Bundesliga MD 24 Preview: Bayern against Hoffenheim
A landslide victory in the bag, the ongoing run of unbeaten games extended, and a statement made that caused a stir in Europe. No, we are not talking about the game against Chelsea FC the other day, we are looking back at the 2-7 away win at Tottenham Hotspurs in October.
Because back then too, after the big party, the next opponent was Hoffenheim. And Hoffenheim should succeed in what other teams had failed to do before: They managed to shake up the wonderful world of FC Bayern. Alfred Schreuder’s team won 1-2 away at the Allianz Arena and thus possibly initiated the beginning of the end for Niko Kovač. Something similar is unlikely to happen this time. Hansi Flick has more job security than ever not just because of his team’s impressive 0-3 victory over Chelsea, still an opponent with a redoubtable name. Above all, it is the footballing development of his side that appeals to his betters in charge at Bayern. And this is where the two landmark performances in London differ very much from one another.
The first game was a very wild one, in which several expected goals models even saw an advantage for the home team (e.g. 2.5 to 1.6 / fbref.com with StatsBomb data). The second was a for long spells controlled and superior performance by Bayern with a clear strategy and tactical approach – as evidenced also by the expected goals stats: 0.5 to 3.5.
In a sense, the game against Chelsea was the whipped cream on the cake of Bayern’s development under Hansi Flick. The cherry was still missing, as we also pointed out in our post-match analysis, but it does not take a lot of imagination to already picture the finished cake.
And yet as a confectioner, Flick is now entering a complicated phase in which he will be even more challenged than he already is. Robert Lewandowski suffered an injury during the game in London and will be missing for at least four weeks with a fracture of his right shin bone. According to Bayern’s medical staff, he will have to take a complete break for 10 days, after which he may begin to rebuild his musculature. At this point, a definitive prognosis is not possible, because we are Miasanrot (“we are red”) and not the Red Cross.
Therefore we had better have a look at the alternatives available to Hansi Flick. What options does he have now to replace the striker? And is that even possible? Lewandowski has scored a lot of goals and has been in outstanding form this season. But paradoxically, it might not be his scoring that Bayern will miss the most.
Lewandowski moves around a lot on the pitch. He drops off into midfield or opens up spaces for his teammates, but he also knows to make intelligent runs into the spaces opened up for him by players like Serge Gnabry or Thomas Müller. Especially under Flick, Bayern’s whole attacking unit with him at the center seems well organized and flexible. Positional changes, deep runs, drawing out the opposing defenders – Lewandowski harmonizes perfectly with his teammates.
But the Pole is also such a nuisance for his opponents because he can hold up and distribute balls. Ottmar Hitzfeld used to rave about the wall players he had in his attack. He will probably have one of his rooms plastered with posters of Bayern’s current number nine. With his strong first touch, ball control and the ability to create special moments for himself or others with his back to goal, Lewandowski is a unique package as a striker at this level.
You simply cannot replace such a player. That, at its most basic, is the sobering conclusion. A lot of people now rue the decision and blame Bayern for not having signed Timo Werner last summer. But even a Timo Werner would probably not be a real help now. Especially since it is entirely unclear whether he would have taken even close to the same development he is taking now in Leipzig had he come to Bayern. Presumably Werner would only have played irregularly and in a wide position to boot, where he has less space and there is less focus on his strengths. His current run of form can therefore not simply be taken out of context and transferred to a hypothetical course of events at the record champions. The current development of the player does not show that Bayern made a mistake, but that all parties made a wise decision. Even a Lewandowski injury does nothing to change this.
Especially since Flick is still in a good position to maintain a high attacking standard at his team. Because if the Pole cannot be replaced like for like, there is a chance for Bayern to make up for his loss collectively.
But how could that look? In the current 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation there is actually no straight second number nine alongside Lewandowski. As he has shown in the past, Thomas Müller can at least fulfill this role reasonably well. However, he lacks a clear capacity to go deep, because he moves around a lot a lot in his typical liberal interpretation of his role and thus often leaves the center-forward position unoccupied.
Serge Gnabry would add a different dynamic to Bayern’s attacking game due to his many deep runs. But compared to Lewandowski or even Müller (in a rather paradoxical way), the winger lacks physicality, strength in aerial duels, and, to a certain extent, the ability to hold up balls. He is much stronger with his face to goal than with his back.
As if that were not already enough, Kingsley Coman is also likely to miss the games against Hoffenheim and Schalke in the cup in mid-week. This makes it very difficult for Flick to set up his team without a change of formation.
But if Flick holds on to the 4-3-3, he could look for a way to fill the center-forward position more flexibly. In theory, Müller would then be a false nine tasked with opening up spaces again and again for Philippe Coutinho and Serge Gnabry to run into and exploit. It would be the task of the three midfield players to release these runs with appropriate passes. The main problem here is that Coutinho is not in good form at the moment. He would have to improve a lot within a short time. But as we will see in the following suggestions, he could become a crucial part in Bayern’s game without Lewandowski.
Beyond that, however, in this example it is unclear how Bayern would ensure protection against counter-attacks. The full-backs would be involved a lot in attack further upfield, which in turn would lead to spaces at the back that teams like Hoffenheim know to seize upon well. It would be the task of Bayern’s central midfield to act with foresight even when they are in possession. On the right, Álvaro Odriozola with his offensive drive would perhaps be better suited than Benjamin Pavard.
