A big reason for those performances is the litany of COVID related absences that Bayern have been dealing with. Niklas Süle, Jamal Musiala, Serge Gnabry, Eric Maxim-Choupo Moting, Josip Stanišić, Michael Cuisance and Joshua Kimmich have all been in quarantine for much of the last two weeks.
Obviously Kimmich has been the biggest talking point here, partially because he is one of the few that has actually confirmed his vaccination status and reluctance, and partially because of who he is and how important he is to the team.
Therefore it was unsurprising when Julian Nagelsmann’s team was obscenely thin for Tuesday night’s match. The starting eleven was fairly close to full strength. Manuel Neuer took his place in goal. Benjamin Pavard, Tanguy Nianzou, Lucas Hernandez and Alphonso Davies comprised the back line with Corentin Tolisso and Leon Goretzka in the double pivot. In attack Kingsley Coman, Thomas Müller and Leroy Sané played behind Robert Lewandowski.
Where the impact was really seen however was the bench where there were six total substitutes available. Two of them were backup goalkeepers Sven Ulreich and Christian Früchtl, two were emergency right backs Bouna Sarr and Omar Richards and the other two were estranged midfielder Marc Roca and youth player Malik Tillman.
Luckily Bayern would take an early lead via a exceptional Lewandowski goal as he converted an overhead bicycle kick in the 14th minute to make it 1-0. Then in the 42nd minute, Davies would cross towards Müller who feinted and left the ball for Coman who blasted it in off the crossbar creating an avalanche of snow for 2-0.
However, it was a shaky performance around those two goals with a lot missing throughout the field. The second half would see the Reds struggle to regain control. Kimmich’s calming presence was sorely missed and even Manuel Neuer looked uncharacteristically shaky spilling the ball several times and making numerous saves look uncomfortable and unnecessarily difficult.
Unsurprisingly, Kyiv managed to get on the board in the 70th minute following a defensive lapse. The Ukrainian side would have several more excellent chances to pull out a draw or even squeeze out a win but Bayern managed to hold on to their one goal lead and clinch the Champions League group prior to their final match with Barcelona.
Saturday would see a very similar starting eleven to Tuesday’s with the only change being Dayot Upamecano replacing Nianzou. The bench however was much more fully stocked as Süle, Gnabry, Cuisance, Musiala and Stanišić all returned.
This match would be slightly better to watch as a Bayern supporter as they largely had control of the play and only conceded a few opportunities. Bayern’s 22 (9) shots on target to Bielefeld’s 8 (0) gives a reasonable feeling for how this match played out. On a different night, Bayern may have scored 5 or 6 goals. The opportunities they managed to create, especially in the first half, were more than good enough to score on several occasions.
However a combination of bad luck, poor aim and good goalkeeping kept the Munich side out for most of the match. It would take until the 71st minute for Leroy Sané to hit a blast from outside the box to break the deadlock and put Bayern ahead 1-0. The Team never looked in danger of losing after that goal but didn’t do much else to seal the match either and things would end with that single goal victory.
Things We Noticed
Here we are again. We got a taste of this last season under Hansi Flick and now we’re in for round two of seeing what Bayern look like sans Joshua Kimmich. Spoiler alert, it isn’t good and it’s even harder to swallow for some when you consider that this might have been preventable.
However, lets ignore that giant elephant and focus on what actually happened on the pitch. Luckily this year Tolisso is not out injured as well so there is more than just Goretzka available to play on the six. However the effectiveness of those two in that position leaves a lot to be desired.
Every midfielder not named Kimmich share far too many of the same strengths and weaknesses with each other and in reality are not suited to play the six. Goretzka is easily the most complete of those other three (excluding the exiled Roca). His defensive abilities and passing have improved to an acceptable level, especially when paired with Kimmich who excels at both passing and ball control.
However when teamed up with Tolisso or Marcel Sabitzer, things become problematic. Both of those players are still much more box to box midfileders whose strengths lie in the offensive side of the game. Unfortunately, that is where Goretzka also naturally excels. He has simply developed a more complete game than the other two.
