Bundesliga MD 17 Preview: Augsburg vs. Bayern

Justin Separator January 20, 2021

La Décima – this was the motto not only for Real Madrid’s tenth Champions League triumph a few years ago, but also for FC Augsburg’s celebrations of their tenth consecutive year in the Bundesliga last summer. Every year, they are considered an obvious relegation candidate by many people even before the first ball is played, but just as often they quickly show that they are more resilient than expected and manage to secure their league status relatively early on. Rarely have things become really tight for them.

So last summer’s celebrations were entirely deserved. However, not everyone around the club was in a celebratory mood. There was vocal criticism of the exuberance with which the achievements of the last ten years were extolled. There was, on the one hand, the comfortable realisation that the club had succeeded in establishing itself in the top flight; on the other, there were also critical voices that were not satisfied with the low standards the club seems to have set for itself.

It should be normal that even smaller clubs always want to develop and make progress. The fact that not everyone in Augsburg had been over the moon last summer could also be due to the fact that by finishing 3rd in 2013 and 5th in 2015 they saw what had been been possible for the club, at least momentarily. Since then, Augsburg have shown themselves content with a 12th and 15th place.

FC Augsburg and the quest for improvement

Bayern are anything but invincible at the moment. Although their form looks to be on the up again with the win against Freiburg, the 2-1 victory was anything but flawless. On paper, Augsburg is a team that should be able to capitalize on these flaws.

A cultivated, brisk and short passing game is not Augsburg’s strong suit, as became evident again in the 0-2 home defeat against Werder Bremen at the weekend. Especially in the first half, where they had more than 60% possession, Heiko Herrlich’s team failed to create any chances. Their only dangerous opportunity resulted from a defensive blunder by Marko Friedl.

Augsburg find it easier when the opponents do the playing and have more of the game, or at least want to have more – victories against Union and Dortmund at the beginning of the season underline this observation. Before the season, Heiko Herrlich had set out the goal that his team should improve in all four phases of the game – with the ball, without the ball and in the two transition phases. Relying only on set pieces and quick counter-attacks Herrlich believed would not be good enough.

Not outstanding, but competent

If Augsburg want to make further inroads in the league, they will have to improve their game, especially in possession. Their attacking game with the ball does not yield nearly enough return. However, FC Bayern is not the opponent against whom they will need such qualities. Augsburg will most likely be able to rely on their strengths in transition and their fast offensive players.

Herrlich has established a fairly standard midfield pressing based on varying shapes, depending on the opponent. But his preferred formation is a 4-4-2. The idea, of course, is to make the spaces tight and let the other team carry the ball up to the halfway line before starting to seriously intervene. The team seldom employs a high aggressive pressing under Herrlich.

But there are not really many special features to Augsburg’s way of closing down their opponents. On a tactical level, Herrlich seems to be a coach who, to put it kindly, acts with a healthy deal of pragmatism. Those who do not take to his style will probably accuse his approach of being boring and unimaginative. However, the upside is that the team has internalised well the few set patterns in closing down and covering their opponents (for example, how to put the opponent’s full-backs under pressure). The coach demands a lot from his players, especially mentally and in terms of commitment. His previous teams have always been characterised by a tireless work ethic and a lot of aggressive, close marking.

Will Augsburg be tempted by Bayern?

Tactically, Augsburg are particularly disciplined at maintaining their vertical compactness. They hardly allow their opponents to draw them apart and always make sure that they keep the the space between the lines tight. Bayern, on the other hand, are a team that is very good stretching their opponents.

The key in this match will therefore be how well Müller and his teammates in attack and midfield manage to force Augsburg to offer up spaces between the lines. For Augsburg, correspondingly, the challenge will lie in preventing just that. Bayern used more counter-attacking movements as part of their attacking play against Freiburg than usual. In addition to the familiar pattern of their offensive players including Lewandowski frequently dropping off into midfield, they also looked to create chances from runs in behind the back line. This will also be critical against Augsburg.

Freiburg showed in some phases of the game (especially in the first half) how to stress Bayern and force them to make mistakes. The Bayern team often lacks the patience in possession to break down compactly defending opponents. Instead, they tend to make rushed vertical passes, which in the (all too frequent) case of an interception tend to return like a boomerang. Flick’s team could do with more calmness, especially when they are in the lead.

In fact, there were tactical adjustments against Freiburg that worked well right away. Among them were taking intermittent breaks from their relentless attacking game. So there is evidence that the team is not stubbornly sticking to its usual ways.

Against Augsburg, the task now is to continue on this path of progress. The question is often asked how and if Flick can do something in training to fix the problems in the game. This was also asked by one of our Patreon supporters. Here is an excerpt of what would ordinarily be a Patreon exclusive.

Patreon excerpt: What can and must Flick do now?

This question fits in nicely with [the mental] aspects of the game, because one of the major responsibilities of a coach in training is to give his players solutions for different situations in the game – and not 4, 5 or 6, but 2 or 3 at the most. It is about taking the complexity out of the situations and giving the players the feeling that they have already experienced every moment of a game before. Ideally, the interaction of the so-called automatisms then creates a fluid interlocking of many individual aspects that simplify the players’ decisions and, above all, enable them to make decisions more quickly.

