An MSR roundtable ahead of the weeks of truth
The injury to Robert Lewandowski must cause coach Hansi Flick a lot of headaches. There is no second striker of anywhere near his class in the Bayern squad. The two most realistic ways forward at this point seem to be a one-to-one replacement by Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting or a system with a ‘false nine’, as practiced by national coach Jogi Löw recently. Which solution would you prefer to see?
Daniel: I would definitely play “Tschuppo” up front against Leipzig. Löw has completely wasted the Bayern players, so you should definitely give one of the two German internationals a break for an hour or so. My choice would be Gnabry, who looked a bit knackered for me in the last match. Fortunately, Choupo-Moting didn’t make any international appearances, so we have to take advantage of that now. League duties or not, PSG is more important!
Once everyone has regained his full physical fitness – luckily the Paris game is not before Wednesday – I’d go for a fluid attacking four consisting of Müller, Sané, Coman and Gnabry, and be it for the simple reason that I wouldn’t want to do without any of them. However, tactical considerations come into play here as well.
Gnabry is still a rather underestimated force in the center. Jogi Löw has been facing criticism from many sides, but I think it’s a very correct assessment of his that he consistently lets Gnabry play centrally, even if Timo Werner is available. Sané is in strong form and defensively the best winger at the moment, Coman will be highly motivated as he always is against his youth club.
Hansi Flick is far too conservative for this, but should they manage to beat Leipzig, he should seriously consider a borderline competition distorting rotation for the match against Union Berlin. Arp, Dantas, Rhein, your time has come!
Georg: Before the question of line-up and tactical finesse, the question of availability and fitness of the international players should be asked. Kimmich, Goretzka, Sané and Gnabry return from the international break with plenty of minutes in the DFB shirt. If all of them are ready, I expect moderate changes and Gnabry as a “real” nine as Lewandowski’s replacement in front of the three-man front line Sané, Müller and Coman.
Maurice: I still think that the transfer of Choupo-Moting was absolutely not worth it. Now the Cameroonian would have the chance to prove me wrong, but I think the option with a variable line-up in the first line of attack is clearly the better one. Sané and Gnabry have proven, not least in the national team, that they can fill this role very well. With the addition of Müller and Coman or even Musiala, Bayern’s offense would be all but unpredictable for their opponents. Moreover, these players are well in tune with each other and with the system. Choupo often seemed like a foreign element in the Bayern structure, hiding in attack in possession while at the same time not yet having fully internalized the Flick system out of possession. Gnabry also has the strongest goal-scoring instinct in the Bayern team after Lewandowski and his drive to quickly go for a finish is much more pronounced than Choupo-Moting’s. In the end, however, I fear that Flick is too conservative and prefers the supposedly simpler one-to-one replacement for Lewandowski.
Lewandowski’s loss is particularly bitter for him personally. With an almost inhuman performance, the Pole was well on his way to breaking Gerd Müller’s age old 40-goal record, which had been thought to be unreachable. Depending on how his recovery progresses, Lewandowski probably has about three games left to score the five goals needed for immortality. Your prediction: Can the world footballer still do it?
Daniel: Five goals in three games? I reckon with seven easily! Seriously, let’s see how long he’ll be ultimately out. With his otherwise so well-trained body and Mull’s placenta hands, I think he’ll be able to cope with the Mainz game. I just read that he wants to be ready to play in the second leg against PSG. Well, we’ll see.
Lewandowski should be able to play in the last three Bundesliga games anyway, which will be against Augsburg and Freiburg in addition to a top game at home against Gladbach. Both teams might already have mentally filed away the season as done at that point. Together with the game against Mainz, five goals should be well in reach.
Before the injury, by the way, the only question I had been asking myself for a few weeks was how close he would get to 50, just to illustrate how absurdly well he has scored this season.
Georg: No. If he really misses five league games, he won’t break the record.
Maurice: Five goals in three games is a tall order, even for Lewandowski. Especially when he is only fresh back from injury. However, the Pole has already scored at least five goals in three games nine times this season. Against the triumvirate of Gladbach, Freiburg and Augsburg, Lewandowski scored “only” three goals in the first half of the season. With the full support of his team, however, I can still imagine the Pole attacking the record. That will be his ambition and his goal. The neutral observer can expect many apparently selfish decisions by him in front of goal. But especially after the injury, Lewandowski is to be wished well. That’s why I say (and wish) that he will reach exactly 40 goals by the end of the season.