When paired together, chaos seems to reign…and not in a good way. The middle of the pitch doesn’t become the wasteland that we saw last season where it basically became something entirely bypassed, but it’s pretty close. Goretzka and Tolisso’s passing are simply not good enough or creative enough to consistently open up defenses.
Their dribbling abilities are the one saving grace at times. When they manage to get some space to run, they have actually helped significantly in breaking down their opposition, but that rarely happens and Davies, Sané and Coman are excellent at doing this themselves.
However, for the most part the two of them either play short side or back passes and all progress is made through the wings. They also tend to struggle more with balancing each other’s movements. Goretzka still likes to get forward on occasion and when he does, rarely do you see Tolisso fall back to cover that area of the field.
Ultimately, these things all combine into a lack of control on the ball and congestion throughout the rest of the pitch. The attack is far too predictable, with a Kovac era level of wing attacks, and almost nothing through Müller or the center of the pitch.
Leadership and Organization
Another noticeable issue this week is again due to the absence of Kimmich. Outside of everything that he brings to the squad in terms of his abilities on the ball, he is also unquestionably a major figure in terms of leadership. I don’t think it’s actually unreasonable to argue that he is the most important player in terms of leadership in the squad.
With Neuer being a goalkeeper, it’s hard for him to organize and order the team around while also defending our goal despite his habit of sneaking up towards the halfway line. Lewandowski and Müller are also certainly leaders in their own right but Lewandowski is more of a lead by example type and Müller is…well…Müller. He absolutely is respected and leads, but he’s also more erratic and unpredictable which makes him a great player but not necessarily the best leader at all times.
Apart from those three players however, the rest are either not capable or not ready to have that type of responsibility. A big part of those problems that I discussed in the midfield have at least something to do with the lack of leadership in the middle of the pitch. Sabitzer could potentially take on some of that responsibility in the future, but he needs to establish himself first both with the players and through his performances.
However, Bayern really need to find another player that can light a fire under people the way that Kimmich is capable of. Who can get in someone’s face or pick someone up when needed. Maybe there is someone who has that in him but hasn’t shown it yet, but I don’t really see any other natural leaders the way Kimmich was. With those other three getting older, it’s starting to become time that the next generation of leaders be identified regardless. Hopefully someone steps up into that role in the near future.
A Sané Plan
On to something positive. One change, that I think we all have noticed but maybe not given enough credit for is the changes that Nagelsmann made earlier in the year to turn Coman and especially Sané’s seasons around. It was a simple act and one that I had actually questioned a few times myself over recent years. Simply, he inverted the two players putting Sané on the left and Coman on the right.
That simple switch has worked wonders for both players. For Coman, it has made him be more cognizant of what he does when he gets past his man on the wing. Instead of whipping in an aimless cross with his stronger left foot, he now looks up and is focusing on finding the right pass.
Oddly, I think Davies has had a huge part to play in this as well. While he and Coman formed a formidable team down the flank, they also provided much of the same attacks down the left. Sané, however brings different dimensions to the pitch. Sané has developed a relatively symbiotic relationship with Davies where Phonzie provides much of the width and Leroy cuts in more centrally and provides more scoring chances and higher percentage passes in the box. This has essentially allowed all three players to utilize their biggest strengths and put them in better positions to positively impact the team.
Obviously there is more that goes into their current form especially Sané’s, health and time being huge factors. However, that simple move by Nagelsmann was the catalyst that really propelled all three forward and he deserves a massive amount of credit for that.
As mentioned earlier Kimmich’s absence has once again highlighted a massive area of need. Whenever the midfield engine is not on the field, there are massive problems. Yet there has not been a backup since Thiago’s departure.
Players get injuries, suspensions…COVID…etc. You have to be prepared to have all of your players miss some time throughout the season. However we’re going on two seasons without any replacement for Kimmich whatsoever.
