No sunshine trip to Greece – Bayern edge out Olympiacos 2-3
This was an important game for Bayern on several levels. For one, it was about avoiding a crisis, but it was also about regaining confidence and taking an important step towards qualification for the knockout stages.
Niko Kovač made two changes from the 2-2 draw against Augsburg. Kingsley Coman was replaced by Thomas Müller and David Alaba came in for the injured Niklas Süle. This entailed a major reshuffle in positions. Alaba went to left-back, Hernández moved to left center-back next to Benjamin Pavard. Javi Martinez remained in defensive midfield. Müller started as the right winger, Gnabry switched to the left.
Pedro Martins made some changes to his team too. He sacrificed his central offensive playmaker for three rather robust midfielders in a 4-5-1 formation to be more sturdy in defense. The absence of Mathieu Valbuena due to hip problems might have played its part in this too. Youssef El-Arabai started as centre-forward, while the quick Daniel Podence played as the right winger in hopes to capitalise on David Alaba’s offensive interpretation of a full-back.
So much for theory. In practice, the game was a rather languid affair for the first 20 minutes. Bayern had 70% of possession, but failed to create anything worthy of note from this. None of their shots caused any danger. Olympiacos stood deep and managed to release some dangerous counterattacks.
It was Olympiacos who would deliver the first blow. A cross from one of their counterattacks found El-Arabi, whose header Neuer could only parry behind to the goal line, making it 1-0 for the home team in the 23rd minute. One would be hard-pressed to call this a surprise in light of Bayern’s uninspired performance up to this point.
Kovač made an adjustment to his players’ positioning in the 30th minute. Müller moved to the central position behind Lewandowski, Couthino moved out to left wing and Gnabry switched to right wing. After no more than four minutes, Kovač’s ploy paid off. Lewandowski knocked down a high cross to the feet of Müller, who unleashed a powerful volley on goal. Goalkeeper Sá’s parry went straight to Lewandowski, who had a tap-in for the leveler. Unfortunately, the goal did not manage to breathe new life into the game and so the two teams came in for half time at 1-1.
For the second half, Kovač brought on Tolisso for Martinez who had picked up a knock. No later than the 58th minute, they were forced to make another change. Hernández suffered an injury and was replaced by Boateng. Unfortunately, none of this caused the game to become any more interesting. On the contrary. If anything, Bayern’s game was now even more lackluster and bloodless than before. Nevertheless, they somehow succeed to score a goal from their first real chance, apparently having learned a lesson from Olympiacos in the first half. Lewandowski (of course) scored from a set piece to make it 1-2 in the 62nd minute.
Tolisso’s goal from distance in the 75th minute dispelled any growing fears that only Lewandowski was given permission to score for Bayern. However, this result belied the way Bayern played. At times, they had the minority of possession and no control of any description. Olympiacos, on the other hand, was incredibly dangerous on their numerous counterattacks. So it seemed only a matter of time before they would score again.
The goal came in the 79th minute. Guilherme netted with a deflected shot from distance and suddenly Olympiacos was back in the game. At this stage, Bayern had even lost their ability to cruise-control home a comfortable lead.
Kovač’s third and final change came in the 86th minute. Ivan Perišić came on for Thomas Müller. This had no visible effect on Bayern’s game, but Olympiacos decided to go all in for the final minutes and almost managed to level the score in the 88th minute through Daniel Podence after a strong display of individual skill.
Meaning well, one could suggest that Niko Kovač tried to bolster up his team’s presence in the center by starting with four rather central players to counter Olympiacos’s midfield bulwark. The practical reality on the pitch, however, was the same as we have so often witnessed in recent weeks. We have discussed Bayern’s tactical issues at nauseating length over the past weeks and months here at Miasanrot. To elaborate all of this again here and now would be as tiring as Bayern’s current attacking game.
So just in brief: huge gaps in central midfield, huge gaps between defense, midfield, and attack, no offensive midfielder making themselves available for a pass, an uninspired attacking game through the wings, a lot of needlessly giving the ball away because no one is available for a pass, no involvement of Coutinho and Müller, no integral structure on the pitch and thus huge gaps that Olympiacos knew how to use to their advantage.
