Bundesliga MD 10 Preview: Union vs. Bayern

Justin Separator October 30, 2021

In football, far too much importance is often attached to single events. A resounding victory against Leverkusen? This Bayern side is unstoppable! A historic defeat at Gladbach? Finally, the Bayern team has been found out! The truth is that football is a game in which small details can suddenly throw everything out of kilter. Quickly they pile up and develop an avalanche that can no longer be stopped.

The good thing in football, as in many other areas: Things move on and what was yesterday is quickly forgot. At FC Bayern, however, the clocks sometimes move at a different pace. The first defeat against Frankfurt could justifiably be disregarded. The superior and clearly better team had lost. That happens.

But now they have to deal with a defeat at Säbener Straße that was not unfortunate, but highly deserved. A 0-5 defeat that could have been even higher if Gladbach had taken advantage of their chances even more diligently.

Looking back: the debacle at Gladbach

Bayern, on the other hand, showed a lack of ideas. At the latest after the 0-2 it seemed as if this team would disintegrate into its individual parts. Individual players like Leroy Sané, Serge Gnabry, Lucas Hernández or even Alphonso Davies again and again tried to run with their heads through the wall. At least they tried to do something, one could argue, given the poor performances of Leon Goretzka, Thomas Müller or Dayot Upamecano. But the problem was not that someone was unwilling but that the team as a whole was unable to do something. And this, of course, is where Julian Nagelsmann comes in, saying: “It is important to me that the players also look to me for the faults.”

The game had started in the worst possible way. An early goal against, simple mistakes and the wrong ambition to counter the 0-1 immediately with even more vertical play. Bayern were the architects of their own downfall. At no point did they have an effective structural answer to Gladbach’s pressing. Because they no longer seemed to trust their own setup. Long balls, a glaring loss of organisation and further invitations comparable to that of Davies before the 0-1 followed.

Even a club like FC Bayern can be so overrun by an opponent early that they find it difficult to get into the game. But the helplessness in the second half at the latest raises questions. “That wasn’t Bayern-like,” is a much-quoted phrase that Müller also shared on Instagram. No comeback, no alternative approaches, the same insecurities in the game going forward – the big question now: Is this a one-off to accept and forget or do fundamental things need to be questioned?

Union Berlin: physical and aggressive

But let us belay the fundamental questioning for the moment. After all, even at FC Bayern there are mere humans at work. But simply ticking the game off and moving on is not an option either. Especially since Bayern will face an opponent at the weekend who has a similar quality off the ball as Gladbach: Well-structured, compact in the centre of midfield and capable of aggressive tackling, while at the same time able to push up well from the back.

It will not be that easy for the Bayern team to break open Union’s defence. With 10.1 expected goals against (StatsBomb / fbref.com), the Eisernen currently have the third-best defence, at least in terms of expected goals against, behind Mainz (9.8) and Bayern (7.8). Ten actual goals conceded is fourth place again, because Freiburg (6 with 10.5 xGA) and Leipzig (9 with 13.8 xGA) outperform their stats in this respect.

Urs Fischer’s defensive concept thrives on high intensity. With 41.8 percent possession (15th according to WhoScored), they chase the ball more often than they move it around – 420.3 passes per game are in the bottom third of the table. If you work a lot against the ball, you have to run a lot. Running data often do not say much about the quality of a team, but the fact that Union have covered the third greatest distance of the season so far (1058.7 km) is quite meaningful in this context.

However, it is also meaningful that, by contrast, Union obviously do not have nearly as many intensive runs (14th) and sprints (18th). Why is that?

Further progress under Fischer

One explanation could be the team’s good basic shape. Union cover the spaces in their own half well and manage from a flexible back three or five formation to keep the distances small, especially close to the ball, without leaving too much space open off the ball into which they then would have to shift with intensive runs.

Union’s game without the ball has become less ferocious in recent years. Perhaps they are currently the best version of themselves in defensive play. Fischer always chooses a suitable distribution in midfield to steer an opponent to the flanks and attack them there with their wing-backs.

Even if there are similarities to Gladbach in some respects, Bayern can expect to have a tad more freedom in build-up than recently. There are moments when Union push forward and press higher up the pitch, but those are the exception. Most of the time they act from a deep midfield pressing in order to steer the opponent into the desired spaces and then attack late, but when, they do so in an aggressively and in a structured manner.

If you want to look for aspects in Union’s game without the ball that are not yet regularly going to plan, you inevitably arrive at the individual level. Errors in decision-making, unnecessary opening of spaces, poorly conducted tackles – all the exception and perfectly normal at this level. But Fischer should really tackle the question of how the space behind the wingers is defended when they push forward. They have already conceded one or two attacks too many via this loophole. All in all, though, this is criticism at a very high level and shows how much better the team has become compared to their debut season. Because there were far more question marks back then.

Bayern’s biggest challenge of the season so far?

Union have also made progress in their forward play. Whereas at the beginning of the Bundesliga they were known primarily as set-piece specialists and a physically strong team, they now also know how to move the ball forward effectively, especially in offensive transition.

The Eisernen play 0.78 passes per game in behind the opponent’s defence (through balls, or possibly Steckpässe as a German derivative) – together with Leipzig this is the fourth highest value in the league. In addition, they are very dangerous on the wings and position their midfielders well in the half-spaces.

Accordingly, it will not be so easy for Bayern to show a reaction to the 0-5 in Gladbach. How quickly can they put what happened behind them? How quickly will they find their feet the game on Saturday? If they want to forget the cup defeat as a slip-up, they need not only a win against Union, but the same conviction and certainty as in the games before this week. Putting that intention into practice will be a big challenge – perhaps the biggest of the still young Nagelsmann era.

»Eier, wir brauchen Eier!«

— Oliver Kahn

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