The basis for this is often laid in pre-season preparation. There, coaches usually try to cover and rehearse as many of these in-game situations as possible. Over the course of a season, these patterns, once they are laid, are then only refreshed and rehearsed. But if for lack of a summer preparation there is no basis to build on, as has been the case at Bayern almost from the moment Hansi Flick took over, it is also more difficult to intuitively call up such automatisms when they are needed. Added to this is perhaps the mental fatigue of the players and the changes in the squad – newcomers have an even longer way to go because they have had much less time and opportunity to absorb the coach’s ideas and practice them with the team.

If this is the problem, how can it be solved? We have spoken to a few coaches, and they almost unanimously say that it is not possible to fix these problems completely in the short term, especially not in COVID-19 conditions. It is much rather an exercise in damage limitation. One important means is, of course, to analyze the game with the players and hope that they will eventually realize and correct their mistakes. Another means is to use the few full available training sessions to set priorities and train the automatisms that are currently most wanting from the coach’s perspective. At FC Bayern, for example, Flick could practice the immediate recovery of the ball when it is lost.

Again, the problem is that there is hardly any time to work on details in extended training sessions. So even after prioritising the broad strokes, Flick has to prioritise again and exclude single minutiae. So while he can practise counter-pressing after losing the ball in general, he can only theoretically practise the specific backward movement patterns of the back four (or the back three in the case of one high full-back).

This is an unsatisfactory answer, but there is only so much a coach can do if he is caught in a constant back and forth between playing a game and regeneration. A final option would be a tactical adjustment. Against Freiburg and in many other games there were indeed such adjustments although they were difficult to notice. Examples include more consistent protection with three players at the back, taking up a deeper position at times (not just against Freiburg, but also during previous games), or minor formation adjustments (4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1, 4-1-2-3, back three against Atlético …).

The fact that Flick does not make more obvious changes, such as defending much more compactly and deeper or dispensing with his very high line altogether is due not only to his convictions but also to the fact that larger adjustments would again require a basis that he has not been able to lay. Therefore he prefers to stick with what he knows the team can theoretically do – and has done in the past – even if his players are only able to execute it at 70 or 80% capacity at the moment, instead of switching to a system that the team is only theoretically familiar with and thus perhaps only able to implement poorly in practice.

But here, too, there is caveat: a system change can be successful seemingly out of the blue because it causes an opponent off guard or the coach had a lucky hand. But it is understandable that Flick is more pragmatic in this respect. He will have to hope that the few full training sessions at his disposal will be enough to make progress in terms of automatisms and the tactical basis, especially with the bench players and last summer’s new arrivals. But it will be an extremely difficult task.

Louisa Ramsaier (a DFB youth coach and also a new author for miasanrot) has pointed out one more thing. In connection with the points made [in the Patreon article] about the mentality and the psyche of the players, it is of course the task of the coaching team to bolster the confidence of the players and give them the feeling that the poor phase they are going through right now is short-lived at best. The players have to have confidence in the coaching team that the path they are taking is the right one. This is no easy task, especially with bench players, when performances or results fail to materialize. Here, Flick’s man management skills are called upon in being a moderator and listener.

It is very important in this respect that the coach is able to communicate and respond directly to the needs of the players. What does the team want? What do individual players want? René Marić (an assistant coach at Gladbach) on Twitter gave an insight into his way of working with personal discussions with players, focusing on the joint development of solutions.

If for instance a player has protracted problems finding the right position in counter-pressing, then a style of communication that is directly geared to the needs of the player showing empathy where it is needed is particularly helpful, in addition to studying videos and addressing the mistakes. “Why do you think you feel uncomfortable there?”; “What do you think we could do differently to make you act better on the pitch in these situations?” Based on the player’s opinion, you can then work out a solution. Those who simply want to impose a philosophy onto the team without regard for individual needs will hardly succeed. Flick seems to have a good hand for this judging from the outside. Especially in the current phase, such an approach is all the more important.

This was an excerpt from one of our exclusive Patreon articles. It also covers the departure of Angelo Stiller, the Costa and Zirkzee rumours, stats of the Freiburg game and the mental aspects of football. Feel free to support us for an amount of your choice and help us to keep doing what we love to do at this level of quantity and quality: Run this blog.

How will Flick rotate?

Particularly when it comes to his personnel decisions, however, Flick’s hand has not always proved so lucky. Tolisso has been playing consistently without break, even though his last good performance dates back a long time. All the while Lucas Hernández has to sit on the bench again and again despite good performances last December. Nevertheless, Flick should not yet need to worry about losing the dressing room, as he ensures a fairly equal distribution of play time – especially compared to previous years.

However, problems could soon arise if a toxic mix of poor results/performances and disgruntled individual players emerges. This does not seem on the cards yet, but the Roca case in particular gives food for thought. Even if the Spaniard is still very far away from the coach’s expectations, it is fair to ask in exactly which areas he could be so much worse than Tolisso and what Tolisso in turn can do so much better.

The coming games are important for Flick in terms of squad management and load balancing. It will be interesting to see which first eleven we will see against Augsburg and which against Schalke. Because one thing is clear: Flick is taking a high risk should he rotate too much. The fact that Bayern played well for about 70 minutes against Freiburg should not obscure the fact that after that the game became increasingly disjointed and uncoordinated, in part as a result of the substitutions. Augsburg will have taken note of that.

»Eier, wir brauchen Eier!«

— Oliver Kahn

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