Bundesliga Matchday 31 Preview: Bayern against Gladbach
In the first half of their DFB-Pokal semifinal against Frankfurt, Bayern were able to seamlessly build upon their previous performances since the resumption of play: Full control, lots of variability, maximum pressure on the opponent – Flick’s football is a feast for the eyes in such moments. In this form, the team does not have to fear any competition in Europe. And this is not diminished by the fact that even in such a strong first half, one or two mistakes crept in.
Yet such mistakes are less important when the players are positioned close to the ball, are able to launch their gegenpressing immediately and win the ball back. Frankfurt were second best in almost all situations, were hardly able to conjure a situation in front of goal, and in the rare cases when they were able to initiate a counterattack, they always had to cover too much distance to Manuel Neuer’s goal because Bayern were pinning them back ceaselessly at their own penalty area.
In the second half, this picture changed completely. Frankfurt pushed up much more aggressively and caught Bayern out several times. The record champions let themselves be infected by a completely different rhythm of the game. Frankfurt were the ones who set the pace. At the beginning of the second half, the game went back and forth and it was only Adi Hütter’s team that profited from that. Instead of letting the ball and the opponent run after regaining possession, Bayern tried again and again to force the issue and score the second goal. The result: Unnecessary turnovers, more possession for Frankfurt and a loss of control.
At least Flick cannot be blamed for not reacting. With the substitution of Lucas Hernández and Thiago, he wanted to gain more control of the game and pacify the wild back and forth the game had become. The idea was the right one. Even though he had to sacrifice both wingers, it was now more important to stabilize the centre. A set of Thiago, Kimmich, Goretzka, and Müller should be more than equal to this task.
Fortunately, reality proved Flick right not much later. Bayern were now playing with a little bit more composure, but had sacrificed some of their pressure going forward as well. However, it was precisely in this phase of gradually regaining command that Frankfurt scored the equaliser and everything was back to square one.
In the end, Bayern managed to eke out a victory. Müller said in front of the cameras that fatigue had played a role. And it was obvious, too. Even with the reconfigured midfield and a better positioning, Bayern did not manage to outplay Frankfurt’s high pressing as straightforwardly as could have been expected. The players’ movements simply did not harmonize any more. Pavard, for example, when he was under pressure on the right no longer immediately found a passing option in the half spaces in attack. Frankfurt’s players managed to challenge their opponents and recover the ball much faster. Especially but not only Kohr and Hinteregger demonstrated how unpleasant an opponent Frankfurt can be once they start fighting for every quarter. If you let this team get close to you, it will become painful.
Müller’s statement indicates that Bayern simply lacked the physical and mental freshness to maintain their command of the game over the full 90 minutes and let Frankfurt do the running. The fact that Frankfurt was able to turn the game into a much more open affair in the second half also prevented Bayern from having longer spells of recovery while circulating the ball in possession.
But can Flick be blamed that after the long virus induced break he was keen to get his team into a rhythm and thus has been making very few changes over the past few weeks? Only to an extent. Looking at the options he has had, his decisions are understandable. Especially in attack, he lacks the alternatives to easily change his lineup on two or three positions at once.
Even in Bayern’s supposedly well staffed midfield, the current situation looks dire. With Thiago’s injury now, this area of the pitch is short just another man. There is no question that Javi Martínez could easily hold his own in a match as fiercely competitive as Wednesday’s without giving any cause for concern. The Basque proved once again that he can be relied upon when push comes to shove. But with his particular skillset, he is not a candidate for the starting lineup the way Bayern’s midfield is set up at the moment.
Flick still needs one or two more players for the next season in order to fully realize his ideas. The fact that his players seem to enjoy their jobs so much at the moment and are also so extraordinarily successful at it speaks for him. He is able to adapt, too. For example, when Lewandowski was out before the coronavirus break, Flick was able to compensate for his absence without his team breaking their stride. Thiago’s absence has been less noticeable than in the past as well.
Against Gladbach, Flick’s adaptability will once again be in high demand. Lewandowski and Müller are suspended – or, to put it differently, the team is short 85 goal involvements in all competitive matches. It will therefore be all the more important that Serge Gnabry returns fit in time.
But with a seven point lead at the top and only four matches remaining, Bayern are in a quite comfortable position. So comfortable in fact that Hansi Flick could turn the ostensible personnel crisis into an opportunity for Bayern’s talents to show themselves. Joshua Zirkzee has already shown that he can be thrown into the mix at anytime without giving it a second thought, but even players like Oliver Batista-Meier have yet to take the next step. Another player who caused a stir last week is 17-year-old Jamal Musiala. The former Chelsea player scored a brace for the reserves in the 3. Liga and the time might have come to reward him with a chance to make his debut in the first team squad.
So it is not all that bad that even Bayern München cannot easily compensate for every loss. In the recent history of FC Bayern, it was nevertheless not a matter of course that talented players would get a look in in the first team even in such exceptional circumstances. Only Louis van Gaal was almost prone to spring a surprise and throw in the odd youth player in his starting lineup.
The time of rotation has now come – actually even beyond the two forced changes. It will be interesting to see what Bayern’s starting eleven will look like this weekend. If Flick does not give Cuisance and/or Zirkzee a start in such a game, then he will probably never do it. Both of them urgently need game time at this level, as they are both in a very crucial phase of their development. Flick will know that. But will he act?
The game against Gladbach will be an opportunity for Bayern to take stock. How well can they cope being stripped of the heart of their attack. But the situation does not just afford a review of the team, it also allows a review of the coach, who who has received nothing but praise so far, and rightly so. But at the highest level, you want to see someone at the helm who can deal with such circumstances. Whether Flick is that man will not be decided by this one match. It will not even be decided on the basis of the entire season so far. Making progress is a process. The match tonight in contrast to the reverse fixture last winter shortly after Flick had taken over from Kovač will shed some light on how far this process has already come.