A top match worthy of the name. At 6:30 p.m. on Holy Saturday, all of Germany will be sitting in front of the television instead of attending the Easter Mass to watch a potential early decider in the title fight. Leipzig are having a strong season, they have the best defense and the second most dangerous offense in terms of expected goals. Where do the “Roten Bullen” have the edge in a direct comparison?
Daniel: Bayern and Leipzig are fighting the perfect championship battle because they are the opposite of each other. Bayern can’t seemingly manage to finish a game without conceding at least one goal – and now they have to do without half of their defense – while Leipzig have the best defense in the league. Rumour has it that Upamecano is quite good. And lately, many Liverpool players think Konaté is really great, too. Up front, on the other hand, Bayern smash everything to pieces, while center-forwards Poulsen and Sørloth together scored fewer goals than Thomas Müller alone.
In addition, they definitely have stronger full-backs this year. Marcel Sabitzer is increasingly morphing into a kind of RB-Schweinsteiger, but he can’t match Kimmich and Goretzka. Nevertheless, great player!
Maurice: The depth of RB Leipzig’s squad is impressive. Whereas the Bayern team shows a clear decline in quality from squad position twelve at the latest, the Saxons have a strong line-up across the board. This applies both to the solid defensive center with six players of the highest calibre, as well as to the wide positions in attack, where Nagelsmann has the luxury of being able to play the players with the best form. Dani Olmo, in particular, has kicked on big time this season and has been able to show his full potential. But with Nkunku, Kluivert, Adams and Forsberg, the list of potential game changers is long. At the very top, their individual quality may not be as high as Bayern’s, but in return the drop in performance is hardly noticeable when a change is made. You wouldn’t want to swap with the defender having to defend a fresh Nkunku from the 75th minute.
The Leipzig side also benefits from the fact that the central Bayern axis consisting of German internationals had to play a lot of minutes in the World Cup qualifiers. The Leipzig squad, which is much younger on average, can arguably put these strains away easier than the Bayern team, which has lacked any real time off since the retrun from the COVID-19 break a year ago.
Georg: In my opinion, the difference in performance with Bayern starts a bit later than with squad position 12. I would see the first 14 Bayern players satisfying the highest demands. Nevertheless, I agree with Maurice that the strength in depth in the squad is RB’s big advantage. They are clearly weaker at the top than the Bayern top dogs, but they are better equipped down the line.
Added to this is the greater tactical variability. Three-man or four-man defense? Nagelsmann has many ideas, while Flick rarely surprises tactically.
The Bayern team tends to have a particularly hard time in the Saxon city. The Reds have only won one match in four league games there. The last four Bundesliga away games in Leipzig all ended in draws. Why do Bayern have to struggle so much in the games against Leipzig?
Daniel: Actually, I don’t think Bayern have had all that difficult a time away at Leipzig in recent years. Both the away games last season could have been decided early, and in the second half they even had to. Late in the games, Leipzig still got good scoring opportunities, but they actually obscure the fact that Leipzig had a pretty hard time against Bayern on the day. Julian Nagelsmann is an excellent coach, but since he started drinking taurine, he regularly mutates into a kind of Man City Pep in top matches. Too cerebral, too planned.
Basically, though, it’s easy to answer why Leipzig make life difficult for Bayern: they can still rely on counterattacks and have strong physicality in the team at the back. The perfect antidote against Bayern. Much better than these Dortmund cupcakes over the last few years.
Georg: Four draws in a row is a somewhat strange series. But given the table constellation, I could live with extending that streak. As for the record in Saxony on the whole, one should not forget that Bayern have also prevailed twice away at Leipzig in the DFB-Pokal since 2017. Overall, a more than acceptable record against a top team.
Maurice: In recent years, Leipzig’s greatest assets in the direct duels has been the strength of their central defenders. The two full sized refrigerators Upamecano and Konaté have guarded Lewandowski as closely as two secret service agents the US president in a large crowd. In addition, both were able to defend and sometimes even charge down the Bayern team’s high speed attacks thanks to their considerable pace. It is no coincidence that RB were one of the few teams not to concede a goal by the Pole in the first half of the season. Time and again, Lewandowski seemed to get frustrated in the duels, so much did he have to wear himself out trying to assert himself.
It will now be all the more exciting to see how Leipzig deal with an FC Bayern without a world-class striker. A more fluid system with a variable front line consisting of Sané, Gnabry and Müller could bear fruit here. This way, a real man-to-man marking would hardly be possible and the Bayern team would automatically find spaces and ways to break down the Leipzig back line.
