Bayern reserve team’s 3. Liga season so far: taking stock
The most emotional party FC Bayern celebrated in 2019 was possibly the promotion of their second team to the 3. Liga, Germany’s third division of professional football. So there it was, professional football for the reserves at last! Finally, there would be an appropriate basis for the development of Bayern’s youth academy talents from the Campus. Promotion had often been close, but had proved elusive until last year.
Linked to this was an expectation that required a balancing act from Bayern: On the one hand, there was the wish that as many talents as possible from their own ranks should get the opportunity to gain experience in professional football. On the other hand, there was the club’s clear commitment that staying up was the top priority.
Sebastian Hoeneß took over as coach at the beginning of the season, an appointment that was not met with universal acclaim. The biggest worry: In footballing terms, the U19 remained below their potential between 2017 and 2019 under his tutelage. In his first year, Hoeneß finished second in the U19 Bundesliga South/Southwest division, just behind TSG Hoffenheim. The following year, he only finished fourth, 14 points behind VfB Stuttgart.
Results in youth football are not as significant as in professional football, but also on an individual level, positive development failed to materialise and many talents stagnated. With that in mind, after more than half a year and 21 matchdays it appears high time that we took a closer look at the development of the reserves. Which players have convinced? Who has disappointed? How has the team as a whole adapted to the higher level? And how satisfied can one be with the way the reserves have presented themselves so far?
Hoeneß showed himself very satisfied with the development of his team during the winter break: “We are above the relegation zone in the table. […] The way we have presented ourselves is positive. We are a young team, we are courageous, we are quick, and we manage to express ourselves on the pitch.” He added, however, that there were two faces to his team and that the lack of consistency had cost them points occasionally.
Given the uncertainty of how things would ultimately turn out in the league, the team’s league record so far is not too bad: 15th place, 26 points, five points above the relegation zone. With 38 goals scored, they also have the fourth most successful offensive in the league. However, only bottom dwellers Jena (47) have conceded more goals than Bayern (44).
Looking at the season overall, it is clear that the league is not as strong as one might have expected. None of the teams has been able to steal a march on the others at the top, the level of competition seems fairly balanced and teams from the lower third of the table regularly cause the leading teams difficulties.
The Bayern reserves are one of these lower third teams. Victories against Uerdingen (2x), Halle, Ingolstadt, Braunschweig and Magdeburg indicate that the team can hold their own against the bigger clubs in the league – at least on their day. Significant defeats were rare – 2-5 against Viktoria Cologne, 0-3 against Zwickau and 3-5 against Meppen.
At the same time, however, their weak record against direct competitors from the lower half of the table is worrying. Besides the losses against Jena or Cologne, there are draws against Sonnenhof-Großaspach, Chemnitz and the Würzburger Kickers.
Here the two faces mentioned by Hoeneß become most obvious. Against Großaspach, for example, the team unnecessarily gave away a 2-0 lead in the second half, and against Chemnitz they looked the likely winners for a long time only to be finally held to a draw. Above all, however, the comprehensive 3-5 defeat against Meppen probably provides the most illustrative representation of the team’s fluctuations in performance. After a dominant 3-1 lead, the game completely derailed and a turbulent final phase saw them concede four more goals and a dismissal for Joshua Zirkzee. Such careless displays should be avoided in the second half of the season
Perhaps such fluctuations are perfectly normal for a young team. Last weekend, Hoeneß set a season record for all three professional football leagues in Germany: At an average of 20.8 years old, his starting eleven was the youngest to have been fielded this season so far. Making mistakes is a necessary ingredient of development in youth football and in the transition to the pros. They have to be made, accepted, and analyzed in order to learn from them. This is how development works.
In the 3. Liga league however, these mistakes are punished much harder than in the lower tiers. The opponents are not only on a different level at decision-making and cleverness, they also generally make fewer mistakes. This is the main reason why promotion was so important for the Bayern reserves to further their development.
If they are not able to consistently perform to their limit, they will not win their games anymore. They have to go to their limits and beyond to prevail. Sometimes they succeed very well, sometimes less so. Accounting for the initial adjustment phase and the poor run of form towards the end of 2019, there are still five wins, four draws and only three defeats from 12 games – not bad for a newly promoted team. But the fact that they only managed seven wins from 14 leading positions is something they can definitely improve upon.
