13 theses for Bayern’s 2016/2017 season

Friday is the day: a home game against SV Werder Bremen kicks off the Bundesliga season 2016/2017. The manager has changed, but the goals are still the same. Author: Steffen • Translator:

The first game provides a great opportunity for us to continue our tradition of putting together some theses for the upcoming season. Are they realistic? Exaggerated? Who disagrees with us?

1. Fewer points than in the last four seasons

91 – 90 – 79 – 88. These are the final point scores from Bayern’s last four title-winning seasons. In 2012, the score was 73. In the four years that followed, the Munich team lost a total of 10 Bundesliga games; compared to 14 across the two title less seasons prior. I am well-known for erring on the side of pessimism, but I think it will be very difficult to collect more than 79 points (2014/15). The feeling before this new season is one of change – even though the squad itself wasn’t overturned. All in all, even several players leaving couldn’t diminish the squad’s quality, but there are still a number of indicators that could cause a deterioration when combined.

The move from Guardiola to Ancelotti likely won’t be as noiseless on the field as it was off it. The Euros left their mark on Munich’s squad (literally, in the cases of Boateng and Sanches), as much as they did for hardly any other team in Europe. Philipp Lahm, Xabi Alonso, and Franck Ribéry are on the home straights of their careers. After four league titles and three lost Champions League semi-finals, nobody could blame them for focusing more on the Champions League this season. At the same time, direct opponents have made their own moves ahead of the season; Dortmund, Leverkusen and Schalke seem strong. Plus, of course, Bayern’s very own bogey team Mönchengladbach, who might make them lose points twice, too. Still, BVB have the biggest potential of becoming a threat for Bayern – even though their spectacular squad might need another year or two until they bloom completely. Leverkusen have proved in the past that they can be on eye-level with Bayern if they are at their full potential. Their team has improved in depth, which will be useful for Schmidt’s very physically demanding style of play.

Of course Bayern are still favourites to win the title. Their defence in particular will be a trump card that will be difficult to beat. And yet, 5-6 losses and 4-5 draws – and with that, fewer than 79 points – are realistic. Although that, of course, might still be enough to become Bundesliga champions once more.

2. Dominant set-pieces

FC Bayern and its set-pieces. Bayern has as much possession as no other team in the Bundesliga, both in and around the opponent’s penalty box, the consequence being a high number of corner kicks and free kicks, which the team wasn’t always able to make the most of. Especially corner kicks made fans over the last ten years or so question the decisions of both well-paid and highly talented footballers to either send corner kicks to about knee-height at the near post, or, alternatively, right into the goalkeeper’s arms.

During the treble season, it seemed like set-pieces had turned into a real strength for Bayern: against Juve and Barcelona, goals after corner and free kicks were key moments in the year 2013. In the Bundesliga, the Reds scored 17 times from these situations, which meant rank two across the league. Last year, there were 7 goals from set pieces, dropping Bayern to a rather measly rank 15. Considering the personnel and the options available, this is a terribly weak score.

This season, however, the team has all the prerequisite conditions to become a dominant set-piece team on both ends of the pitch. Boateng, Hummels, Martínez, Müller, and Vidal are all excellent options for headers, and with Alaba, Xabi Alonso, Lewandowski, Thiago, Robben, and Ribéry, there are also a number of good set-piece takers. It will be fascinating to see if Ancelotti sees – and uses – the massive potential for easy goals

3. Philipp Lahm will assist more than five goals

If Bayern decided to put up five statues of the most influential players of their club history outside the Allianz Arena, Philipp Lahm would have a guaranteed spot. Lahm’s career is unparalleled: he has been one of the best full-backs in the Bundesliga, probably one of the five best full-backs in the world for the last 10 years. Under Guardiola, he also proved that he can also meet highest standards in defensive midfield. After showing signs of wear for the first time in a couple of sprints against fast opponent teams last season, he finished the season in the games against Atlético and in the DFB Cup final back on his very high level.