While finding a player that has all of the abilities that Kimmich possesses would be next to impossible, they should at least be able to find a player who is more suited to a classic six role. They need another player who can play as a passing, ball control midfielder who is strong in defense.
Perhaps the rumors of selling off Tolisso will come to fruition and they’ll use that money to find a midfielder more suited to their system. However, they cannot go into another season with no real replacement for Kimmich. It’s too important of a position to ignore in this way.
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I actually think the Bielefeld game is decent. The team looked better than in Kiev and Ausburg in terms of movement, organisation and combination play. Some usual suspects (Pavard, Tolisso …) were better. The most notably negative aspect was precision, lots of misplaced passes with bad touches or too strong, too weak, which was very similar to the first few games of the season.
I thought Sabitzer could deputy for Kimmich, not as a classic No.6 of course, but one who can share the passing duty, as well as serving the leadership role. But obviously he needs time.
I’m pretty much looking forward to the Dortmund game however I’m not too concerned. Firstly this is an entirely different animal which will not play like Ausburg or Bielefeld, they are also dealing with their own issues, and secondly Nagelsmann has 1 entire week to prepare, and lastly motivation level will be different. Even if we would lose, which I don’t truly expect, it would be a 2 points gap that would still keep us in the loop, and when Bayern eventually gets back to previous machine mode, these hypothetic 2 points would not be a big obstacles. Of course in this case pressure would be huge, and we can never know what would happen in the future, but I’m still relax.
I actually was a concerned about the Bielefeld match. The lack of goals has been explained away as an “off night”, but I’ve seen a similar pattern in recent matches. I worry that the issue is the change in formation. The 3-4-2-1 is really crowding the area in front of goal and I feel it made it easier for Bielefeld to defend. It may sound paradoxical, but I don’t think more people in front of the goal necessarily equates more goals. Too many times I see Muller out wide and i feel he is much, much less effective there. Also with so many bodies in the box, getting separation for a good strike seems more difficult. This may simply be the growing pains of a new formation. Let’s hope so.
Thanks as always for your comments Hien and Durham BL Fan! I genuinely appreciate the interaction.
I think both of you have a point regarding the Bielefeld match. I agree with you Hien that Bayern looked far better in this match than in the previous two. They created far more chances and were far better in all of the areas that you mentioned. Misplaced passes have IMO been an issue all year long actually, though it is certainly exacerbated by the fact that Tolisso is in for probably our best passer in Kimmich.
However DBF also has a point regarding the “too many men in the box” observation. You are not alone in that observation and if reports are to be believed, Lewandowski supposedly talked to Nagelsmann about just that. Personally I tend to agree with you that there have been too many men in the box, especially over recent matches. Tolisso and Goretzka love to get forward. Sane and Gnabry have both played more centrally as wingers than they were last season and Muller and Lewandowski live there. As you mention, Muller and even Lewy at times, have moved onto the wings to provide a bit of spacing.
Generally I think we would all agree that we would prefer those two to remain centrally except in rare circumstances. So the real question comes down to how central Sane, Coman and Gnabry play and how much the two sixes move forward. This is also a genuine problem. I think we can all agree that Sane especially has been much better this season. A lot of that is due to the system allowing him to attack the goal more directly as opposed to whipping in crosses all day long. Gnabry has always played this way, so when the two of them are on the field at the same time, things get overloaded in the box far too often. I think those players, as well as Goretzka/Tolisso are going to have to pick and choose their moments a bit better. They need to learn to counter each other’s movements in a way that allows for more room in the box and more options outside. This likely will be the responsibility of Gnabry and Coman more as Davies provides far more attacking support than Pavard, but Sane too will need to figure out ways to give both Davies and Lewy & Muller more space, perhaps by dropping back when he’s not on the ball and Davies is occupying the wing. Nagelsmann will no doubt have ideas and strategies to fix these issues. It’s a matter of time and discipline before we see those changes in games.