Another option would see Bayern not being set on a specific shape. Of course, Lewandowski’s loss will have to be absorbed by a lot of movement and rotation. The three attackers and Goretzka pushing up from behind in particular would be required to provide sufficient depth to Bayern’s game. There would be an even greater burden on the center because there are no players on the wings to make a breakthrough. If Gnabry plays more centrally, this problem becomes even more pronounced. This would probably result in a very crosses-heavy game, which, with Müller as the sole strong header of the ball waiting in the center, would probably have the same effect as watering a dead plant.
Against Paderborn, Flick went for three at the back for the first time and could not really be satisfied. His team lacked penetration going forward. Understandable. But especially against Hoffenheim and Schalke, it could make sense to give the system a second try. Both teams’ game is based on hitting the opponent on the break during transition and Bayern could defend the half-spaces better in such situations if they have three central defenders on the pitch.
The lack of penetrating power against Paderborn could also be the result of Thomas Müller’s absence and weak individual performances by various attacking players on the day. In theory, Bayern’s complement of five central midfield and attacking players should always be able to create good chances. In addition, a back three would provide good protection for the offensive runs of the wing-backs. Even more so than in a 4-3-3, however, the question remains as to whether Odriozola would be the best suited player for the right wing-back position. After all, without Gnabry and Kingsley Coman there, the offensive wide spaces are somewhat of a great unknown. For the three offensive players, the same as before applies to this approach as well: rotation is important. Of course, the players at the front are not tied to their positions.
Joshua Kimmich could perhaps even solve the problem on the wings. His strengths going forward are well-known, but his weaknesses in working backwards could be compensated for by the back three. As a consequence, Coutinho would have to feature in the center. The Brazilian would have to support Thiago in building up the game from the back. It would a big ask of a player who has to sort out his own set of problems at the moment to take care of others as well.
Shifting Kimmich’s position at the same time means shifting the problems. The lack of positional clarity in midfield in the squad is something Bayern will need to address this summer. With Kimmich out wide, Bayern’s game would accordingly be stronger down the wings, but less organized and possibly less tidy in the centre.
But Flick might also have an option in mind that seems unlikely at the moment: Joshua Zirkzee. He convinced as a stopgap in attack in the last games of 2019 and since he has been training with the first team, he has made a big step forward. Lewandowski’s injury could help him to present himself as a serious backup option in Bayern’s attack in the medium term and thus allow him to secure a permanent place in the first team squad.
In the customary 4-3-3, Bayern would not have to adjust a great deal with him coming in. Sure, Zirkzee would have to be guided and directed more by the senior players like Gnabry and Müller unlike Lewandowski, but he has enough potential to be able to cope with the new role as Bayern’s main man in attack. Moreover, Müller at right winger has not been as much of a problem under Flick as under previous coaches.
But a change of system could bring Müller and Zirkzee both into play at the same time as a very interesting double header in attack. Müller’s responsibility in the center-forward role would decrease and maybe Zirkzee could benefit from his roaming playing style in a similar way as Lewandowski. On the right wing there would be room for Serge Gnabry so there would be no loss of quality on the flanks, which are so important for Bayern’s game. Nor would the center of midfield have to be reshuffled.
The only problem might be the protection at the back. A back three may appear stable, but Kimmich and Gnabry will need to coordinate their efforts to ensure sufficient defensive stability on the right-hand side of the pitch. But when if not now could Zirkzee ever get a real chance to prove himself? [My personal opinion: Of all the options mentioned and not mentioned, this last one is my favourite].
At the press conference Flick already indicated that Coutinho would play. So we can most probably expect a 4-3-3 with Coutinho and Gnabry as the two wingers. Müller will probably be the replacement for Lewandowski in central attack.
Looking at Bayern’s upcoming fixtures, if it was meant to happen, Lewandowski’s injury could strangely not have come at a more opportune time:
Six games in which the away games arguably are the main stumbling blocks. The expectation for Bayern should be to maintain their lead in the Bundesliga standings and progress in both their cup competitions. After Frankfurt there will be the important away game to Dortmund, followed by the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League. Here, a longer absence of Lewandowski could possibly become a game changer.
However, after the games against Hoffenheim and Schalke, the return of Kingsley Coman will offer more options in attack. But there should be no additional injuries in Bayern’s attack now. The current predicament is also partly down to the decision by the people in charge at Bayern to provide Niko Kovač with a smaller squad after the problems of last season, a decision which is now catching up with them.
Nevertheless, the small (and by no means exhaustive) sample of options we have presented here show that there is quality in the squad even without Lewandowski. The coming weeks will be all the more exciting for two reasons: On the one hand, the question of how much quality there actually is in the team will be answered. On the other hand, there will be an increasing focus on Flick.
If Bayern continue to be successful even without their top striker, this would be another strong sign that Flick is the right man for the future. If Bayern should collapse now, however, the question of Flick will certainly be reviewed anew, including by Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, in spite of the ballpoint pen with which he has presented his coach in an allusion to his signing a permanent contract soon. Because Lewandowski’s injury may be a justified excuse at the highest level. But it would certainly not justify an outright collapse in the coming weeks.
Having said that, a collapse seems highly unlikely at the moment anyway. Lewandowski certainly was a key factor in Bayern’s commanding performance in London. In contrast to the earlier 2-7 away win at Tottenham, however, this time the team left a strong impression as a collective and less as an ensemble of individual players. That could be a decisive factor for the coming weeks. As for Flick, what once applied for Kovač applies for him too: After the big stage come the chores of everyday routine. And Hoffenheim has already been able to take advantage of exactly such a situation at Bayern once this season. They almost managed to do so a second time in the DFB-Pokal not too long ago. Now, at the third time, Germany’s record champions should have realized that this away trip will need no less than the intensity of Tuesday evening if they are to be successful.