If there is one weakness in Lahm’s game (apart from headers), it’s his effectiveness around the penalty box; his finishing can be appalling at times. After an outstanding 11 assists in the Bundesliga in the treble season (with another four in the Champions League), his scores dropped under Guardiola over the last three years (5, 1, 1) – and that despite him assisting two shots on goal per 90 minutes, consistently. Under Ancelotti, Lahm will keep closer to the side-line again in his role as right full-back, and act less complex overall, which will help his efficiency. Lahm can bring in crosses with good control and well-thought-out, but he also has a wonderful eye for the right gap in play, especially when he breaks through to the goal line. 5-8 assists are possible.

4. Bye bye back three

According to Whoscored.com, 10 of 34 games last season had a back three in their starting eleven. This number will go down to close to zero, or maybe even not appear at all. We have often discussed the advantages of a back three that is good at handling the ball, both in build-up play and in defending against counter-attacks. The idea of a back three with Boateng and Hummels, plus Alaba, Badstuber, or Martínez, is electrifying, but we probably won’t see it. Ancelotti is everything but dogmatic, but his preference for the slightly more intuitive structures of a back four are obvious. Bye, back three.

5. Best defence in Europe

17 goals against. 34 goals against. These numbers are the key to the fourth Bundesliga title in a row. A reinvigorated Dortmund team were left behind mostly because they had to let in twice as many goals as Munich. A defence that is already very good (it will forever remain a mystery why Guardiola was said to suffer from defensive instability) gets another world-class player (on a good day) in Hummels. Alaba, Hummels, Boateng, Lahm, with Neuer behind them and Arturo Vidal ahead of them – it will be very, very difficult to score more than one goal per 90 minutes against a fortress like that. Last season, Bayern already had the lowest number of shots on goals allowed across the European top leagues (7.5 per game), and this will only continue, provided they all go through the season without injuries. Alaba, Boateng, and Hummels all had longer injury breaks over the last two years – and it looks like injuries will be the only thing that can stop the best defence in Europe.

6. Coman can make the difference

Even if parts of the early phase of last season made it look different: the answer to the question of who can lead Bayern’s offense into a time after Robben and Ribéry is still open. Both players were almost forgotten due to their renewed injury lay-offs, but every time they were on the pitch, they showed why FC Bayern has been so dependent on its offensive all-rounders for many years. What makes Robben and Ribéry so special is the sheer volume of high-quality offensive plays they produce, getting top marks in dribblings, shots on goal, assists, pre-assists, and goals, all the while staying efficient. A combination like that is hard to find and yet so important for a club like Bayern, who needs to overcome deep-sitting defensive lines again and again.

Douglas Costa and Kingsley Coman were two signings that both possess the predisposition for these qualities. Costa played two very different halves of a season, and it remains to be seen who will be the Costa on the field in the future: the powerful, hard to defend high speed dribbler and assist-giver from the first half, or the frenzied, too often inefficient, not constantly dangerous in front of goal from the second half of the season.

Coman surprised many with a consistently good season with several highlights. Without a doubt, he wasn’t in the spotlight as much as Costa was, due to his role as a substitute player, but Comain showed various qualities that should enable him to take the next step this season. For one, this means an increase in his involvement in shots on goal: Comain played a role in 3.8 shots on goal per 90 minutes in the Bundesliga; Ribéry and Robben, in a year that was one of the weaker ones in their career, managed 5.3 and 6.5 per 90 minutes. Projecting this to a season of 30 games, Robben created about 80 shots on goal more than Coman did. During their best seasons, Robben and Ribéry both got close to 7 involvements per 90 minutes, setting a high benchmark for everyone who wants to follow in their footsteps.

In addition, Coman can become more variable in his dribbling. He’s already one of the best dribblers in the league and was successful in the Champions League as well with fairly easy movements. In the long run, he won’t be able to rely on his extremely high speed alone – especially since he will likely be faced with two defenders at the same time, in the future. It’s unfortunate that Coman will miss the start of the season with a capsular injury, as it will mean he will have to work his way back into the team once he’s fit again. Still, he’s candidate number one for a big breakout year.