One cannot fault Kovač for not trying. He adapted the positioning of his players after 30 minutes. Müller now playing more centrally was instrumental in Bayern’s first goal. But apart from this highlight, Bayern’s game stayed essentially the same as before. On Müller’s school certificate it might read, “he always tried”, but ultimately most of what he did had no affect on Bayern’s creativity nor were they more dangerous.
Over the past weeks, Tolisso has failed in his requirement to emulate Kimmich or Thiago in defensive midfield. Since Martinez has returned to Bayern’s first team, Thiago has been demanded to emulate Tolisso or Goretzka in right midfield. Thiago has been one of Bayern’s most important players in recent years because his organizing hand in defensive midfield has lent his team structure and stability. Now that he is asked to play higher up and further right, it becomes brutally obvious how desperately Bayern miss his qualities as a holding midfielder.
The constraints his new role puts on him are so great that he actually starts to play like the player the German media have made him out to be: an ordinary midfielder who is far too often invisible.
Too high, not central enough, not sufficiently involved in his team’s build-up play – in the way Thiago plays now he will not be any aid to his coach. But a brief glimpse at the incomplete list of problems above makes clear how urgently Kovač needs his pivotal midfielder to perform.
Another valid criticism of Bayern’s recent performances is that there is not enough movement on the pitch. The player in possession often does not have enough passing options, which forces him to go for a high-risk pass or choose the safe route across or back. Thus, Bayern’s passing all too often not only doesn’t gain them any ground, but it also offers their opponents plenty of possibilities to intercept the ball because the passing lanes are too long. The situation was much different in the game against Leipzig for instance. During that game, Bayern’s offensive players frequently tracked back to offer themselves for a pass. Why the team has ceased to do so in the meantime is anyone’s guess.
One might suspect that the change is either due to a tactical alteration by the coach – or a failure of his to issue clear tactical orders. If neither of the two is the case, should both coach and players just go on and continue to play in this obviously ineffective way? Maybe Kovač’s idea is to be more effective at gegenpressing on second balls to be able to win the ball high and have enough players in relative proximity to be available for a pass or a switch of the play. In reality, alas, if this is the idea, it does not work at all. Bayern’s efforts in possession are ponderous and provide a standing invitation for the opponent to run riot on counterattacks.
Another indicator for Bayern’s helpless game is the number of cards they have already racked up this season. Thiago alone has been booked five times in eleven competitive games so far. He was cautioned only six times in 42 games last season. Bayern frequently have to resort to tactical fouls to stop their opponents’ attacks. This is not a sign of the most self-assured possession game or effective gegenpressing.
All the talking about Bayern might hide the fact that Olympiacos was part of this game too. And they proved to be a well-organised contender. In defense, Olympiacos adopted a 4-5-1 formation where the short wing players would always move up, resulting in an asymmetric 4-4-2 which made it difficult for Bayern’s wing players to find a diagonal pass inside. Thus, Olympiacos was able to close down the center and isolate Bayern’s midfield players.
Olympiacos was always aggressive, invested plenty of energy throughout the game and managed to win the ball again and again. Fortunately for Bayern, they let numerous excellent opportunities go begging. In the second half they proved that they are more than just a counterattacking outfit. In some phases of the game, they had more possession than Bayern. They prevented Bayern from gaining any control and remained an always lurking and sometimes distinct threat until the end.
As much as Bayern has to be blamed for performing far below par tactically, with their running, individually, and as a collective, Olympiacos has to be praised for being able to brutally lay bare Bayern’s weaknesses. Even though Bayern may have had the more clear-cut opportunities on the whole, a draw was not at all unrealistic.
First in the group, in touching distance to first place in the Bundesliga, a must-win game ahead in the DFB Pokal and at least an improved chance conversion rate against Olympiacos – so everything is going swimmingly for Bayern, is it not? Well, it is all a matter of perspective. On the one hand, the people in charge at Bayern could now decide to leave no stone unturned in questioning the performances of recent weeks, including the first half against Tottenham. What are the reasons for the massive shortcomings in their play? Why has the team become unable to control games even against smaller sides? What has happened to the desire to go the extra mile and to stay focused for the entire 90 minutes? But should the coaching team opt to shrug off all the warning signs and continue with business as usual, they should not be surprised if the first big test in the Champions League is also their last.