — for Flick it was David Alaba — means if a player is sent off the team can pivot to another tactic without even having to make a substitution.
When changing formation, it always helps if you can upset the numerical advantage of your opponents by changing your defence to be compact but still capable of covering wide areas. For instance, in this match, instead of Bayern's usual way of pushing forward, they had more players stay back, eight or so behind the ball to defend and then counterattack.
Often when down a player, teams play for the draw by putting players behind the ball, making it harder to play through. To play for the win with a man less you have to aggressively press and force the opposition to make errors.
2. A counterattacking structure
When winning the ball, it is imperative you can overcome the extra man advantage by quickly losing your opponents as soon as you regain possession.
Having fast players or players who can play a long or quick pass will help make this possible. The quicker you move the ball, the less time the opposition has to get back into a defensive position or cover enough ground.
Not every team can be Bayern, and that lack of quality can be an issue.
Stuttgart, ironically, showed exactly how not to do things when they had a man sent off early against RB Leipzig.
When Naouirou Ahamada was sent off after 14 minutes, Stuttgart kept a back five instead of replacing their missing man in midfield as Bayern did against them.
This meant Stuttgart had one less player to aid their counterattacks, as it takes longer for defenders to move up the pitch because of their position, and this was costly. Stuttgart lost the game 2-0 and failed to register a single shot on target.
However, teams down to 10 men with less quality have employed similar tactics and been successful — for example Arsenal going behind twice to Aston Villa to win 3-2 in a 2019 Premier League match.