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.
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.
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.
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.