ICC: Bayern defeats Real in a lively game
Article written by Daniel.
Bayern München. Real Madrid. One of football’s most classic encounters. However, how often do we see such high-quality fixtures in midsummer ending up as outright snore fests? Exhausted from tough training and little recovery time, even regular Champions League quarter-finalists fail to offer more than stringing together a few tired passes and a winner is often decided only through penalties. Not this time though. In the game on Sunday, the two giants demonstrated to the American audience how energetic this ‘game of soccer’ really can be.
Both Zidane and Kovač started their teams in a 4-3-3 formation. Real began the more dominant team and kept a surprised Bayern side firmly pushed back in their own half. They pressed very high, causing Neuer to kick a cross meant for Kimmich over his own goal line.
After five minutes, Bayern had found their way into the game. Thiago and Boateng in particular managed to break through Real’s high pressing line several times. Real answered by letting up on their high pressing, but they still had the first chance of the game in the 11th minute when Kimmich forced Neuer to prevent an own goal from a duel with Benzema.
Only moments later, Bayern scored from their first chance of the game: Müller, realizing how Alaba had slipped in between Asensio and Carvajal, played a perfect pass into his path. After a bit of wriggling and squiggling, Alaba managed to move the ball on to Tolisso, who scored the goal for 1-0.
Bayern now increasingly won control of the game without seeing too much of the ball. Because they kept a compact shape, they seemed to have the numerical advantage in all dangerous areas, frequently causing Real to resort to helpless long balls. Despite managing an occasional shot on target, e.g. through Benzema in the 25th minute, there was never any real danger.
For Bayern too chances came few and far between in this phase of the game, even though they had several promising opportunities on the counter when Thiago found Müller or Sanches with a long ball.
Real regained control around the 35th minute. Again, they started to push Bayern back, who could hardly withstand the pressure and relinquished the ball quickly. Neuer parrying Hazard’s shot from distance in the 38th minute marked the beginning of a turbulent end to the first half: only one minute later, Arp effortlessly got past Marcelo and his shot hit the outside of the post. In the 42nd minute, Bayern had luck on their side when Benzema could not reach a sharp cross from Asensio.
Then, after Neuer managed to hold on to a shot from Modrić, the ball reached Coman who in turn tested Courtois’s skills at the other end of the pitch. Courtois was equally up to the challenge and swiftly initiated a 2 vs. 4 counter attack through Asensio. His attempt on goal was blocked by Martinez, which marked the final action of an eventful first half.
Zidane put on a completely new team for the second half, whereas Kovač’s changes left the backbone of his team intact.
In the second half, Kovač had Thiago play higher up the pitch as a number 8. From this position he started the second half exerting more pressure on Real’s goal and should have scored in the 56th minute. Instead, he proved once more that a small frame makes for a good dribbler but rarely an accomplished header of the ball – his chance from five metres out went begging.
In the 60th minute, Kimmich’s pass cleared the way for Tolisso, who failed to score from an inside left position. Shortly afterwards, Pavard, as the last man, had to sprint back and block a vital goal scoring opportunity from Vinicius Jr.. The next minutes brought about the decision of the game. First, Süle perfectly “boatenged” a chip ball to Lewandowski, who superbly processed the ball and scored the 2-0. Three minutes later Goretzka (subbed on for Thiago) intercepted a misplaced pass and laid the ball off to Gnabry who scored for 3-0.
With the outcome now certain, the quality of the match subsided notably. Singh missed the goal from a free position after a good cross from Pavard in the 75th minute. In the 81st minute, Kimmich did his best to keep the crowd awake by inviting Rodrygo for a one-on-one against Ulreich after a total blackout. Ulreich’s intervention was judged a foul, which caused him to be sent off and Real to win a free kick, which Rodrygo converted in style for 3-1. Out of the blue, Real seemed to get a second wind, but their late efforts remained inconclusive and the game ended Bayern 3 Real 1.
Although there are only slight differences between a 4-1-4-1 and a 4-3-3, they were brought to light in this match. Rarely ever before had Kovač had the chance to put on such a compact first eleven. There was no player who did not fit the system. There was no Müller the “Raumdeuter” in midfield who likes to be everywhere and nowhere at once. There was no self-restraint James as a number 8, all the while wanting to play with much more freedom. Do not get us wrong: James is a wonderful player, but this match against Real demonstrated the benefits of having two number 8s behaving like true number 8s.
With true number 8s, the holding midfielder is not as isolated as Thiago still was in the earlier match against Arsenal. He receives more support in the second third. In offence, the number 8s are able to bolster the wings, which resulted in a strong axis on the left flank in the game against Real. It does not get much more dynamic than Alaba, Sanches and Coman in the Bayern squad. If they are allowed to stick to the wings, they are also relieved from the duty to occupy the offensive middle area in front of the penalty box, the famous ‘zone 14’, because:
For Thomas Müller, the first leg against Real Madrid in 2017 may constitute his own personal Waterloo. He has had bad games before and since, for sure – even against Real – but never in his career has he been as ineffective as he was on that April 12th against Real. He was not present in the game – although he did not even play particularly poorly. He just never got a chance. Because Bayern lacked a real backup for an injured Lewandowski, Ancelotti decided to play with Müller in the number 9 role. And Ancelotti did not want Müller to play as the number 9 as Thomas Müller would, but he wanted him to emulate Robert Lewandowski, to “become” Robert Lewandowski. In reality, he played like a ghost.