All of that said, I do suspect this might be an issue from time to time. It was one of the things that we struggled with under Pep the most at times, especially against smaller teams that allowed Bayern to dominate the ball. When your opposition is willing to set up in their final third with only the occasional foray forward, it’s natural that the box is going to get overloaded. Hopefully however, it’s something that they can overcome in the near future.
Hien: Regarding Sabitzer, I still think there is reason to hope that can be the case. I know many are down on him but in this instance I really will stress patience. He has talent and is more diverse than Tolisso (not that I think Tolisso is a bad player either, he just can’t stay healthy and isn’t a great fit at Bayern). He’s going to have to adjust his game so that it fits the way he’s being utilized at Bayern. That’s going to take time.
Regarding Dortmund, I’m not sure what to expect. We’re really not in a great place heading into that match without Kimmich, however I also don’t really expect to lose. A draw or narrow win seems very possible. I agree with you that the week of preparation for Nagelsmann does make me feel a little better about things. The same is true for Rose in reverse though, who I have a lot of respect for as a coach. It should be a good match, though I expect it might end up a little sloppy. No matter the result, the league will not be decided this weekend. A win would feel good but a 4 point lead is hardly insurmountable and as you said a loss and 2 point deficit will not feel like much of a mountain to climb for Bayern either.
Hi Mark and Durham thank you for your comments I also find these discussions around the shift toward central attack fascinating. At the moment it indeed look congested at time, and there are seemingly less variation compared to previously either. Let me try to list the problems:
– Less wing attack: both touch-line hug -> cross and invert movement from the wing, now that we no longer play with inverted wingers, nor true wingers who stay in the touch-line
– Sane and Muller stepping on each other, or Muller has to shift to the right, not optimal
– The less winger presence should be compensated by the fullbacks movement, but obviously at the moment only Davies satisfies it, perhaps that’s why Bayern is still looking for a new right-back?
– The oppositions now always try to congest the centre, with a lot of bodies in central midfield and centre defence, since they’re now less susceptible to being stretched by Bayern’s wing play
– That leads to lack of space and ball for Lewandowski, which frustrates him, and also makes him move back and around to collect the ball, which further confuse the crowded central area
– Now not to mention Goretzka and at the moment also Tolisso who like to move forward to join the attack
However, I do think it’s too early to jump to conclusion that this isn’t a good move. I think Nagelsmann’s vision is total football where players seamlessly move inside the whole unit, compliment each other’s movement, confuse oppositions and also kill them with pressing thanks to optimal positioning and spacing. Or in other words what Marc pointed out. I’m thinking about current Pep’s City attack for example. In theory, when gelling with the new scheme, Bayern would press better, and have more variation in attack because:
– Better positioning. I think the current 3-2-4-1 exploits space better than traditional 4-2-3-1, players are closer to each other especially in central area, this helps both pressing and possession game.
– Less predictable in attack, of course this is only in theory, and only when players understand and compliment other’s movement perfectly
– More goal threats, and of course more goal threats = less reliance on Lewandowski.
Moreover, I support this tactical shift because:
– We no longer have Robbery type of wingers. Players like Sane, Gnabry, Coman are different, in which only Coman can be used as a traditional winger, and even in this case I doubt his optimal effectiveness can be reach. Even Musiala is not a winger, he’s more an all-round attacker who would be more suited to a central-oriented role.
– We have Davies who is a monster attacking fullback unlike anyone we had in the past, we can’t use him the same way as Lahm, Alaba … (e.g move in to the centre to support central midfield à la Pep) but we should release his attacking power and make the most out of his sheer speed and dribbling ability.
– Robert Lewandowski, who at this stage of his career, has been transforming from a goal hitter to a complete forward who can play excellent combination game.
– We have to evolve anyway
I expect Bayern to get much better in the next few months, even more so that in October, providing no major injury hits, and no annoying external noises e.g. vaccine debate, the AGM, etc when a certain level of automatism is reached. This may also explain the reluctance of Nagelsmann to rotate since the beginning of the season.
