Bundesliga MD 25 Preview: Bremen vs. Bayern
There have been times in recent years when FC Bayern were in a position that allowed them to pay less attention to the results of other games at the time around matchday 25 than they can now. Although the record champions have found back on track in terms of results, making a clean sweep of the league in indomitable fashion is not something that can be taken for granted at the moment.
This is mainly due to a very shaky defense. We already analysed one of the most important factors in our preview of the clash with Borussia Dortmund at home.
“And that is where Bayern have problems in their defensive. They exert almost irresistible pressure close to the ball by keeping the spaces extremely tight. But if the ball then gets to a far zone, for example through a long diagonal switches of the play, the opponent has a few unopposed seconds at their disposal to gain a lot of ground going forward.”
As if coach Edin Terzić had pinned these sentences to the dressing room wall before the game, his team implemented this pattern to perfection several times in the opening 15 minutes of the game. Of course, lest we come across as presumptuous, lateral switches of the play are one of Dortmund’s strengths anyway, so this strength was a perfect fit for Bayern’s greatest weakness.
Because Dortmund’s intermittent 2-0 lead revealed both the curse and blessing of the football that Flick wants to see his team play. After a long ball by Dortmund, the Bayern team actually manages to get into its pressing well. They outnumber Dortmund close to the ball and manage to block the pass in behind the defensive line by Marco Reus.
However, Thomas Müller is a step late after the ball is deflected, which can always happen due to the unpredictability of the action. This gives Mo Dahoud time on the ball, which he uses brilliantly: With a lateral switch, he plays the ball into the wide open space ahead of the advancing Nico Schulz.
All that Bayern can do now is react. Everything that happens from this moment on is more an expression of Dortmund’s class than Bayern’s failure. On their part, the original mistake of this situation lay in the initial defensive action. Their pressing lacked a bit of pressure and conviction, and Leroy Sané is the only player on the far side of the pitch.
The attacker speculates on winning the ball. And indeed: If Müller closes down Dahoud a fraction of a second earlier, or if the loose ball ends up with Coman, Bayern can close in on Dortmund’s goal with at least numerical parity. Nevertheless, the risk was simply too high. Even with such an offensive style of play, Sané should not have speculated on a possible attack, but should have placed protection first, especially since Bayern were already a goal down at this point and far from getting the game under control. If Sané had stayed close to Schulz, it would have been much more difficult for Dortmund to score their goal.
Coming about the way it did, the goal is representative of Bayern’s greatest weakness: defending the zones on the far side of the pitch. With regard to the defensive problems, Flick is often criticized for putting his trust in the same group of players over and over again. Lucas Hernández, for example, who is considered by many fans to be the best defensive player in the squad, is hardly ever used.
After rotating a lot at the end of last year, Flick is now relying on rhythm in defense in using the same four players all the time. Is his perhaps a wrong selection of players? Would Bayern be more stable with Hernández?
A first look at the figures confirms this impression: With Hernández in the team, Bayern have conceded only 20 goals in 1819 minutes of competitive play – an average of one goal against per 90.95 minutes. David Alaba, on the other hand, has played 2838 minutes of competitive football. With 41 goals conceded and one every 69.22 minutes, his record is significantly worse.
So Hernández in and goals against down? It is not quite that simple. A deeper look at the numbers makes such a simple explanation rather dubious. His success rate in tackles, for example, is weak. Although the Frenchman makes the most tackles per 90 by far among the most used defenders in the squad (3.16), he only wins 1.56, or 49.37%.
Alaba (0.71 from 1.03 – 68.93%) and Boateng (0.77 from 1.44 – 53.47%) win a greater share of their tackles. But the fact that they have fewer tackles per 90 minutes overall is also due to the fact that Hernández has had to play more often in the left-back position. Alphonso Davies, for example, has 1.56 successful tackles from 2.36 attempts per 90 minutes (66.10%). Another reason is that Hernández is a very aggressive player who likes to push out of the back line.