In addition to consistency, a reasonable evaluation of the progress of the reserves must also include their tactical development individually and as a team. There is no getting around the fact here that often their playing style did not seem clearly defined enough. If the players manage to realize their potential, they are capable of playing good football. However, there are only a few defined tactical patterns to their game.
Especially against defensive teams, it became evident that there is a lack of energy and determination to get behind the opponent’s back line and create chances. Deep runs, through balls, taking on opponents in one-on-one duels on the wings – if the team is not given the space for such actions, things get tough. Football vernacular knows the term “automatisms”, which can be better described as recurring patterns of action. The team lacks such patterns. Only rarely is it capable of directing an opponent and putting them under pressure.
Bayern had their best moments in games against teams who wanted to make the game themselves, because this naturally opened up spaces for them to break on the counter with pace. This can become a problem with a view to the transition of the players to the first team. The players have to learn how to take apart deep and compact defensive lines if they want to make their breakthrough at the first team at some point. There has been not enough of this so far this season.
Even as a U19 coach, Hoeneß evinced such problems between 2017 and 2019. A youth coach from another club, who closely monitored Bayern’s U19 at the time, told Miasanrot that there was a huge difference in level to Bayern’s U17 – especially in tactical matters.
As far as the team’s current performances are concerned, however, the pressure to achieve results bears repeating. It is easy to imagine that the club would give priority to staying in the league at almost any price, especially in the first season. But as alluded to earlier, the quality of football in the 3. Liga is not so extraordinarily high that a more possession-based and courageous playing style would be a recipe for certain relegation. This would also be important with respect to the aim of establishing a clearly defined and consistent playing style, a “Bayern DNA”, across all teams right down to the youngest youth teams. This would also facilitate the upward transition through the ranks for the talents.
Looking at the individual progress of the players, the picture is not universally bright. Especially the players who are expected to take a substantial step forward in the near future appear to have stagnated in their development. Lukas Mai is undoubtedly one of the greatest talents of his generation in central defense, but currently he is trapped in a situation that is more likely to impede than facilitate his development.
The games he plays in the 3. Liga mostly do not pose enough of a challenge to him, which might explain his odd lapse of concentration in some games. His anticipation, his structured playing style, and above all his dynamic offensive dribbles are real assets of his. He has also improved his agility, although this is still his biggest deficit. He may not be fast on his feet, but he is fast in his head. He can read a game. The fact that a central defender does not necessarily have to be fast to enjoy a good career has been demonstrated not least by Mats Hummels. However, what is expected next of him in his development should be clearly defined. If he keeps languishing on the bench during first team matches, he misses important game time and practice there and by extension also at the reserve team.
The situation is also precarious for high-flying talent Joshua Zirkzee, who as a talent brings almost the complete package needed for a number nine. But under Hoeneß he is mostly used slightly deeper in the central playmaker position, because in central attack “Otschi” Wriedt has a strong run and scores regularly. Wriedt in a sense is the reserves’ lifeline, but his gain unfortunately is Zirkzee’s loss, whose development has been stalling because of this. Wriedt is already 25 years old and despite his strong performances, he will probably not play a role in Bayern’s first team in the future. Zirkzee, on the other hand, at least has the potential to break into the first team squad at one point. A re-evaluation of the situation hence seems advisable. When Wriedt was suspended against Uerdingen, Zirkzee immediately scored and proved a more than capable replacement of Wriedt.
Oliver Batista-Meier is the third player in the team who is said to have great talent. Unfortunately, he has been set back by several injuries in the last few months. This year will be crucial for him. He also played a good game against Uerdingen, but he faces strong competition on the wing positions. One of these players is Leon Dajaku, for example, who recently had a first team appearance in Berlin. The 18-year-old is a bit stronger than Batista-Meier athletically, but can still improve his technical skills a fair bit. Dajaku is especially strong in transitional play. If his ability is high enough for making the first team at some point will depend above all on how much he can develop in situations with less space.
In addition, Christian Früchtl should be mentioned, whose future trajectory has been mapped out for quite some time. Früchtl has a very good season and is one of the best goalkeepers in the league despite the many goals he has conceded. He will most likely be loaned out in the summer. This is the right move, as it will enable Bayern to have two options to replace Neuer in Nübel and him.
