Game won – Sympathies lost
People panicked on Wednesday. The one player who was not allowed to get injured, did get injured. Hansi Flick had multiple options to choose from and ultimately made a decision as obvious as it was daring: The first centre forward Lewandowski was just to be replaced by the second, young Joshua Zirkzee. The starting lineup had no further surprises. Jérôme Boateng was rewarded with another starting spot following his good game in London with Hernández staying on the bench, additionally, Coutinho came into the team replacing the injured Coman. Contrary to the last Bundesliga match, Bayern played with a back four once more, although the formation was more akin to a 4-2-4 with Müller basically playing alongside centre forward Zirkzee. With two new names on the injured list, one also returned as for the first time in 2020, Javi Martínez was back in the squad again.
Alfred Schreuder’s answer to Bayern’s presumed 4-3-3 was his own 4-3-3. Ex-player Sebastian Rudy was right-back, Nordtveit and Hübner centre-backs with Zuber playing on the left-hand side. Florian Grillitsch played alone in defensive midfield accompanied by Samassékou and Baumgartner. Skov, Bebou and Bruun Larsen made up a flexible three-man-attack with Andrej Kramarić benched.
The game started just like the cup game a few weeks prior: With an own-goal. This time, however, it was Bayern getting the opening goal, not Hoffenheim. They lost possession near their own box, the ball came to Müller who put in a cross over the unorganised defence to a flying Gnabry who in turn shot Baumann with such an impact the keeper had no time to avoid deflecting the ball in his own net (2’). Four minutes later Bayern increased their lead. Boateng played a laserpass to Thomas Müller, who laid it off to Zirkzee. The young Dutchman did not manage to finish the play, but Kimmich standing behind him scored with a precise low shot from 20 meters. To the delight of a certain Madrid benchwarmer, no doubt.
A centre-back was also pivotal for the build-up of the third goal. Alaba switched up play across the entire field to Gnabry, who put a low cross inside where Kimmich let the ball pass (presumably involuntarily) to Zirkzee. The youngster stopped the ball with his back to goal, turned, waited deliberately half a second and then scored with a well-considered shot (15’).
In the following minutes, Bayern created more chances all the while Hoffenheim barely got a foot out their own half, Bayern was absolutely deserving of this three-goal-lead. Schreuder did not wait for the second half to react and brought on central defender Lucas Ribeiro for striker Bruun Larsen. This stopped the long balls behind their defence but not them conceding. Davies played a one-two with Coutinho, who sent the Canadian on a run only he could make. Davies laid it off precisely to Zirkzee, whose lay-off to Müller was blocked, which in turn initiated first Zirkzee, then Coutinho shooting. Zirkzee’s shot was blocked, while Coutinho’s was deflected and fell into goal. This took a load of the Brazilian’s mind and the entire team was celebrating with him. The goal also showed just how focussed Hoffenheim was on defending by now, since at the end of this sequence, nine(!) Hoffenheim players were hopelessly staring at the ball dipping into the net (33’). Although Bayern continued attacking and getting chances, this remained the last goal as the first half ended 4:0.
Both teams made a substitution for half-time. Hoffenheim brought on Kramarić, Bayern Tolisso for Boateng, fascinatingly however, not Pavard moved to central defence, but Kimmich did. Whatever Hoffenheim was intending to do for the second half, it was all for nought mere two minutes in. The entire game Hoffenheim was playing short goal kicks no matter how high Bayern was pressing them and now they paid for it. Müller intercepted a ball and directly forwarded it to Coutinho, who had no problems scoring alone in front of goal. From the 56th minute onwards Bayern played in a more classical 4-3-3 with Goretzka replacing Müller, shortly afterwards he, too, scored. In a counter-attack Tolisso received the ball via Coutinho, put in a picture-perfect pass to Goretzka, who lobbed it over Baumann. Arguably, the best goal of the day. Bayern could have scored more in the following minutes but the game faded into the background. Instead, posters, pyrotechnics and insults took over. After multiple breaks, the teams returned to the pitch but the match was effectively over. To fulfil the minimum 90 minutes required, the two teams just passed the ball to each other. The next match is on Tuesday in the quarter-finals of the cup against Schalke 04.
Hansi Flick trusted Zirkzee and the youngster paid him back. He scored once and was part of the creation process for all other goals. While the game did admittedly go perfectly for the young Dutchman, one could see in the details that this was someone special. He shined with his runs, his technique, his awareness of the game. In short, the game clearly showed Joshua Zirkzee was ready for top-flight football.
His goal in particular showed his instincts, most number nines -young and old ones- would have immediately gone for the shot on target, Zirkzee, however, knew to turn around first, fake his shot and then only to shoot. It also helped tremendously that his team accepted him completely, they looked for him and included him in their combinations. There had been debuts of talented players in the past who were ignored for almost the entire game. This team, however, served Zirkzee as if he already had hundreds of matches on his mantle. As long as Robert Lewandowski remains injured, Hansi Flick should give Zirkzee more chances and even after his number one striker will have returned, more game-time will not be out of the question. Bayern’s bench is not exactly brimming with offensive alternatives at the moment, should Zirkzee prove himself, he could become a veritable attacking sub for Hansi Flick.
Hoffenheim knows how to play football and intended to show that at home. This is why they presumably went with an attacking minded 4-3-3 formation, yet in reality, they were running to their doom. Both the second and third goals were initiated by long, precise passes of a centre-back. Before the 2:0, Boateng bypassed virtually the entire Hoffenheim team at once with his pass, Müller lays it off and thus creates a sort of extreme version of the wall passes we were talking about for the Chelsea game, at the end of which Kimmich has enough space for a surefire finish.
The third goal, too, was the product of a long ball. Hoffenheim pressed on the left-hand side, so Alaba freed himself by squaring it long and wide to Gnabry across the pitch. Müller was critical here, as he pulled the defender away from Gnabry. Long balls from centre-backs have previously not been part of Flick-Bayern’s repertoire, just like they had become only an important tool for Guardiola’s Bayern side over time, we might have seen an evolution of the current Bayern-game here. These long balls were not allowed to do more than assisting those two goals as Schreuder realized their danger and countered them by bringing on a centre-back for a striker and changing to a back five.
When Lucas Hernández came on for Alphonso Davies in the 64th minute, Bayern played with a defence they had never played before and possibly will never play again. Centre-backs Pavard and Hernández were playing full-backs, Joshua Kimmich, having made his name as a full-back was playing centre-back alongside Alaba, who of course originally has been known as a full-back, too. This positioning was made before the de facto end of the game and thus has been intended by the coach. One can only speculate that while long balls from the defence were not an option any more, Flick was willing to sacrifice additional attacking power for a technically gifted defensive line. Sadly we only had little time watching this very unique defence as the game effectively ended prematurely for the known reasons. It remains a mystery if Flick just wanted to increase Pavard and Hernández’ offensive self-confidence or if he actually intends to use this most technically-gifted centre-back pairing.