Giulia Gwinn's False Fullback Role Can Supercharge Bayern Frauen's Tactical Fluidity
Just how far can the "false fullback" concept be taken?
There seems to be no end to the amount of powerhouses and contenders in European WoSo these days. Out in front is top dog FC Barcelona. Not far behind are English media darlings Chelsea and Arsenal, along with rising threats like PSG and the returning force that is Lyon, but what about Bayern Munich?
Maybe I just haven’t been paying attention myself, but it feels like they’re the least talked-about team — relative to talent — when considering future Champions League winners.
While Jens Scheuer’s Bayern side might still be green, they pipped Wolfsburg to the 2020/21 Frauen-Bundesliga title by 2 points, losing only one game and drawing another in 22 fixtures. Bayern’s goal difference stood at 73, which works out to ~3.32 per match.
On April 25th, 2021, they had a 2-1 lead over Chelsea in the UWCL semi-finals.
Bayern went on to blow it and that’s possibly why they remain under the radar, but ignore them at your peril; the Bavarians have gotten off to a blistering start domestically and, after a rather limp draw vs. Benfica, took Häcken to the cleaners in the Champions League.
And, oh yeah, they’ve just gotten Giulia Gwinn back from an injury that kept her out for 336 days.
Where Does Gwinn Play? Yes.
A highly-rated wide-attacking prospect, 22-year-old Gwinn is capable of operating on either flank, comfortable with both feet, and possesses a diverse skillset undergirded by a truly impressive change of pace. So far, Scheuer has seen fit to deploy her at left back, although projecting her position into the future is uncertain, as Bayern superfan @AngyBanana01 patiently explained to me:
Bayern have an incredible group that can play in multiple positions, so to see Gwinn moving from left back to midfield to left-wing would be pretty common, the same way you'd see Schüller moving from the #9 position to the wing. Gwinn will probably always start for Bayern if she's 100% healthy, but that could be in a few places on the pitch.
Normally, this level of lineup shuffling signals a lack of clarity over the direction of the team. However, per @RPftbl’s brilliant eight-part series on Bayern Munich, Scheuer has instilled clear tactical principles that maintain organization and a consistent sense of style regardless of adjustments in the eleven or the fluidity out on the pitch.
Spontaneity emerges from the structure itself, creating a series of unpredictable interactions that thoroughly disrupts defenses without destabilizing Bayern.
We’re currently seeing this tactical dynamic with Barcelona, and it was also visible in Bayern’s aforementioned victory over Häcken — namely through the lens of Giulia Gwinn’s role at left back.
Driving Straight at the Heart of Häcken
Sofascore has Bayern’s formation as a 4-3-3, with Sarah Zadrazil and Linda Dallman ahead of Lina Magull in midfield, but any notation of the nominal shape would be misleading. Zadrazil was most often the CM who offered herself to the center-backs, occasionally exchanging with Magull, while Dallman floated ahead, forming an asymmetric inverted triangle in the center.
Bayern’s staggered positioning through the middle posed a number of defensive questions for Häcken’s zonal 4-1-4-1 block and constantly created interesting angles for progression.
It is from this context that Gwinn did her thing, which ranged from intriguing to downright unusual.
She simply wasn’t a fullback at all on certain occasions (if we consider the nominal, modern fullback to be a width-holding touchline threat), roaming inside aggressively to make runs towards the box. With Lea Schüller, Sofia Jakobsson, and possibly another central midfielder charging ahead, Häcken had no bandwidth to deal with a “left back” gallivanting into the center and attacking the area.
You can see Johanna Rytting Kaneryd (#33) pick up Gwinn’s movement in the second clip, but, by then, it’s too late. Bayern’s #7 is simply too explosive and her timing too sharp for her marker to catch up.
Dances & Rotations
Some of these inversions were planned.
Right back Hanna Glas and Gwinn would engage in a sort of metronomic dance, pushing infield as the ball swung to the far side and backpedalling as play returned to their flank. This is not altogether uncommon in structured possession-based sides — an FB inverted in this fashion provides security against potential turnovers.
Nevertheless, Glas and Gwinn did not always step to the same tune. If the Swede performed a classical routine, choreographed down to a tee, her German counterpart danced like she was at a party, following certain conventions of movement before ultimately going with the flow and innovating on the fly.
In the above clip, you can see how the differences between Glas and Gwinn could manifest over an entire sequence. While Glas dutifully shifts in and out without fail, Gwinn floats all over the place, originally staying put in the middle prior to wheeling around for an overlap.
This laissez-faire approach within a structured setup necessitates complementary, balancing movement from others in order to keep the system stable. There’s a glimpse of Magull doing so previously, but here are a few more examples:
Whether it be Dallman, Lineth Beerensteyn, or Magull, someone will come over to ensure adequate occupation of vertical zones.
It must be noted that Gwinn is not going totally AWOL. Her wandering is tactical and reacts to how others adjust off of her. In the first clip, Gwinn scampers back to the touchline as Dallman forms the back three and, in the previous video, Giulia’s overlapping run is triggered by Magull driving into the halfspace.
It is these constant, symbiotic reactions — sparked by Gwinn’s initial decisions — that have the capacity to confuse defenses and pull them apart. Any player-to-player marking system would get eviscerated by such rotations, but they pose a challenge for zone, too. The constant activity pushes the processing capacity of opposition defenders to the limit, and there is the very real risk of completely losing attackers as assignments are passed on to the next teammate.
This was on display when Beerensteyn offered as an outlet for the switch in the second clip, and can be witnessed below:
All those rotations puts Gwinn way up in the halfspace, where she executes a smart overlapping run that is completely untracked. Had she stayed on the outside and burst forward from there, Gwinn may very well have been nullified by the opposition winger.
However, since she starts inside — in an ambiguous spot that is probably the central midfielders’ responsibility — Beerensteyn has the chance to feed a free option down the flank before Häcken can get their house in order and help out their fullback.
What Can’t Gwinn Do?
Gwinn can also simply attack the channels after slaloming inwards if the situation calls for it, while being fully capable of making an on-ball impact between the lines as well.
And, just for kicks, she might play the traditional fullback role here and there.
The sheer range of possibilities that spawns from Gwinn’s movement is tantalizing for Bayern and terrifying for the opponent. Mere strolls into midfield engender a series of rotations that stress the organization and intelligence of the defense. Once infield, Gwinn can receive to feet or charge forward in any direction, pursuing virtually untraceable paths towards goal.
On the side, she can flaunt her on-ball creation, whether that be through her carrying and dribbling or passing and crossing.
All of this is “theoretically” possible with any fullback, but it is Gwinn’s combination of physical, cerebral, and technical traits that makes the hypothetical a reality. Your average FB would be utterly lost if asked to shoulder these duties. Even if they had the required mental agility, they would probably be incapable of taking advantage of their freedom due to deficits in their all-round game.
It truly takes a unique player — such as one who has spent most of their formative years displaying their versatility in attack — to make this funky tactic work.
It remains to be seen whether Scheuer envisions Gwinn’s long-term future at “left back” once Carolin Simon returns, but, as @AngyBanana01 would likely remind me, that’s the beauty of this team. Giulia doesn’t necessarily need a fixed position. Whether situated in defense or attack, Bayern Munich’s fluidity and tactical sophistication enables players to attempt things far outside the arbitrary limitations imposed by a lineup graphic.
Although, you’d be hard-pressed to create something cooler and potentially more devastating than a swashbuckling, multi-threat, late-arriving overload from the left side of your back four.