Less than four days later, it’s Paris Saint-Germain. The French have regained the top spot of Ligue 1 since the last matchday after stabilizing under new coach Mauricio Pochettino. However, individual lapses in the team’s form are still a possibility. Unlike in the previous season, the league title seems not to be a walk in the park but a necessary chore. What is the difference between Paris today and the opponent in Lisbon last August?
Georg: The biggest difference is to be found on the touchline. Pochettino has followed Tuchel. The change of coach seems to have worked without any major hiccups, and in terms of their playing style there is not a large gulf between them anyway. Tuchel and Pochettino are both tactically adept. In addition, a lot still depends on the outstanding Mbappé and the fitness of Neymar, who has been struggling with various injuries all season.
Daniel: Pochettino plays a more counter-attacking based football than Tuchel, but he also let Bayern have the ball in Lisbon. After Thiago Silva’s departure, Marquinhos is now back where he belongs: in the defensive back line. There, Coman’s favourite victim Thilo Kehrer can now be found less and less often. Pochettino seems to have sussed him out as the average player he is. Moise Kean, an exciting, dynamic and goal-oriented striker, is brand new. Maybe hardly anyone here knows him, but I’m more afraid of him than of Mauro Icardi. (Oh no, I may just have jinxed it).
Two absolute top games in a row – how should Flick adapt his team to the two different opponents?
Daniel: You have to consider the Leipzig game as a necessary layover on the journey somewhere between national team fever and Champions League highlight. Sorry dear RB haters, I don’t like them either, but you can chant “prevent Mateschitz championship!” with all the pathos you can muster, but the Champions League is more important. I can well imagine that the Bundesliga match will be rather disappointing, because both teams will be happy with a draw.
Otherwise, what I wrote above applies: measured rotation against RB, full tilt against Paris.
Georg: The Champions League must have priority in terms of load management. Bayern can afford a defeat in Leipzig and make up for it in the following games, but they can hardly afford a defeat at home to Paris. If some of the national players return from the international trip exhausted, Flick will have to think very carefully about whether at all, and, if so, how long he uses them against Leipzig.
Maurice: FC Bayern under Hansi Flick have their system. The coach will not deviate from his approach of having his team play extremely offensive football come hell or high water. Too many coaches have had to learn a lesson when they changed their team before big games and thus deprived them of their greatest strengths. However, Flick will perhaps adapt his team to the situation rather than the opponent. The coach knows only too well that three wins in three are by no means a given. A draw in Leipzig will suffice to keep their rivals at bay, while a win in the first leg of the quarter-final is essential. Of course, he will still play to win in both games, but if the game at Leipzig finishes in a one all draw, he will certainly act differently than if the scoreline were the same against Paris.
The second leg in Paris is in a fortnights time on 13 April. If you had to make a prediction today, where will the German record champions stand after the match in Leipzig and the double-header against the French?
Daniel: Honestly, I’m not really trying to trod out a Bayern fan cliché, but I still don’t take Leipzig seriously as a championship contender. They simply lack the power up front. Even if they win, they’ll still screw it up in the home stretch. I’m going to bet on a simple nil-all draw. Bayern will be champions again.
Before Lewandowski’s injury I was very optimistic about the Champions League, now I’m more ambivalent. But I still think we’ll make it. The first leg will end in a draw and Paris will be happy because of the away goals. But they are overrated. In the second leg, Bayern will bring to bear their energy and progress after a heroic fight.
Georg: In between the Paris games, Bayern welcome FC Union Berlin at the Allianz Arena. That should be enough to secure their place at the top of the table, even if they lose in Leipzig, which I don’t think will happen. I’m pessimistic about the Champions League. If Pochettino can get the combined power of Neymar and Mbappé on the pitch, PSG have a very good chance of taking revenge for their defeat in Last season’s final.
Maurice: I see them at the top of the table and in the next round of the Champions League on April 13. There are tough weeks ahead for Bayern, but the team has proven time and again that it is able to go up several gears almost at will, especially for the season highlights. It might not be enough for a clean sweep in the three games, but I trust Hansi Flick to prepare the team perfectly for the upcoming tasks. If I had to choose, I would predict a 2-2 in Leipzig, a 3-1 win at home over PSG and then a narrow 1-2 defeat away at the Parc de Prince.