Gaining Ground, Dropping Points
Off the field a little good news trickled in as Manuel Neuer returned to action and reports of both Leon Goretzka and Alphonso Davies are on the road to recovery as well, though neither will likely be a factor in the coming weeks. On the field, was a bit of a different story however.
For the return leg of their round of 16 Champions League matchup with Salzburg, Julian Naglesmann chose to return to a back three. Neuer started in goal with Benjamin Pavard, Niklas Süle and Lucas Hernández in defense. Joshua Kimmich and Jamal Musiala started in the double pivot with an attacking line of Serge Gnabry, Thomas Müller, Leroy Sané and Kingsley Coman playing just behind striker Robert Lewandowski.
After a tough first leg and some real struggles over recent weeks, there were genuine questions in some minds as to whether Bayern would actually make it past their closest Austrian neighbors. However, an 12th minute penalty threw a massive wrench into any plans for Salzburg.
Lewandowski of course would step up and bury the penalty to make it 1-0, however he was just getting started. In the 21st minute he was awarded another penalty, which he converted 2-0 and just a minute after that, he scored from open play as the keeper hit the ball of the striker then ricocheted off the bar directly to Lewandowski for the easy tap in and finish to his hattrick.
Thus the match was essentially over by the 22nd minute. However, this is Bayern and they usually are not satisfied to rest, even when taking a massive lead. In the 31st minute, Gnabry would add a fourth to send Bayern into the half with 4-0 lead.
The second half didn’t ultimately prove much more difficult than the first. Müller would add to the score in the 54th minute with an excellent strike from the top of the box. Salzburg would get one back in the 70th minute as Maurits Kjærgaard scored to make it 5-1. However, it was little more than a cosolation prize as Müller added a sixth in the 83rd minute and Leroy Sane added the seventh in 85th to finish the scoring 7-1.
Following the romping success during the week, Nagelsmann sent out the exact same lineup to face TSG Hoffenheim on Saturday. This match however would go very differently.
Bayern actually dominated play for the first half hour but it would ultimately be Hoffenheim who got on the board first thanks to a bit of luck and some poor defensive work. However, Bayern would not capitulate on the day and managed to get one back right before the half thanks to a perfect corner kick from Kimmich to Lewandowski who buried it with a header 1-1.
Bayern continued to play well in the second half and had a plethora of opportunities but luck was not with them on the day. Müller in particular was left extremely frustrated having scored two offsides goals and having another miraculously saved off the line. In the end, neither side could find a winner and the match ended 1-1.
I love it when a team makes me eat my words and Bayern did just that this week. Despite the frustration on Saturday, this team showed far more mental strength than they had in the previous month. The response against Salzburg was huge.
It was helped by an early goal and things went relatively easy from there but still it was a huge response and statement that no one can over look Bayern regardless of how things look. While some will be annoyed by Bayern pouring on goals when things were so clearly finished, it showed me that they still have that desire and drive to perform to their max no matter the situation.
Saturday however was what really made me believe they have turned a corner. Despite a lot of things that didn’t go right. Despite some bad luck. Despite going down a goal after playing better than their opponent, Bayern never gave up. They never let it affect their game. They got their leveler just before the half and were easily the better team for second half. All in all, it was a massive improvement.
Lewandowski is no stranger to praise on this blog but he had definitely been in a drought, for him, over the last few weeks. Tuesday however changed that. While several have dismissed his hat trick due to two of them coming from the penalty spot, it ignores the fact that he actually won both penalties as well.
In both matches, the communication and movement amongst the front five was significantly improved over what we had seen for most of this calendar year. Most importantly, Lewandowski felt more naturally involved and Sané seemed to figure out his role better.
Four goals in two matches is a record any striker can be proud of, even someone in the form Lewandowski has been in for the last few years. Saturday saw the striker score his 29th league goal, a number not too long ago would have been in line for the Torjägerkanone at the end of the season. With things getting slightly better and players potentially returning, it’s not impossible that he could be looking to get back to back 40 goal seasons, something that I would have never dreamed possible.
This week saw quite a few improvements. Nagelsmann seems to have finally found a way to make the back three work. While there were still some iffy moments, overall it was a much more stable defense than had been seen in recent weeks.
Coman, Sané and Gnabry put in more work on the defensive end. Kimmich and Musiala formed a better more stable midfield. Pavard, Süle and Hernández have benefited from their play which has allowed them to be better positioned and more secure.
The attack as mentioned has also significantly progressed over where they were a few weeks ago when playing with a five man attack. All of this contributed to the increase in confidence and generally improved performances over the week.
Hopefully that will continue into upcoming performances. They’ll have a week to get ready for Union Berlin next Saturday before heading into another international break.