Bundesliga MD 23 Preview: Bayern vs. Köln
Champions League mode. That is about how one could sum up FC Bayern’s performance in the eternal city. From the beginning, the Bayern players were fully switched on, took every sprint and covered every yard with 100% application. Unlike in the early stages against Bielefeld and Frankfurt, they left no doubt as to who would leave the pitch as winners.
In addition, they showed the necessary efficiency to quickly underscore their dominance with the goals to match. Many Bayern fans wondered afterwards: Why not in the Bundesliga?
Hansi Flick will also be pondering this question. However, he is not likely to find an easy answer. The solution may be hidden in the realm of psychology. In competitive sports, as in many other areas of life, people need goals to unlock their best performances – realistic and achievable, but at the same time not too humble goals.
Now, FC Bayern won everything there was to win last year. Coming down from such an emotional high and getting back to day-to-day business, having to do it all over again after just having achieved everything, can lead to a feeling of indifference even among players who are often considered “mentality giants”. It is probably no coincidence that even outstanding teams like Ajax (1972), Barcelona (2009) and Bayern (2013) did not manage to repeat their treble. Even if all these teams continued to be successful to a certain extent, there were moments in the years after the triumph when they showed unfamiliar weaknesses.
Yet Bayern in 2014 at least came close to having found a solution to the problem of complacency. It was an exceptional situation. Immediately after accomplishing something as big as winning the treble, new impulses are needed. This can be achieved by turnovers in the squad or by the appointment of a new coach. At Bayern, both these things happened and many of the new cogs interacted well – until Real Madrid ultimately proved a step too far in the Champions League. It is possible that the season would have ended worse had Jupp Heynckes still been in charge.
It takes unbelievable consistency to win a treble. From game to game, from week to week, from month to month, the team has to be mentally at its best in order not to stumble in supposedly easy games. Once the big goal has been achieved, there is a sudden drop in pressure and tension, and new objectives are needed to provide a new focus and fresh motivation. But what objectives do you set when everything has already been won?
In an interview with the Kicker, Thomas Müller used the Bundesliga championship as an example of how this works at FC Bayern: “Because as soon as [the championship] is won, it’s already about who will win [it] next year.” The New focus and the new goal: Doing it all over again. But it does not seem that easy considering that in the Champions League Real Madrid has been the only team so far able to defend the title. At some point, even the greatest teams catch a phase in which complacency wins out, at least briefly and at least subconsciously, when the little details no longer work as a matter of course.
The defeat against Kiel in the DFB-Pokal, the sleepy early phases against Bielefeld and Frankfurt, and a few other performances suggest that at least a bit of complacency has crept in here and there at Bayern. It would only be too understandable.
At FC Bayern, however, despite such fluctuations the average performance is still at a very high level. If complacency has struck, it is not immediately apparent at least. Bayern still run a lot, they noticeably still care a lot about winning, and they still seem hungry. But do they still have the same desire as last summer when they swatted away every opponent like so many flies?
At the moment, it seems as if they need the Champions League anthem to fully release this energy. In everyday Bundesliga life, Bayern usually only get into the game after a difficult opening phase and struggle against teams playing with commitment.
A longer break and a chance for a longer recovery from football in the summer of 2020 would certainly have helped to be able to focus the mind in the domestic competitions as well. As it is, however, Bayern have had to make the difficult transit from their greatest success since 2013 to a season that hardly leaves any room for breathing or missteps. That makes it all the more remarkable how things have gone so far. For all the criticism, there are quite a few top teams in Europe that have bigger problems than FC Bayern, and, with Manchester City, perhaps only one that is currently performing better. This is not meant to downplay the problems that the Bayern team is having at the moment, but it may help put things into perspective.
Against Köln, therefore, Flick’s biggest challenge is to motivate the team for the daily routine that currently seems such a chore. A look at the table should act as enough of an incentive: The win against Hertha has brought Leipzig to within two points of Bayern. So the pressure is definitely on for the Bayern team. If they do not win against Köln, Leipzig playing a weakening Gladbach side in the late Saturday game have the chance to really heat up the title race.
Sitting in 14th place at 21 points, Köln do not seem to pose a major threat to FC Bayern at the moment. Coach Markus Gisdol’s team has major problems, especially in attack. 9.2 shots per game (16th), 21.5 expected goals (14th, StatsBomb) and 20 goals (16th) show: Köln’s attack is simply not up to Bundesliga standards presently. From open play, Köln manage next to no offensive threat – and even less when opponents park the bus in defense.
Coach Gisdol attributes this to a lack of quality players in attack. This diverts the blame to squad planning, which indeed has seemed rather random in recent years. In Köln, fans miss a clear sporting idea, i.e. a recognisable footballing identity and players who fit the profile. Instead, players have been signed by name rather than skills that fit the team.
The uneven transfer history of Köln may be explainable by many factors – certainly including the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the club has a very mixed record in handling justified questions regarding the sporting situation. Sporting director Horst Heldt often brushes off criticism by saying that the situation has to be accepted, that he knows what he is doing, and that he generally knows more about football than all the critics put together.