No other Bayern defender has as many “pressures” per 90 minutes as Hernández does (15) – situations in which a player actively puts the opponent under pressure. Many of these occur when he defends forward. That can be good for the team if through this he manages to stop a counterattack. But it can also open up spaces for the opponent, as for example before the first goal for Bielefeld in their recent match, when, as part of an even more complex sequence of errors, he does not shift inside to support Süle, who faces two opponents at once, but instead pushes out vertically, although there are already enough Bayern players who can exert pressure there. It was not his fault alone, but a typical behaviour for him.
But Flick’s focus is no doubt the attack. And out of all of Bayern’s central defensive players, it is Alaba and Boateng who give it the biggest boost. Despite all the criticism of their defensive performances, they are hard to replace in possession at the moment. The stat “progressive carries” shows how often Bayern players approach the opponent’s goal with the ball at their feet by more than 5 yards (4.5 metres).
Alaba is unrivalled among the central defenders in the squad in this category. He records 7.19 progressive carries per 90 minutes and covers a distance of 209.21 metres (also per 90 minutes). Hernández has a similar value (6.9), but then also covers much less distance (151.24 metres). In terms of the number of attempts, he should also benefit from the fact that he has played full-back from time to time.
In terms of passing, Boateng (425.65 metres covered with forward passes) and Alaba (426.11 metres) are also superior to the Frenchman (389.99 metres). Hernández cannot yet put his stamp on the game in this respect.
Up and beyond the data, however, it is probably crucial that Alaba gives the commands in the defense. If he does not play, it is alarmingly quiet at the back of the pitch. The quality of Alaba’s commands is certainly debatable, but the Austrian still has a high standing within the team. Even teammates like Boateng take their cues from him.
In this respect, it is understandable why Flick continues to trust the Alaba/Boateng duo. Hernández has outstanding qualities and will be able to prove from the coming season that he is the legitimate successor to Alaba. That is why he remains calm despite his unsatisfactory situation. Also, he will probably play alongside another frenchman at center-back, with whom communication should be easier, and he will have enjoyed a full summer of preparation, which should help him massively.
On Saturday, Bayern take on Bremen. Once again they had a week to prepare for the opponent. A situation that the Bayern team is no longer used to. Apart from the short winter and international breaks, it has been the first time this season that the Bayern team had two weeks with only two games.
Time enough, then, to review what actually awaits them. The Bundesliga, it is often said, would be much stronger if there were more teams like FC Bayern who simply wanted more. A little more mentality. A little more desire. A little more courageous goal-setting.
Of course, this view is a bit reductive and polemical. Especially as Bayern’s next opponent is a good example of why you can also want it too much. Werder Bremen finished the 2018/19 season in eighth place. They only narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Europa League.
Werder knew how to shine in the first season under Kohfeldt – at least by their standards, which they had gradually had to adjust downward in previous years. And it was precisely this that led to the fact that they wanted too many things too quickly. An outstanding Max Kruse (10 goals and 11 assists in the Bundesliga alone) and the team’s slight overperformance in terms of match luck and chance conversion led to inflated expectations.
Even before that successful season, Baumann had publicly announced the objective of qualifying for Europe, something for which he was vindicated by the team making a respectable eighth place. As a result, the club decided to keep most of the squad together and possibly strengthen it in a few positions. However, the biggest problem of all was neither recognized nor solved: In midfield, the team lacked structure and tactically capable players. Both in the number 10 position, where Kruse’s departure to Turkey was not properly compensated, and in holding midfield, where Nuri Sahin could not return to the form of his heydays.
Instead, Werder signed Niklas Füllkrug (€6.5m), Marco Friedl (€3.5m) and Leonardo Bittencourt (free on loan), all perfectly serviceable average players who failed to live up to their own expectations.
Werder’s repeated fall from grace was homemade. Kohfeldt was not able to carry over the previous year’s attractive attacking football into the new season. In addition, he seemed out of his depth as regards training and stress management. Bremen was severely set back early on by a multitude of injuries, and in the end could only just avoid relegation.
Since then, the ambitions have been dialed down a fair bit. But the announced return to successful and attractive Bremen football is also history. This weekend, FC Bayern can not expect a team that defends and/or plays forward courageously, but one that earns its points with a healthy dose of pragmatism. At least that is how optimists would put it.