Why do I tell this two year old yarn? Because this game against Real showed why Ancelotti did not have a real backup for Lewandowski back in 2017. Because his predecessor did not need any. Because Guardiola knew that if he should need a backup for Lewandowski, he would not bring Pizarro on and stay with the system but Müller and adapt it.
In Houston, we saw the ghost of Guardiola, especially that of his first year. It was not just Kovač’s 4-3-3 that was eerily reminiscent of Guardiola’s 4-1-4-1 of 2013/14, the way he dealt with Thomas Müller was too. Just like Guardiola did, Kovač allowed Müller to play like Müller. He did not force him to stay up front waiting for the ball. At times, Müller fell back a bit, sometimes he ran to the left, a moment later he was on the right. In short: Müller played the way he always does – only in the number 9 position. He played the way he always does with Lewandowski by his side – only without him.
His teammates knew too that Lewandowski would not play and that Müller would not copy him and so there were much fewer crosses than usual, particularly in the first half. There were still a few, but not as many and not as obsessively executed no matter what as we are used to seeing.
Müller’s contribution to the goal for 1-0 was proof of his value playing like his old self. Coman carried the ball forward while Müller, in the number 9 position, fell back, drawing his markers out with him. Alaba seized the moment, stepped into the opening and prepared the goal for Tolisso. In this situation, Müller acted much more like a number 10 while officially playing in the number 9 position. In doing so, he enabled his teammates to work together to score a goal. Even without a scorer point this goal is partly his.
That Thomas Müller is not able to play as a number 9 is a myth. All you only need to do is allowing Müller to be Müller.
Not just the formation and Müller let the smell of Guardiola blow through Houston, the centre backs did too. More even than the starting pair of Martinez and Boateng – the same as Guardiola’s erstwhile first choice in 2016 – the performance was suggestive of the good old Guardiola days. Having been written off by fans, media and apparently the club alike, Boateng managed to surprise everyone by returning from his holidays the leanest and fittest he has been for three years. And his performance was proof of this. Even though he has other qualities as well, his USP is his athleticism, his physique, his fitness. It is probably no coincidence that his passing qualities as well as his responsiveness and his quickness had diminished along with his shape. At one point in the game against Real, he got in a running contest for the ball with a Real player. He came from behind, caught up and overtook his opponent reaching the ball first. At any time during the last two years, this would have been almost inconceivable.
Not only off the ball, on the ball too Boateng’s performance was reminiscent of his best days. He and Thiago were the first half’s outstanding creative players and he always looked for the difficult but valuable pass through the middle instead for the simple one to the sides. The most memorable example happened in the 76th minute when he took out almost the entire Real team with a long ball to Lewandowski, who, unfortunately, had started a bit too early.
Boateng travelled to America as Bayern’s fifth choice in defence. His fitness and performance should have improved his standing. In the end, it is the performance that matters. And Kovač can be most satisfied with Boateng in this regard. One may doubt whether it had been his intention all along to give him 135 minutes of playing time in the first two games. The club may have made the wrong choice last summer by listening to its coach and not selling Boateng, missing out on millions of Euros in transfer fees, but they should listen to their coach again this summer and not act against his wishes.
Manuel Neuer had a more than just acceptable second half of the season last season. With the exception of the game against Liverpool, he did not make any crucial mistakes and with his performance in the cup final he delivered a crowning finish to his half-year performance. He seems to be able to remain at this high level.
He did not make any world class saves that would elicit millions of views on Twitter or Instagram and he also did not leave Hazard for dead with a spectacular Cruyff turn, but it is the small things where his improvement is most obvious. When he has to go head to head against an onrushing opponent, he exudes self-confidence. When Real tested him several times after Bayern went ahead, he was insurmountable. Where he might have needed two times to hold on to the ball last year, he effortlessly plucked Modrić’s 43rd minute ball from within the penalty area out of the air this time. This was just one of a number of examples. His performance hearkened back to the good old times where you felt: to go past Neuer, it will take something special. A very reassuring feeling indeed.
Even though Kimmich himself feels at home on the 6, many an observer prefers him in his traditional role as a right full back and considers his ambitions as a midfielder with a tinge of scepticism. This is due to both his outstanding qualities as a right back as well as his mixed fortunes in midfield. While he often plays well in this position in the national team, he is prone to mistakes in this role at Bayern. So too against Real: how he prepared Tolisso’s opportunity in the 60th minute was well played, but he also had quite a few lapses of concentration allowing Real to regain possession easily. The comparison with Thiago, who played in the identical position in the first half of the game, does not do him any favours.
And then there is the sending-off. Yes, the call might have been wrong and a VAR might have cleared up the incident, but under no circumstances should a situation like this come about the first place. Kimmich should have known where the two centre backs were and even with Neuer in goal it was doubtful that the goalkeeper could have reached the ball first. As a consequence, he gave possession away without any need and breathed life back into a game that had been done and dusted. This was only a test game but who knows what Real might have pulled off in a real match with lots at stake after such a gift. Mistakes are a part of the game, a number 6’s game as well, but as a an “Ankersechser”, Kimmich’s preferred position, such simple mistakes must not happen.