ICC: Bayern suffer first match defeat against Arsenal

Justin Separator July 20, 2019

As per usual, there is no short answer to this question. Of course, early test matches offer some first impressions, tactical glimpses and ideas of how a team wants to play, but it is impossible to reach final conclusions after just one game. 

Assessing the game against Arsenal was further impeded by additional circumstances. For one, the starting XI: youth players Kehl, Johansson and Ontužāns began the same as new arrival Fiete Arp. Müller started in attack, other first team regulars like Kimmich, Coman, and Gnabry were left out. However, with Tolisso and Thiago, Kovač started a duo in midfield that we are likely going to see much more of this season. 

In contrast to Bayern, the English club played with a starting eleven that would be well suited to regular Premier League competition. Apart from Willock and Mitland-Niles, all players in the starting line-up were seasoned professionals. The offence in particular, in the form of Özil, Lacazette, Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan, made for impressive reading.

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Despite the two teams’ unevenly matched starting line-ups, the game started as a surprisingly close affair. Arsenal had the more decisive actions in attack, but Bayern stood firm and frequently created promising situations in the final third themselves – yet without finding a finish.

Bayern’s first big opportunities to score came towards the end of the first half when a series of crosses from the flanks lead to a couple of good chances. But Arsenal always remained dangerous on the counter, so a goalless score line seemed a fair result at halftime. 

Kovac started the second half with a completely new team: Lewandowski, Gnabry, new arrival Singh, Coman, Poznanski, Süle, Pavard, Goretzka, Kimmich, Stiller and Ulreich were brought on. Arsenal, on the other hand, made only two changes with Kolasinac and Martinez coming on for Monreal and Leno.

At the beginning of the second half, both teams continued to play as they had ended the first, but Arsenal started to win the upper hand because of the extensive rotation in the Bayern team. An unfortunate own goal by Poznanski in the 49. Minute further reinforced their advantage. Subsequently, Emery started to make intermittent substitutions which turned the last phase of the game in an open back and forth without any phase of consistent momentum for either side. 

Robert Lewandowski scored a beautiful header from a cross by Serge Gnabry in the 70. minute. The 1:1 draw would have been a deserved end to the game, but Arsenal had other ideas. After Bayern failed to clear their lines after a high cross towards Ulreich’s goal, Arsenal found the net concluding a beautiful combination. Neither Süle nor Kimmich looked particularly good in this situation. Regardless of the unimportant result, the game allows for some first tentative observations which might foreshadow more substantial developments later in the season. 

Things we noticed:

1. The return of the high number eights?

One of Kovač’s tactical elements at the beginning of last season was to place the two number eights very high on the pitch. This benefitted the team’s supremacy in the half spaces, the support of the players on the wings, and the quality of the team’s ‘gegenpressing’. However, it also came with the downsides of a greater vulnerability in the back if the gegenpressing high up the pitch did not succeed, and too large an area of control for just one number six both on and off the ball. This is why Kovač later usually opted for a 4-2-3-1 in most games. 

1.1. The first half

At first it seemed as though Kovač intended to give the 4-3-3 / 4-1-4-1 a second chance against Arsenal. While Tolisso and Johansson played as the two high number eights, Thiago acted as the deep-lying number six responsible for build up play as well as stabilising the defence. Moving forward, this lead to a lot of combinations through the middle and through the half spaces. This might have been the first inkling of an alternative to Kovač’s usual game which is heavily reliant on crosses from the flanks. 

Johansson in particular had a good game after a nervous beginning. He was able to find the vertical pass behind the lines and to open up spaces for his teammates every now and then. But Arsenal was able to exploit the weaknesses of this formation just the same as many opponents managed to last season. Thiago had to cover quite a large area of the pitch all by himself, a task which plainly he was not equal to. Kovač and his assistant coach Hansi Flick failed to test to have the full backs come in to reduce Thiago’s remit and bring stability to a game focused on creativity through the centre and the half spaces.

Although most scoring opportunities still came over the flanks, there was a noticeable improvement in the support for the first line and in the efforts to create an attacking game through the middle. The two major challenges here for the future will be to find the proper balance between the number six and two eights to either initiate the gegenpressing or fall back into a defensive shape more quickly,  and to move the ball forward with greater security. 

1.2. The second half

The basic direction remained the same in the second half. Singh and Goretzka took over from Johansson and Tolisso and Stiller replaced Thiago. These changes made it obvious how much the quality of Bayern’s formation depends on the quality of the players deployed in it.

Of course, every team is dependent on the individual class of its players. But Kovač should ask himself this question: Can I match my players and my formation such that weaker players (like Stiller instead of Thiago as a number six) are supported in their tasks by the presence of others around them? Against Arsenal, for instance, he did not do this. Here, Stiller had to perform the same tasks in the second half as Thiago did in the first.

There is still a lot to do for Kovač and Flick in developing a tactical system which benefits the team and the players alike. Even players like Thiago can profit from that, not just the “make weights” on a pre-season tour to the US.

2. Boateng can still be a weapon

When Boateng hits a diagonal volley pass over 30 metres to Tolisso waiting in the penalty area in the 25. Minute, it is not just Lacazette who offers an appreciative smile. The World Cup champion of 2014 still has it. Not just in this one scene. Boateng managed to convince in an otherwise largely unorganised team. Although he did not have to prove himself too much defensively, he was able to strike several passes through Arsenal’s first pressing line.

This was something Pavard and Süle could not continue at the same level in the second half. Both did their best to help in the build up game, but not least owing to the quality of Coman and Gnabry on the wings, the game kept drifting to the flanks. The trio of Stiller, Süle and Pavard had a hard time moving the ball forward through the middle or the half spaces. It may therefore seem advisable to convince Boateng of staying at Bayern for one more season. If he would want to considering the rough patch he has been going through, though, is a different matter. 

3. Gnabry is still a weapon

While Boateng has shown that he could become a weapon one more time, Gnabry has shown that he still is a weapon. With the season still at a very early stage, he already stood out for his dazzling individual actions and his good interaction with Kimmich. He has not lost any of his drive for the opponent’s goal, too. It is safe to say that he will likely be one of the season’s key players for Bayern again.

4. Top of the to-do list: the squad

Arguably the most significant position in all of this is that of the creative midfield player. Thiago’s overriding importance in this position can hardly be overstated. Rumour has it that Bayern is interested in signing Marco Roca, whose talent would make him suitable for this demanding role as well. He would therefore come as a very timely addition to the Bayern squad, because should Thiago not be able to play, there is an acute shortage in the squad as it is now. Roca can create the game from the back and assert himself under pressure. He is technically gifted and has a good sense for when to move where in a game. So if he could deliver on his promise consistently at the high level Bayern demands, he would be the perfect signing. 

But there is also a substantial work to do in the back four. Hernández is still out and his unavailability alone is sufficient to expose the current deficiencies in defence: with Alaba, Kimmich, and Pavard, there are only three first team full backs left, one of whom is needed in the centre. Kehl and Poznanski were the available alternatives in the USA. Not good enough. Not just against Arsenal. 

It might seem like an afterthought, but there is one more reason why it is high time the club hired additional players now: a team needs to play together in pre-season to establish the common technical and tactical foundations for the rest of the season. The later a group of players is completed, the greater the handicap for the coach. For Bayern, there is still a ways to go. And this conclusion is not just based on the game against Arsenal, despite some promising signs during the first half.

Translated by Alexander.

»Eier, wir brauchen Eier!«

— Oliver Kahn

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