Bundesliga MDs 12 and 13 Preview: Bayern vs. Wolfsburg & Leverkusen (successively ;-)
In decisive phases of a season, people in Germany often talk about the “weeks of truth”. A phrase that suggests that during such periods a team’s true measure is taken. For FC Bayern, such a decisive phase is coming now, but even if it reveals a truth, it will only be of limited value.
The problems the team is facing are too complex, too difficult to solve over the terribly short Christmas break. “That it would be a difficult season we knew going in” said Hansi Flick after the disappointing 1-1 draw against Union Berlin. The historic victory in the Champions League last summer, of all things, has turned out to have unwanted ripple effects long into this season.
But not just that alone. It is also the club’s own mistakes that are now falling on their feet. In recent years, the squad has been successively thinned out to accommodate the wishes of the respective coaches. This reduction went so far that, as a result, it became imperative to increase the number of players quickly and significantly last summer.
The consequences are serious. In normal times, the plan of temporarily filling the most critical vacancies in the squad with loan deals such as Coutinho, Odriozola, and Perišić might have worked. In a summer in the throes of COVID-19, however, this approach revealed serious drawbacks that had to be tackled all at the same time – in an extremely complicated market.
And as if all of that had not yet been enough, Thiago, one of the best and most important players in the squad, also left leaving behind another huge gap that had to be closed.
To sum up FC Bayern’s current problems in a nutshell: Due to the necessarily late signings as the bosses did not want to jeopardise the team spirit during the Champions League tournament, and the complete lack of preparation, the coaching team has so far not been able to adequately integrate the newcomers. Even a player of the caliber of Leroy Sané is still finding it difficult to adapt to the new requirements at his new club.
Flick has hardly had any time to train movements and instil set patterns of play with in new players. He is caught in a constant cycle of load balancing, regeneration, and opponent analysis. Even during the international breaks, he could only work with the new arrivals to a limited extent because the majority of the team was missing on international duty.
He could also not really rely on a tried and tested backbone in his team. The schedule was too tight, individual absences too serious – especially that of Joshua Kimmich. And so he had to rotate more than he would have liked, game after game.
Now, one could rightly argue that Leipzig have had a similar workload to Bayern. But that is only part of the truth. Not to detract from Leipzig’s strong performances so far, but on the one hand they were not so dependent on their newcomers bedding in quickly. Their team’s backbone is more stable and even though with Timo Werner an important goalscorer had left the club, a reorganization up front is a different kettle of fish from replacing a key player in the game’s engine room in the center of midfield.
On the other hand, Leipzig had a small but possibly decisive advantage in the early stages of the season, when Bayern had to play extra games with the Champions League final and the two Super Cup matches.
Leverkusen, Leipzig, and even the currently struggling Dortmund – they all have the great advantage that only some of their players are mainstays in the national teams. Although their workload is also too high, it is nevertheless less than that of Bayern. The German and French international players in particular had to compete many games at a very high level (by which, in the case of the German national team, this was mainly due the strength of the opponents).
All this added up in recent weeks until even the team’s irrepressible will could no longer win every game. It is a perfectly normal process. Especially since it is even harder to mentally regroup and go back to square one to do it all over again after winning a treble. For that alone it would have taken a longer break.
You can now go back and revisit everything that we have debated inside and out on our blog during the past few weeks: Where are the problems? What can Flick do to adjust? Why do things not improve?
Or you can acquiesce in the situation and accept that perhaps more is simply not possible at the moment. It almost does not matter what changes Flick makes – and he has tried his fair share of things lately. Ultimately, the Bayern game lacks too much precision, dynamism and timing right now. And this also would not change if Bayern were to withdraw 10 meters deeper into their own half. It would not even change if Bayern parked the bus in their own penalty area.
Without a high general intensity, no team consistently wins its games. And Bayern simply cannot go there at the moment. Flick undoubtedly has to ask himself whether his current tactical approach is the right one vis-a-vis the packed calendar. His statements suggest that he is aware of that. But in contrast to many other difficult situations in recent years, the coach seems to have only limited influence this time. On the contrary, the question may be allowed whether anyone could have squeezed more points out of this team in such a complex situation. For all the criticism: With only one defeat in the league, which came almost immediately after an intense Supercup match against Sevilla, Bayern are currently still in a very good position.
But the upcoming tasks now are Wolfsburg and Leverkusen – the only unbeaten teams in the Bundesliga so far. Two teams that will once again ask everything from Bayern. Wolfsburg can rely on their compact and extremely well-organised midfield center, Leverkusen on their high-intensity pressing and effortless ball control. Again, it is the midfield center that could be Bayern’s downfall – especially as Kimmich is definitely not yet ready to come in against Wolfsburg, while Goretzka is also out. If Bayern take at least four points from these games, they can probably color themselves happy.
The team is exhausted before the year is. And there is every reason to doubt that an extremely short Christmas break will do anything about that. At least the break, such as it is, ensures that Bayern can really leave everything on the pitch this week without having to worry about the next games. The biggest silver lining, however, is the return of Kimmich. He could bring back a semblance of order in midfield and provide a moral and sporting boost to the whole team, if Flick decides to use him against Leverkusen. But even with a fit Kimmich, Flick’s prediction is likely to remain true: It is going to be a damn tough season for Bayern.