7. Arturo Vidal will score 10 goals

Arturo Vidal has a notable influence on FC Bayern’s game. His style didn’t quite suit Guardiola, but at the same time he has so many unique abilities that, by the end of last season, the Catalan was basing the team’s game more and more on Vidal (and with that also simplified the team’s game too). Vidal scored four times in the previous season in 30 Bundesliga games. That number will increase noticeably in the upcoming campaign. Vidal has an excellent feel for the dangerous areas in the box, and a decent shot from distance. No central midfielder in the Bundesliga last season shot as often as Vidal (2.4/90).

There are plenty of indications that Ancelotti will grant him a large role in the team’s play. 10 goals or more is absolutely realistic, especially since Vidal could compete for penalty duty. He has reached this target three times in his career so far; 2010/11 with Leverkusen, and twice with Juventus. The last Bayern central midfielder who was able to claim more than 10 goals in a season was called Michael Ballack, by the way.

8. Possession like under Heynckes

After FC Bayern had kept their possession statistics more or less stable under Van Gaal (58%) and Heynckes (60%) for many years , under Guardiola there was, as expected, a clear leap. 71%, 66%, 66% – those were the averages in the last three seasons. FC Bayern will still be a possession team under Ancelotti. That’s in line with the squad’s abilities and the team’s own image of itself. However, the possession stats will fall to the levels of Heynckes’ time. Ancelotti puts less emphasis on getting the ball back immediately and also aims for a more vertical game, and thus one that is a little more error-prone. That was already clear in pre-season. In the Supercup against Dortmund, FC Bayern had 56% possession. In the cup final under Guardiola in the final game of the previous season, 70%.

More or less possession isn’t automatically good or bad. It’s mostly just an indication of the playing styles of the teams. Ancelotti has made it clear he will develop Guardiola’s style further sporadically. The falling percentage of possession is probably the most visible of the coming changes.

9. Kimmich’s second year will be markedly more difficult than the first

Joshua Kimmich’s first year in Munich could hardly have gone much better. Bought as a player with potential, he made 23 Bundesliga appearances and nine in the Champions League. 21 of those were as a starter. To top it all off, he had an impressive Euros campaign with four appearances as a right full-back. Kimmich’s versatility, or rather, his footballing make-up that equips him for several positions, was a decisive factor here. While Kimmich was a right-back for Löw, Guardiola put the trained central midfielder in central defence more often. In the emotional DFB Pokal final he gave an impressively calm performance (in spite of a not-so-great penalty).

Anyone who thinks that this linear development will simply continue upwards in the second year could find themselves deceived. Kimmich is still quite far away from a permanent position in central midfield. With Alonso, Vidal, and Sanches, there are at least three strong competitors. Thiago and Martínez are further alternatives on top of that. Last to experience how difficult it is to get hold of a regular position in central midfield was Sebastian Rode. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg wasn’t able to get in, either. That both players were done away with can be seen as a vote of confidence for Kimmich. In spite of that, he’ll probably have to get in line. There probably won’t be so many opportunities to play in central defence. In central midfield in the previous year the young German appeared just four times in all competitions. In comparison with Alonso, Kimmich can score points above all through his very good anticipation. He posted almost three interceptions per 90 minutes in his four appearances in the centre. A good number. Kimmich’s passing game is very secure, but not always constructive enough. He needs to work on this if he wants to be an option in the important games. Even more so if Ancelotti plays 4-4-2 more often and only uses two central midfielders.

Maybe it would even make sense for Kimmich to start specialising at right-back. The full-back position is the problem positon in German football. A few years ago, the red carpet was rolled out for a young Christian Träsch. He chose to play in the centre and so quickly vanished from the radar. An adequate successor for Philipp Lahm is also being sought in Munich. Kimmich is no dynamic flank player, but he’s a clear plus in the build-up, solid in one-on-ones and proved his quality as a crosser at the Euros. The path to regular minutes would be shorter here in any case.

