DFB-Pokal 2nd Round Preview: Holstein Kiel vs. FC Bayern
Hansi Flick had certainly imagined a different start to the new calendar year. Wins against Mainz and Gladbach would have afforded the opportunity to quietly rotate and make small adjustments behind the scenes in the games against Kiel, Freiburg, Augsburg and Schalke, all supposedly lesser opponents.
But now caution is called for. Bayern’s victory at Kiel in the second round of the DFB-Pokal, which many had already mentally filed away as done and dusted, is by no way a matter of course. The Storks have played a strong season so far, sitting in third place in the 2. Bundesliga with 29 points from 15 games. With only two losses, coach Ole Werner’s team has lost fewer games than any other team in the league.
The success of this club is nothing less than remarkable. After being promoted to the 2. Bundesliga in 2017, the Storks immediately stormed to a third place finish – and failed to beat VfL Wolfsburg in the relegation. This was followed by a sixth and an almost disappointing eleventh place in the last season.
How is it possible that Kiel have become so successful almost out of the blue? The simple answer is that the people in charge have done many things right in recent years. Above all, they have established a football philosophy over the last decade about which the current coach Werner says: “[We have] developed a way of playing, a DNA, over the last few years that is known way beyond Kiel.”
It is relatively rare for a team to have such a high recognition value that one could identify them by their playing style on the field even if they did not wear their shirts. Among world class teams, Ajax and Barcelona immediately come to mind – in Germany, Kiel is now one of those clubs that have developed an immediately recognizable style of play from the youth teams all the way up to the first team.
Player signings and coach appointments are aligned with this DNA. This is why Kiel have managed to remain successful with only minor upward and downward fluctuations, even though they have had a fair degree of turnover in the coaching position in recent years. After Werner’s brief stint as interim coach in August 2016, Markus Anfang lead the team for the following two years. He was for a year followed by Tim Walter, a person well-known in Munich, before André Schubert enjoyed an even shorter time in the dugout. Former and present coach Werner has been back on the sidelines since September 2019. He is one who knows the club and their DNA intimately.
In the broadest possible sense, this DNA consists of relentless offensive football, characterised by an aggressive gegenpressing, quick forward movement of the ball, and plenty of dynamism. So far, this does not sound particularly special. Many teams in Germany claim these attributes for themselves. For example FC Bayern, too, claim that all their youth and senior teams play offensive, possession-oriented, aggressive football.
The difference between the great FC Bayern and the Storks from Kiel, however, lies in the details. The record champions have a fairly relaxed approach to their philosophy, so individual teams can deviate from it as they see fit. A few years ago, for example, the U teams coached by Sebastian Hoeneß played a type of football that had little to do with the ideals the club holds high for the football of their first team. Something like this would be unthinkable at Kiel.
At Kiel there are clear (footballing) principles that reach down to the youngest youth teams. Especially their positional play from a 4-3-3 (4-1-4-1) formation is very distinctive because the teams engage and vacate spaces very dynamically without leaving big gaps. The running lanes are well coordinated and so it can happen that, if one freezes the picture, the distances between the back four and the six remaining outfield players during build-up play appear huge one moment but make total sense the next. There is an almost continuous fluency to Kiel’s forward play.
The great pioneer of the idea of dynamically occupied spaces – especially in holding midfield – may have been Tim Walter. Already during his time as coach of Bayern’s second team, Walter experimented a lot with the movement of his center-backs. He tried out a tactical variation that can still be seen at Kiel today: having one of his two center-backs intermittently take up the holding midfielder position.
When Kiel are in possession, they often leave larger spaces open momentarily, only to use them for small diversions or a surprising run the next instant. With their tempo, their composure on the ball and their willingness to take calculated risks, Kiel has attracted attention almost irrespective of who happened to be their current coach over recent years. Under Werner, too, their game looks really good, especially in midfield. If anything, the Storks have problems in taking their chances and in defensive transition. Although they have already begun to tackle the problem of counter-attack protection, and 14 goals conceded is a strong figure in the league, there is always room for improvement.
However, a fair representation of the club’s DNA also includes the fact that Kiel do not slavishly apply one and the same strategic template at every team at the club, no matter what. Of course, there is always room for adjustment to the players available or the respective opponent.
And so it would be highly surprising if Kiel were to deploy a full-on attacking pressing for 90 minutes (or more) against Bayern, and the center-backs could be found in the Bayern half more often than at their own goal. Werner knows that he needs the courage and the offensive power of his team to have a chance against such an potentially overwhelming opponent. But he knows just as well that defensive stability needs a different focus in this match than in the 2. Bundesliga.
That is why Kiel will probably try to maintain their compactness from a deeper position and focus on defending more than usual. However, it is to be expected that they will also recurringly test the solidity of Bayern’s defense.
The match tonight could be a gripping and interesting one if Bayern allowed it. A good example of what is possible when they do was provided not long ago by 1. FC Heidenheim.
After the defeat against Gladbach, the onus to produce is on Hansi Flick’s team. Bayern’s opponents must currently feel that every additional lackluster performance by Bayern chips away at their natural near-invincibility just a little bit more. At the moment, the Bayern team is far from being the self-confident treble winners that overpowers almost every opponent, even on a off day.
Nevertheless, Flick now has the opportunity to adjust and rotate and try out a few things against Kiel. For example, he could consider fielding a back four without his defensive chief David Alaba. The coach must continue to rotate, that much is clear.
At the same time, he will have to somehow pull off the feat of getting his defense back into working order again. Fluctuations in performance by individual players make this a difficult task. Jérôme Boateng, for example, delivered a strong performance against Leverkusen but then made a critical mistake against Mainz. Niklas Süle played well against Leverkusen and after coming on against Mainz, but was then a liability against Gladbach.
Other players, such as Benjamin Pavard or David Alaba, have been showing more or less poor performances in every game for a long time. It is understandable that young Alphonso Davies, without a reliable support structure around him as well as having come back from injury not too long ago, does not perform consistently. So the situation is by no means easy for Flick. Criticism, however, is in order, especially with regard to his personnel decisions.
How serious the defeat at Gladbach was will show over the coming weeks. Bayern’s short-term objective is clear: For one, no more slip-ups against the individually clearly inferior opponents of the coming weeks. With positive results, Bayern will be able to quieten a lot of the recent criticism, regardless of performance. For another, the team needs to settle and pick up a kind of rhythm that will give it back some of its former assuredness. It may not yet be the most complicated phase of the season for Bayern on paper. But the upcoming games against Kiel and Freiburg alone already offer plenty of room for them to stumble and are therefore so important. Nevertheless, a win against Kiel and another one against Freiburg next weekend will go a very long way to relaxing the mood at Säbener Straße again.