Hi Hien. You did a good job of summarizing the concerns and as you might suspect I agree with your conclusion of remaining patient. I believe in Nagelsmann’s ability to manage this team, especially from a pure footballing perspective. However he deals in far more complex systems than Bayern have been under since Pep left. As great as Hansi Flick was, his style was fairly simple at it’s core and very direct. He might be the most direct attacking coach in football today. His whole strategy revolves around winning the ball back quickly and attacking the goal as soon as possible. In a lot of respects, Kovac, Ancelotti and even Jupp were not so different. Jupp is more malleable and tried to adjust based on the team he had available. It’s arguable whether Ancelotti did anything more than throw a ball on the field, but Kovac was nearly as simple minded as Flick except his simplicity was detrimental with a team like Bayern.
In any case, Nagelsmann’s tactics are far less direct. Creating spaces and opportunities through passing and movement are more his style. That is going to lead to shifts where Bayern naturally end up with too many men in the box and no space to work. It’s a fairly common tactic for smaller teams in general and especially against teams who attack with more “style” rather than just simple incisive attacks. It’s always going to be concerning when Bayern play the smaller teams and they don’t score relatively early or worse give up a quick goal. When you’re willing to throw 10 men into the box and defend for your life, a lot of times it takes moments of individual brilliance or errors to find the breakthrough. I tend to believe Nagelsmann is less possession focused than Pep was and that should help mitigate some of these issues but games like the one last Saturday are bound to happen from time to time.
I also tend to agree that when things finally start to click, the attack has the potential to be extremely scary. While Sane, Gnabry and Coman are different than Robben and Ribery, that’s not necessarily a good or bad thing. They all have different strengths and weaknesses that they bring and Nagelsmann has to find out how to best utilize them while the players need to understand how best to compliment the players around them.
Right Back needs to be a priority. I’m not fully on the hate bandwagon with regards to Pavard but I do think he’s better suited to center back than right back. It is the biggest and clearest weakness of this squad and stunts the fluidity that Nagelsmann I think would like to achieve. I also agree with you regarding Musiala. I actually view him as the heir apparent to Muller’s position at some point. His movement and ability to pop up in unexpected places and affect the game all over the pitch very much reminds me of Thomas. There are obviously differences but I can very much see him as a player who sits right behind a striker and is allowed the freedom to move at his discretion. I will end by reiterating that the bosses for sure need to add another midfielder, especially if Tolisso leaves as expected, whose strengths lie in defense and most importantly passing. Enjoy the big match this weekend!
Hi Marc, thanks for the great discussion. Your remark about Kovac, Ancelotti and Jupp is very interesting. Perhaps that’s why I see some similarities between this season and the 2013-2014 season, in both cases a highly sophisticated tactical coach (Pep, Nagelsmann) came to replace a well-loved one (Jupp, Flick) who left not because he was sacked, and left behind glory (champions league) with rather direct and transitional football. In both case, there are a lot of questions and doubt around the tactical shift to a more well-defined, positional play based football which required a lot more presence and structure in the upper central half. For example I clearly remembered a lot of people were not happy with Pep’s decision to switch the midfield shape from 2-1 to 1-2, 1 less defensive, 1 more central attacking player, etc. I guess it’s not too different from the current complain of switching to a congested central-oriented attack from Flick’s free flowing attacking football.
At the end of the day these great coaches will be judged by the number of Champions League, and in this sense Jupp and Flick passed the test while Pep did not. It remains to be seen whether Nagelsmann ends up, but the Champions League itself is always a very difficult thing to achieve, no matter how good you are, so I hope even if he does not win it in the next few years, he won’t get annoyed (enough) with noise and criticism around and go somewhere yet.
You can call me crazy, but while I were very happy, and extremely grateful for Jupp and Flick because of their work in bringing my team to glory, to me football is a beauty, and sustainability, so in reality I’m more happy with for example 3 consecutive semi-finals, playing beautiful football, than a won one and 2 other mediocre quarter-final exits.
It’s not that my expectation is low, in any case.