10. Robert Lewandowski will become an involved striker once more

Robert Lewandowski’s development in Munich has been absolutely positive. After a few small settling-in problems in the first year, Lewandowski proved his place as one of the best strikers in the world with 30 Bundesliga goals and nine in the Champions League. Lewandowski came in as a technical upgrade on Mario Mandzukic, but just in the last season became more and more a clone of Mario Gomez. He was visibly rotating less and less onto the flanks and didn’t drop back into midfield quite as often as in his first season, either. Instead, he refined his game in and around the penalty area with quick combinations and a clearly-increased efficiency in his finishing.

This change becomes starker still in comparison to his time in Dortmund. Although Bayern had much more possession than the Yellow-Blacks did in Klopp’s era, Lewandowski played two passes fewer per game than in his last season in Dortmund. As well, he sent in only 11 crosses in two years in Munich. In his four years at Dortmund prior to that it was 61, and per season never lower than 12. The Pole assisted four goals in the previous season. His best is 10, from the season of 2011/12. In the season before last, the Polish captain didn’t even assist a single shot. In 2013/14, just two.

There are plenty of indications that Lewandowski will once again be heavily involved outside of scoring under Ancelotti. The statistical ratios, in particular the assists and shot assists, will increase once more. Ancelotti has emphasised many times that he would like to use transition moments effectively once more. FC Bayern will defend somewhat deeper – the familiar state of siege with 15-18 men in the opposition’s box will, then, be rarer.

Lewandowski would then have more space to put his technical skills to good use. He will have more of the game in front of him and can lead more attacks that way. His goals scored column may well suffer but his influence on the game will increase for it. In any case, there’s a chance Lewandowski will be a topic for us even off the pitch – I don’t think we need to say more than “Real Madrid”.

11. We’re going to miss Guardiola’s press conferences

By the end of Pep Guardiola’s time in Munich, the weekly press conferences before the games seemed to be something of a tiresome ritual. The opposition? Very good. The injury situation? No idea. Player X to Manchester City? Leave me alone.

We’ve got to admit: press conferences, structurally, are no place for enlightening discussions or deep considerations. However, between the lines Guardiola offered more and more exciting glimpses into the world of his thoughts and his understanding of football. With Ancelotti everything should be better – so hope many journalists and viewers. In fact, Ancelotti is very well-versed in this important aspect of a manager’s business. He is impeccably polite. He knows that a few exclusive interviews with Kicker or Sport Bild will pay off long-term, and he takes those with questions seriously. However, and this has already become very clear in the first few weeks, Ancelotti will keep his cards close to his chest. He says all the right things but most of all he says one thing in his charming way: nothing.

Please don’t get me wrong. Ancelotti is a model pro. There’s nothing to criticise about that. But in the not-too-distant future, we’ll miss the gruff, annoyed and sometimes brilliant press-conference-Pep a little.

12. Once more, no club for young players

For two years now it’s been a long-running issue in the seasonal hypotheses. Once again it’s going to get really difficult for the youth team players to force their way into the first team. Even if the decision to not sign any more players for the 20th squad place is a sign of trust in Julian Green, Niklas Dorsch and Fabian Benko, the quality in the squad is so enormously high that none of them will get anything more than fleeting opportunities. Especially as Bayern has just invested a lot of money in 18-year-olds (Coman and Sanches).
In principle, there is reason for cautious optimism. Dorsch, Benko and Timothy Tillmann is the most promising young trio in a long time. A few other talented players are also to be found in the U19s and U17s. The age structure of the first team is certainly a reason to think that it’ll soon be time for a serious project or two with a player from the youth sides. Tillmann, who isn’t yet officially in the first team, showed some great touches in attack whenever he played during pre-season. The 17-year-old is an attacking all-rounder with good rhythm and great body stability. His time will probably come next season at the earliest.

13. At the end of the season, there will be at least one reason to sing again

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