More than an hour’s drive by bus from Rottach-Egern am Tegernsee, where FC Bayern is currently completing its training camp, to Fröttmaning, you might say that the team made a little Sunday excursion for the match against Manchester United. However, this would undermine a very serious test match.
With a 1-0 victory, Munich won the game for the Telekom Cup, although the result was somewhat secondary. Rather, the focus was once again on Niko Kovac, who surprisingly refrained from bringing in Renato Sanches and Sandro Wagner on this day in order to grant them both a break for recovery. Robert Lewandowski also stayed on the bench at the beginning, but Mats Hummels, Niklas Süle and Joshua Kimmich would start.
Manchester United seemed to take their last test before the start of the Premier League on Friday at least somewhat seriously: José Mourinho started his best team with the exception of a couple of World Cup participants: notably Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku and France’s Paul Pogba.
Right from the start, it was a highly competitive match with some tough duels, but not too many goal-scoring chances. In the first half, Thiago Alcantara and Süle had the best chances for Bayern, though they came from a distance, but, Javi Martinez would score the decisive goal in the second half.
All-in-all it was a very informative friendly against a weak Manchester United. Read more about it in the three things I noticed.
Three things I noticed:
1. It works without Lewandowski
Leading up to the season, there have been many discussions about the wing positions and the central midfield, but comparatively little has been said about the attack. It seems to be a certainty that Robert Lewandowski will remain with FC Bayern in the 2018/19 season. And yet the friendly against Manchester United showed that Lewandowski’s position could remain vacant.
The Munich side were once again playing without real strikers for the first time in a long time: the attacking line of Franck Ribery, Serge Gnabry and Arjen Robben, joined by Thomas Müller and Thiago playing as eights. It all felt a bit like hipster tactics, but yet it worked.
Again and again, Gnabry skillfully pushed into the gaps in to the Manchester United back four, but that was only part of the story. Thiago and Müller moved up cleverly, occupying the space in and around the penalty area. The result of this exciting formation was a good first half. But, it might have been even better had Robben and Ribéry had scored a few goals.
The second half reaffirmed the theory from the first: with Robert Lewandowski as the target player, things won’t get any easier. The Munich team had more presence in the penalty area, this is true. However, over the past few years, there hasn’t been a dramatic difference in scoring chances when comparing the time Lewandowski is on the field and when he is not. This was a successful debut of a slightly different tactic.
2. Martínez in the Midfield
After Arturo Vidal’s departure, everyone was counting how many central midfielders Bayern still had? The number finally settled at 6.5, and that half was due to Javi Martínez. Martinez’ role might not be quite clear under Niko Kovac’s tenure yet, but this match may provide a clue.
With the previous test matches having to be played without a large contingent of Bayern’s international players, the Spaniard’s positioning could only be roughly estimated. In a team largely made up of amateurs, Martínez sometimes played as a central defender, sometimes as a six and sometimes as an intermediate solution.
Against Man Utd he finally returned to the six position and showed why this could be a good idea. Martínez organised and filled in gaps and acted as a stabiliser in a Bayern defence that was very well staggered over long stretches. This could be because he has a few more weeks of training than the likes of Hummels, Süle and Boateng, but it could also be due to the fact that his role was well defined behind Thiago and Müller.
He crowned his encouraging performance with a 1-0 headed goal from a corner. We highlight this because Niko Kovac has emphasised the importance of dead ball situations on several occasions.
There is much to suggest that Martínez will stay in his position at the six, at least to start the season, even though a possible transfer of Boateng could once again change this situation.
3. Bayern are surprisingly advanced. Or, Jose Mourinho?
The Premier League starts its new season on Friday. This is good news for many football fans, but bad news for Jose Mourinho. Manchester United really don’t look prepared for the start of the new season and have provided a surprising reference to the status of FC Bayern’s preparation.
FCB made a good impression, that much can be said. Especially when you consider that the international players have been training with the team in Rottach for only a few days. The smattering of ideas that Kovac has had time to bring in appear to be working well. The defensive framework is in place, even though United didn’t put too much attacking power on the pitch. Any weaknesses from the previous friendly matches could be put down to personnel discrepancies, as very few of the players have much practical experience working together as a unit.
Offensively, this preseason match against Manchester showed that, above all, Bayern Munich has enough playmakers available to create chances even against very deep lying teams. It should be equally clear that much more will be possible with the return of Corentin Tolisso and James Rodriguez.
It has been a month since Kovac has taken the helm at FC Bayern. The fact that he has coached his squad to a win against the Premier League runners-up a week before the start of their season? It is his first of– hopefully!– many honors he’ll add to his resume at FC Bayern.