Against Uerdingen, however, another player drew attention to himself this weekend: Angelo Stiller, born in Munich and part of FC Bayern since the age of 11, gave a strong performance in midfield. The current U19 team’s captain is a very dominant type of player who can pull the strings in midfield. An exceptionally good understanding of space and his strong anticipation help him in this. He is almost always available for a pass and and has a good distribution. Perhaps Hoeneß will use him more often in the coming weeks. He is certainly one of the more exciting talents at the Bayern Campus and has the ability to solve some of the problems in the reserves’ offensive game.
All other players of Bayern’s second team have not stood out so far or have no meaningful chances of taking the step up to the first team at the moment. Chris Richards has been a social media sensation, but his abilities are limited. Offensively, he has no significant impact – possibly also because he often figures as a counterbalance to the more offensive Derrick Köhn – and defensively, he is solid at best and not without flaws. Furthermore, his playing style is too error-prone. Richards made progress at Bayern, but he is certainly not a candidate for the first team at the moment. It is a similar story with Köhn. He is good enough for the third division, but he does not suggest much upward potential presently. He lacks too many football fundamentals, especially in positional play and reading the game.
Nicolas Feldhahn is a cornerstone of the team. He gives the young players support and is a source of stability for the reserves. Only his speed deficit is a problem. However, he could potentially move up to defensive midfield and take on a similar role as Javi Martínez in the first team. Yet it is no secret that he will not have a future there. Singh also played a good first half of the season, but without hinting at great potential for the Bundesliga. It becomes increasingly clear that he was brought in solely to ensure that the team stays in the league.
Looking at the allocation of playing time among the players, it is noticeable that there is only little game time for the talent from Bayern’s own academy. Richards (Dallas), Feldhahn (33 years old and having joined from Osnabrück in 2015), Köhn (HSV), Welzmüller (30 years old and having joined from Aalen in 2018), Singh (Wellington, New Zealand), Dajaku (Stuttgart), Kern (30 years old and having joined from Mannheim in 2019), Will (Kaiserslautern) and Rochelt (Memmingen) all got more playing time than Batista-Meier or Zirkzee. Their good performances against Uerdingen could perhaps change this, but the overall picture remains problematic. The loan of Nicolas Kühn (Ajax) could also occupy another offensive position, while Wriedt and Singh return. But Bayern’s ambition should be above all to promote those talents who are considered to be first team prospects.
All in all, the first 21 games of 3. Liga football should not be something to be disappointed with. The team managed the transition to the new level quickly and got results early. Especially against other teams that indented to make the game, Bayern’s reserves gave a very good account of themselves. There were problems against low ranking opponents, because they lacked no clearly defined movement patterns, passages of play, and creative ideas to be seen. Despite the lack of experience of the young players, Hoeneß, who was already responsible for a similar lack of development in the U19, must also be mentioned here.
It will be imperative for the second half of the season that the team makes tactical progress to ensure that there is a seamless path for players to make the transition to the first team. In addition, three of the squad’s greatest talents are currently stagnating: Lukas Mai, Oliver Batista-Meier and Joshua Zirkzee. It is noticeable that the latter’s form surged just when he was allowed to train with the first team. Batista-Meier’s injury record suggests that he is injury-prone, while an important half-year is coming up for Mai. His current situation cannot satisfy anyone and the club should reconsider his role. Despite his speed deficit, he could become an important addition to the first team in the medium or long term – if his development is nurtured accordingly.
Overall, more needs to be done in regard to developing the talent at the academy on the Campus. The pressure of results to stay in the league is one side of the coin, the other is that playing for the reserves should prepare for, and provide a passage to, the first team. And that is exactly where FC Bayern has big problems at the moment.
Regrettably, since the days of David Alaba, nobody has been able to achieve their permanent breakthrough in the first team. And that can no longer be attributed to an ostensible lack of talent among their youth players. Mai, Batista-Meier, Zirkzee, maybe Stiller soon – the list of promising young prospects is long enough. For the future, Bayern will need a clearer concept here, including a kind of footballing DNA that can serve as a common trait of football to base the youth player development on. Dortmund has a “talent coach” in Otto Addo, who acts at the interface between the first and youth teams. Perhaps Bayern should consider establishing a similar position at their club. The promotion to the 3. Liga helps to bring the talents in the U23 closer to the first team. However, the ultimate step is a huge one. Bayern have to find solutions here. And then perhaps in the future the celebrations of the first team will include a greater proportion of youth players again.