Kovač knew on the one hand about the importance of the game, on the other hand about the strength of the opponent and therefore changed something – in terms of personnel and tactics.
In case you missed it
Martínez returned to the starting eleven.
The Basque started on the six next to Thiago, who got more freedom to move forward, but was supposed to support his colleague in the build-up game. Hummels returned to the starting XI as well.
Ajax had to do without midfield strategist de Jong, but still had a strong first eleven, which should make life difficult for the Munich team from the beginning. Erik ten Haag had obviously analysed the Bayern’s last matches in detail.
At the beginning, however, everything looked as if the German champions were back to their old form. An early Hummels goal set the course for a great Champions League evening (2.).
But the longer the first half lasted, the more courageous and aggressive the guests became. Bayern increasingly lost control and looked like the underdog in the end, while Ajax dominated the Reds at will and bypassed the Bayern pressing time and time again.
In the second half the Munich team failed to find their footing. Ajax created two big chances, but missed them. Bayern lacked any protection.
After about an hour, Kovač tried to change something by bringing James Rodríguez for Robben. Bayern fought and worked, but had no real idea how to play against Ajax. Kovač substituted Gnabry for the ineffective Ribéry in the 74th minute.
Bayern often had the ball now, but they always failed to create big chances. James Rodríguez’s shot on goal in the 76th minute was the first opportunity since the beginning of the game. But it was a very good one, in which Gnabry and the Colombian powered through.
But it remained the only big chance of a dull appearance. Ajax almost scored the winning goal just before the end, when Neuer directed a free-kick to the crossbar. It would not have been undeserved. For Bayern it will be really unpleasant now.
Things we noticed
1. Kovač searching for balance
Not least in Berlin Niko Kovač had to experience, how his Reds did not get the desired access in midfield. In the build-up play it went against strongly man-oriented Dutchmen either directly to the wings or to the opponent.
With Javi Martínez Kovač wanted to provide more stability. In the beginning it looked as if this would make sense. The Basque won many duels and intercepted some counter-attacks of the guests early. But after 10 minutes, the 30-year-old’s role turned out to be rather disadvantageous. Thiago was still trying to pull the game out of the depths, but had no passing options up front. Martínez also stood low and Müller, as the only eighth, was relatively easy to defend.
Martínez is simply not useful in games where a strong anchor player is needed. That also raises questions for the future. Bayern almost always needs creative solutions and Martínez has to be questioned in general because his strengths in this position have hardly been used recently. Against Ajax he was present, but with the senselessness of his role he decimated his own team rather than helping. This accusation is not against him, but Niko Kovač.
Thiago seemed to be the perfect all-round option in the last weeks. Since Rudy was sold, there is no like for like replacement left in the squad. Kovač has the clear task to strengthen the build-up game and to occupy the half spaces better again. Either by full-backs moving inside or generally deeper eights. In any case, it is currently too easy to destroy Bayern’s game with man orientations in the center.
Because Thiago was forced to strengthen the build-up of the game, there was a lack of support for the outside players in the half-spaces. Müller often did support on the right, but Alaba and Ribéry were no longer involved on the left. Ribéry and Robben are simply no longer the one-on-one players of the past. At best, they are still very good combination players. But for that they need triangles.
No matter how Kovač rearranges, everything seems to be causing some problems at another part of the game at the moment. It’s his job to get balance into the team. Offensive power and defensive stability are not given at the moment. That must change fast.
2. Chapeau, Ajax!
We often talk about the weaknesses of Bayern. The opponent often gets neglected. In the Dutch tradition, Ajax looked for the way forward early and was not impressed by a difficult initial phase. After 20 minutes at the latest they were the dominant team.
They overplayed the Bayern pressing with clever triangles and a lot of calm on the ball. As a result, Bayern often ran nowhere, and Ajax suddenly had the chance to run with speed at Bayern’s defence. Even if they didn’t always make the best decisions, they still managed to get a good starting position.
If you want to take something home against FC Bayern, you have to act with courage and class. Ajax had both that evening. In addition, they knew how to convince with a build-up that the FCB is dreaming of at the moment.
With all due respect to Ajax, it is highly questionable where FC Bayern’s perception of themselves has gone in such a short time. While one could still speak of small things against Augsburg and Hertha, here it was worlds that separated the five-time Champions League winner from his standard form.
The helplessness of the players, the futile coaching attempts of Niko Kovač and the many individual mistakes are a terrible starting position for the coming weeks. Missed chances and isolated mistakes were justified excuses in the last week. By now they no longer count.
Bayern hardly created clear chances, was constantly a step too late, showed an almost completely ineffective pressing and thus lost control in a game that they controlled a maximum of five minutes. The detail work suddenly becomes the first big challenge for Niko Kovač.
4. Time is a factor now
Time is a precious commodity in Munich. If you lose a game, the criticism is louder than in other European cities. If this is followed by an extremely poor performance like the recent one, everything is called into question.
At least internally one should be careful. So far Kovač has always addressed the problems very precisely. There will be a need to talk. Weak individual performances as well as the entire tactical structure must be a topic. Kovač will have to reflect upon his own decisions of the past days.
But it must not be forgotten that the coach is still new. New things often take time. This time should be given to Kovač, in order to work early against undesirable developments. His self-reflecting nature and the fact that he changes things at all in order to solve problems remain as positive insights. So far, however, he has not found the right tool to close the construction site in midfield. And why he stuck to Martínez for the whole game, even though he prevented another option in higher zones, remains his secret.
There is still time to learn from these mistakes. This precious commodity time, which is very scarce in Munich. But the initial phase of the season has given Kovač a little confidence, which should now help him to tackle the problems. As quickly as possible.