This is a frustrating approach for many Effzeh fans because Heldt does not exactly give the impression that in fact he really knows what he is doing and chooses confrontation over credible explanations. Gisdol also seems more helpless and resigned than optimistic and full of ideas most of the time. The new additions are not working and the responsibility for this is being shifted back and forth – sometimes in public.
And yet the big goal seems to be within reach. Köln are currently three points clear of the relegation zone and Gisdol has made some progress, especially in the defense. In the first half of the season, he switched to a back three/five. As a result, Köln have conceded fewer goals than the teams immediately behind them in the table (36). On average, they only concede 12.7 shots per game (10th place), and 36.1 expected goals against put them 15th in the Bundesliga (StatsBomb).
Defensively, Köln are definitely Bundesliga-capable. The big challenge for them will be how they can become more efficient and effective in attack in order to secure the necessary points to stay up. There, since taking over as coach at 1. FC Köln, Gisdol has not been able to make any notable improvements. Laying the blame on squad planning is only partially valid. Although the composition of the squad no doubt impedes Gisdol in his efforts, he has so far failed to implement a recognizable style of play in his team. Whereas it was at least clear what kind of football he wanted to play at most of his previous clubs, it is hard to decipher what the idea at Köln in the last few months has been.
With a view to the game against FC Bayern, for a moment such rather broad considerations will certainly fade into the background. But in general the question must still be allowed whether with Gisdol the right man is in charge and, if so, why. Köln should be encouraged by the fact that they have already beaten Dortmund (2-1) and Gladbach (2-1) on the road this season. The 2-2 draw at home against Wolfsburg and the goalless draw at Leipzig also show that Köln feel quite comfortable when they do not have to make the game themselves.
On the other hand, no one in Köln has failed to notice that Bayern sometimes have a hard time against teams from the bottom of the table this season. In 2021 alone, there were several poor first halves against relegation candidates: two goals down at the break against Mainz (ending in a 5-2 win), two goals down at the break against Bielefeld (ending in a 3-3 draw), abd a close 1-0 win against Hertha – Bayern are not untouchable.
All these teams had in common that they defended compactly. Bielefeld and Mainz also convinced with above-average efficiency in front of goal. Köln’s last two encounters with Bayern showed that they can implement such a strategy, too. In February 2020, they lost 1-4 against Bayern, but due to a good second half, they ended up level on expected goals: 2.5 to 2.6. The reverse fixture earlier this season ended 1-2 for Bayern, but the teams were level on expected goals again: 1.0 to 1.0.
Bayern can expect a very aggressive Köln side, especially in the early stages, who will want to keep the center of midfield compact. In midfield, Gisdol has recently varied the formation depending on the opponent. Against Bayern, he could opt for a flat four in midfield in front of the five-man backline to compress the spaces between the lines as much as possible. On the other hand, using this formation would make it more difficult for Köln to stream enough players forward into space in behind Bayern’s high defensive line.
Gisdol might therefore also take inspiration from Frankfurt. Although it is unlikely that Köln would implement this in quite the same way as Eintracht did in the first half, it might be an idea for them to use two offensive central midfielders to cover Bayern’s central defensive midfield and keep the midfield compact out of possession, and try to play a deep pass as soon as they win the ball.
Using a center-forward pair in a 3-1-4-2 or 3-5-2 would also be conceivable, although this would make Gisdol place a lot of responsibility on the wing-backs and possibly open up spaces for shifts of the play across the field by Bayern. Bayern showed against Lazio that they can easily render a three-man midfield ineffective.
Köln’s game plan should be very similar to that of Bielefeld: Two compact defensive lines which on occasion push out boldly to disrupt Bayern’s build-up play in midfield and to relieve some of the pressure Bayern are expected to exert. Because if Köln allow Bayern to pen them in at the back the same as Lazio did on Tuesday evening, they will have a hard time creating any noteworthy chances.
When they do have space to break, they are quite capable of playing out these situations. A recurring pattern is the shift out wide followed by a cross. If they go through the center, they will probably look for a quick finish. Köln do not combine much, play the fewest short passes (332) and the most long passes (69) per game in the Bundesliga. Already against Schalke and Bielefeld, there were one or two situations in which Bayern were surprised by quick (semi-)long balls because they did not get pressure on the ball quickly enough. Against Köln, Bayern can therefore most likely expect a lot of diagonal balls, which will be a particular challenge for the far side full-backs.
In theory, Köln’s qualities are certainly not something that should make FC Bayern overly concerned. Once again, the game is a necessary chore more than anything else for the reigning champions. One that is of great importance before the ‘Klassiker’ against Borussia Dortmund the following week because of the constellation in the table. But above all the game is one that once again requires a top mental performance. After the cakewalk of Lazio, Bayern must motivate themselves for the day-to-day business. And so, against Köln, they are once again their own biggest stumbling block.