Champions League MD 06 preview – Bayern against Tottenham
Sometimes, football is not all that simple. Or to put it with Thomas Müller: “Football is very short-lived, sometimes even within a game.” Against Gladbach, Bayern put in a spectacular performance for about 60 minutes, but then the game completely changed.
“We shouldn’t have become hesitant”, Manuel Neuer said in his post-match analysis. His team had lacked confidence, he added. Maybe this is exactly where the analysis has to start: why does the team not manage to recover from setbacks or keep up a performance until the end?
Because even though Gladbach got a better grip on the game after Bayern took the lead, they only really ever developed a goal threat after dead ball situations. It was only after Gladbach scored the equalizer from a corner that the home team got the upper hand and started to look the more likely winner. It was merely befitting the game that Bayern gifted them the win with an unnecessarily conceded penalty in second half stoppage time.
Both Peter Bosz and Marco Rose used the word “luck” in connection to their wins against Bayern. It would be too simple to reduce Bayern’s defeats to a question of being the less lucky team on the day. If you do not manage to salvage a single point from a sum total of 4.1 to 2.5 expected goals1 (xG) in two matches, you have mostly yourself to blame and probably did not deserve better.
The xG result against Gladbach was a little bit more balanced: 1.7 to 1.2, with 0.8 xG for Gladbach resulting from the stoppage time penalty alone. So it seems legitimate to say that Bayern managed to largely subdue one of the Bundesliga’s most threatening offensive lines for the first 90 minutes of the game – not too bad a conclusion to draw despite the disappointing final result.
Going forward, however, 1.7 xG appear somewhat light, although this is due mostly to the last 30 minutes, as Bayern’s xG plateaued off after Gladbach’s equalizer. A clear sign that there is still room for improvement.
While Gladbach switched from a 4-4-2 diamond to a 4-2-3-1, Bayern stuck to their guns. René Marić, assistant coach at Gladbach, explained on Twitter that the switch was meant to give them different angles in closing down the opposition and a different default positioning for counter attacks.
The measures had the desired effect and Gladbach managed to attack their opposition players much more effectively. Bayern, on the other hand, did not manage to come up with a counter strategy in answer to this. However, in Hansi Flick’s defense it should be added that his options were limited at this point due to two earlier injury-related substitutions and Serge Gnabry not being fully fit. Yet even without personell changes, one should expect more in game adaptation from an FC Bayern coaching team.
Not accounting for the gifted penalty at the end, Gladbach mostly had small chances throughout the game as the understat.com visualization shows. This is a clear indication that Bayern are doing a lot of things right against the ball at the moment. But the curve also highlights how harmless going forward they became after the equalizer.
All it took was a small tactical tweak, initiated by René Marić and Gladbach’s coaching team, to ultimately bring about Bayern’s defeat. Another lesson in the importance of tactics.
Nevertheless, there is little cause for questioning everything at Bayern now. After all, Bayern were able to dominate the Bundesliga’s current league leaders for 60 minutes at their own ground. Gladbach did not have a single noteworthy attempt during that time.
There will be reasons why this game took such a sudden and dramatic turn for the worse for Bayern that are difficult to assess from the outside. On the one hand, there is a Bayern team whose bumpy season so far will have left them short of confidence; on the other hand, there is Gladbach who have been riding a wave of success that seems to have made them almost untouchable.
But there are other, more tractable reasons as well. There is no consistent goal scorer in the squad behind Robert Lewandowski like Arjen Robben and Thomas Müller used to be. In defense, Lucas Hernández and Niklas Süle are unavailable, two of Bayern’s best players in one-on-one duels. Then there is Thiago, who had some striking moments in the game, but has generally been far away from his best form for a while. Coman, too, is out of form, which forces Flick to regularly swap his offensive line around. Lastly, the tactical changes Flick has brought to the team can hardly have become second nature enough after just a few weeks for them to be expected to be able to easily dominate the current league leaders for an entire 90 minutes. All these factors combine to Bayern having achieved much already, but not being at their stellar best at the moment.
