Van Gaal and the Transformation of Bastian Schweinsteiger

Upon the appointment of Dutch tactician, Louis van Gaal, as manager of FC Bayern Munich in the summer of 2009, the Bundesliga side were in great need of rejuvenation, having lost the league title to surprise victors, VFL Wolfsburg, in the previous campaign. That Bayern side was seemingly weaker in comparison to those that proceeded, and succeeded, it. A side that was very good in its own right, but which lacked the consistency of later Bayern outfits. With this in mind, what van Gaal achieved with Bayern should never be undermined. Within his first of two seasons in Munich, van Gaal guided FCB to the title, won the DFB Pokal, and also reached a Champions League final in which they lost to Italian treble winners, Internazionale.

Inverted wingers

van Gaal was one who liked his team to play the way in which he intended. The Dutchman was very much devoted to his tactical nuances, and that meant it was his way or the high way — just ask Luca Toni. However, as the season progressed, good came from van Gaal’s ideals. He deployed a regimented 4-2-3-1 formation which kept its shape well, and relied on the wingers in Arjen Robben and Frank Ribery to use the outside of the flank, while also cutting inside to and create chances from central positions. This was arguably the archetypal example of what are now called inverted wingers — wingers who play on the flank opposite to their stronger foot, which, particularly at the time, was extremely confusing for full-backs.

In fact, Arjen Robben, the inverted right-winger, was signed from Real Madrid by van Gaal during that summer. This played some part in what was a success story for Bayern (and one for which van Gaal certainly deserves credit) namely that Bastien Schweinsteiger, who played as a winger, was redeployed by as a holding midfielder.

Schweinsteiger, the linchpin

Schweinsteiger became the linchpin in van Gaal’s tactical change quite sporadically, alongside the promotion of youth players including David Alaba and Thomas Müller to the first XI. Bayern were struggling in the Champions League group stages and stood on the verge of exiting very early. But by the Christmas period the squad was adjusting to van Gaal’s tactical approach, and the team reached the knockout stages with Bordeux and instead of Juventus.

van Gaal’s decision to reposition Schweinsteiger was clearly justified, but nonetheless remained somewhat surprising considering the position Schweinsteiger formerly occupied. Under previous managers, including Jürgen Klinsmann — who also managed the German National side before Jochaim Low — Schweinsteiger was a right or left-sided winger who, despite lacking the conventional speed of most great wingers, combined a good work-rate, energy, and an eye for the odd important goal, especially for the national side.

During Germany’s disastrous Euro 2004 campaign, Schweinsteiger was one of the very few highlights for Die Mannschaft, who exited in the group stages. Much like Bayern under van Gaal, Germany needed rejuvenation going into the 2006 World Cup. Klinsmann was coach when Germany hosted football’s coveted international tournament, and Germany impressed with a side brimming with confidence and young talent. Die Mannschaft reached the semi-finals, only to lost to eventual winners Italy, but Schweinsteiger played a starring role as he scored twice in a 3-2 third-place play-off win against the equally exciting Portugal. Much of the same sense of confidence transcended into Euro 2008, where Schweinsteiger would also play a key role, scoring once again against Portugal in the quarter-finals.

Schweinsteiger was very dependable as a right-sided midfield player for Bayern Munich, and had been for a few seasons prior to van Gaal’s arrival. But as well as the positional switch being necessary for the benefit of van Gaal’s tactics, the revolution of the inverted winger, though having been around for many years, was on its way to becoming a mainstay in the modern game. Schweinsteiger needed to move positions to make sure his place in the Bayern starting XI was intact.

A crowning moment

Nevertheless, the tactical change was a huge masterstroke. Playing alongside Dutch midfield hardman Mark van Bommel in the pivot of a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1, both midfield players complimented each other greatly, with Schweinsteiger providing excellent reading of the game and the ability to start attacks from deep positions. As the 2010 World Cup came around, Schweinsteiger continued to occupy a deeper midfield role. Jochaim Low also called up Thomas Müller, who had impressed under van Gaal with his movement and ability to find space. Müller himself would go on to win both the Golden Boot award and the award for Best Young Player.

Schweinsteiger’s crowning moment in 2010 came in the quarter-finals against Argentina, in which Germany demolished Diego Maradona’s very, very, very attack-minded side 4-0. Germany overwhelmed the South Americans in midfield, and Schweinsteiger one key part in neutralising Argentina’s aims to break though the centre, primarily through Lionel Messi, who was playing as a number 10 rather than as a right-sided forward or false 9 as seen at club level. Messi was isolated in this role due to the Germany press, and the pace of the game which played into Germany’s hands as they soared during counter-attacks.

Schweinsteiger would and still continues to play as a deeper positioned midfield player, once again forming an effective partnership, this time alongside Spaniard Javi Martinez (who signed from Bilbao following excellent performances against Manchester United in the Europa League) as Bayern lifted the Champions League title in 2013 under Jupp Heynckes. The pivot worked similarly to that of Schweinsteiger and van Bommel in that Martinez would press slightly ahead of Schweinsteiger while the latter would drop deep to closedown space, and play passes forward when possession was retained. The pivot notably pressed very well against Barcelona in the semi-finals, and this period also saw the emergence of Toni Kroos, who alongside Schweinsteiger played roles in the greatest moments in their careers, as Germany defeated eternal rivals Argentina to lift their fourth World Cup title.

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