Critics, on the other hand, would say that Kohfeldt and Baumann have failed epically with their plans. Instead of having designs on Europe, there is now a constant fear that the final destination for this team might be the second division. And this despite the fact that this season at least the gap to the top is much smaller than the one to the relegation zone.
Bremen now largely stick to defending, sitting deep even against individually weaker teams, and trying to hit the opponent on the break. This works almost frighteningly well. With only 23.3 expected goals, they have the fourth weakest offense when it comes to creating quality chances. However, 29 actual goals mean 12th place – not outstanding, but efficient.
The team’s strong suit this year, however, is the defense. Kohfeldt seems to have got to grips with the disastrous squad planning by his superiors and is trying to get the most out of the material he has at his disposal. That at least is how it seems. 33 goals conceded is the fifth-best figure in the Bundesliga and the team’s 32.8 expected goals (9th place) is also a good return. Toprak puts his stamp on the defense, but players like Friedl, who will miss the game against Bayern due to a fifth yellow card, have also developed well. Werder not only sit deep, but they also often defend very astutely. They push out a few steps at the right moments, but usually manage to close the open spaces again quickly and maintain a well-balanced compactness.
One could therefore say that Kohfeldt deliberately took several steps back in order to take one step forward again. On the other hand, it is important to note that it would not be the first time that the team has failed to improve on a good season. Consistency, patience, and a sustainable approach still seem to be foreign concepts to Bremen ears. If the club had acted with more wisdom and prudence in the transfer market in the summer of 2019, it would have been possible to achieve more than what Bremen are currently almost content with.
Nevertheless, Kohfeldt has shown that he can deal with the situation and is flexible. His adjustments are not to be judged as wrong or backward because he has in his tactics completely deviated from his original idea. On the contrary, it is a good sign that he has been relatively successful despite all the obstacles he has encountered on his way, some of which he put there himself.
Bremen has the potential to be a really unpleasant opponent for FC Bayern. They proved that in the reverse fixture, when they managed a deserved 1-1 draw at the Allianz Arena. Out of Bremen’s 1.4 expected goals, other teams have converted more into actual goals in Munich: Dortmund managed two (0.6 xG) and Bielefeld even three (1.1 xG). At the same time, only a few teams have managed to hold Bayern to only 1.2 xG against or fewer.
For perspective it is important to note that Bayern went through a phase at that time in which they hardly managed to exceed 1.5 xG against almost every opponent. Nevertheless, Bremen will take hope from this performance.
Out of a back three or rather back five because the wing-backs rarely consistently push up high, Bremen will be well set to defend the width of the pitch. Before that, Kohfeldt had already tried several formations this season. Most recently, he played a double pivot behind two number 8s, but they tend to work back rather than go forwards to close the half-spaces.
Frankfurt showed a few weeks ago in the opening stages of the game that this area of the pitch is perhaps the biggest weakness in Bremen’s deep block. If Bayern manage to open up the spaces next to the holding midfielders, players like Müller or Sané will get chances.
Bremen will again hope for lucky strikes. They have recently shown that they can score a goal or two from half chances. Rashica and Sargent are two technically strong offensive players who can do a lot of damage with just a few touches of the ball. If Bayern do not manage to go up quickly, Kohfeldt can hope to repeat the success from the reverse match.
The match against Bremen is an immensely important game for Bayern. If they get the three points, they increase the pressure on RB Leipzig. Leipzig play at home on Sunday against Frankfurt, who are currently going through a bad patch. With a view to the rest of the season, Bayern cannot afford a slip-up in Bremen.
Given the second week without a mid-week game in a row, the signs are good for the record champions. This even more so as Bremen had to play a postponed game against Arminia Bielfeld in mid-week. This is an advantage that FC Bayern do not often have.
Perhaps this difference will become an advantage for Bayern if they manage to keep Bremen on the move continuously. But if the season has taught us one thing, it is that FC Bayern cannot necessarily be expected to breeze through the Weserstadion.