It may not reflect Bayern’s ambitions to be content with two defeats in a row. But if you broaden the scope, the performances in both games are something to build upon. “Ultimately, we had two good games which we both lost”, Joshua Kimmich showed himself disappointed after the game against Gladbach.
But the team is on the right track and it feels right, too. The players seem to sense that as well. Their progress might not yet properly have manifested in the scorelines, but the game against Gladbach was a step forward from the game against Leverkusen. Bayern shut up shop at the back and played with patience and calm without relenting on the pressure going forward.
So Bayern on the whole is on the way up in spite of the last two setbacks. It will be important for them to further settle down in their new style of play but also to strengthen their confidence by collecting important points from their next league matches. If such key players as Thiago and Coman should be able to find back to their old strength as well, a comeback like last year’s does not seem completely unrealistic.
Mounting a comeback is not on the agenda for the Champions League. Both Bayern and Tottenham have already qualified, their meeting on Wednesday is a dead rubber. José Mourinho announced major changes to his starting lineup from last league’s game, Bayern will keep most of their first eleven intact.
Flick will likely use the opportunity of the Champions League to try to get his team back on track. The major reshuffle in Tottenham’s ranks will certainly not make things easier for him. While the new coach situation makes it difficult to properly analyze Tottenham to begin with, an unpredictable starting lineup raises the bar even further.
Let us give it a try nonetheless: Mourinho is often said to ‘park the bus’ in big games. People often seem to forget that he still holds the La Liga record for most goals scored in a season with Real Madrid. His record at Tottenham so far shows 15 goals, eight goals conceded, four wins, one defeat.
The game against Bayern will reveal another piece of the puzzle of what Mourinho wants to achieve at Tottenham. It seems certain that the focus will be on the game against the ball and the resulting phase of transition. It is difficult to predict how high and intense Tottenham will be in their pressing. In the game against Manchester United, they varied between a sometimes deeper and sometimes higher midfield pressing.
However, Tottenham’s compact 4-4-2 formation revealed some weaknesses especially in the defensive half spaces. United’s players repeatedly managed to open up spaces between Tottenham’s double pivot and the midfield wing players. This could be an angle for Bayern to exploit too.
In possession, Tottenham continues to have problems in their positional play. If the centre is blocked, they often resort to long balls over the top or predictable passes out to the flanks. But Tottenham’s players are always very switched on. Against United, they started to have a lot more control of the game when the opposition became just a tiny bit phlegmatic in the center during the second half. So Bayern would be well advised to keep up the intensity levels during the match. Tottenham also tinkered with the concept of asymmetrical full-backs so that their nominal 4-2-3-1 turned into a 3-2-4-1 in possession. Hence, Bayern should be prepared that their opponents will not just rigidly stick to a back four but also have movement patterns at the ready to penetrate a back three.
There is not much more to say about the style of play at Tottenham under Mourinho yet. There is still a lot to do for the coach, but his team has adapted to life under him quickly. British media will probably make Bayern favorites considering the first leg in London and the expected heavy rotation by Mourinho.
For Flick, the match is a crucial test of his team’s confidence before the Bundesliga’s year end rally. The last two results will have edged themselves on the players’ minds despite their decent performances in both games. Such is the power of the scoreline.
If Bayern do not manage to convert their good performances into wins, all their efforts will be for naught. But this is not the time to question everything. Flick has only had six games. And as short lived as football may be, two defeats do not justify a complete renunciation of everything he has done. Flick should stay the course with his approach, there is too much going right. He should not be deterred and start working on remedying the team’s problems in the details until the winter break. Step by step. Because even though it is Bayern, not everything can be achieved at the blink of an eye.
1 Expected goals is a metric that attempts to measure the quality of goal finishes by assigning a probability to each chance. Each model works differently, so there may be large discrepancies between them. Combined with other statistics and subjective impressions however, they can provide an approximation of objectivity. Here and below (unless explicitly stated otherwise) the data from fbref.com was used because they get their values from Statsbomb, which is the gold standard for Expected Goals.