Interview with Alexander Straus, FC Bayern women head coach
The Norwegian has had a thoroughly successful start to life at FC Bayern. In his 11 competitive games so far, he has recorded nine victories. A draw at Frankfurt and the defeat by Wolfsburg complete the 47-year-old’s record. In an interview with Miasanrot, Straus tells us what he is working on and what his idea of football looks like.
Miasanrot: The games against FC Barcelona will probably be some of the biggest in your career so far – especially in view of the big stadiums and the atmosphere that will await you there. With what feelings do you look forward to the two games and how do you prepare yourself and your team for those contests, mentally?
Alexander Straus: We have to focus on the game and not on the occasion, the atmosphere around it or the place. We play a game on a football pitch that is about the same size as the other pitches we play on. We will play 90 minutes each, everything as usual. Accordingly, we have to focus on the technical and tactical aspects of the game. The atmosphere is something for everyone else to concentrate on. Of course, we are not machines and emotions always play a role, it will be a great experience. We have a lot of experienced players who have played big games like this before. This season we’ve already had very important games against Eintracht Frankfurt and Wolfsburg.
But Camp Nou is even more special, isn’t it?
Of course it’s an iconic stadium. It’s a highlight in the career of anyone who plays or coaches there. Afterwards, we play in the Allianz Arena, which is something you will always keep with you for the rest of your life. And then we should also not forget that these will be very tough games for which we have to prepare very intensively.
What do you expect from FC Barcelona?
To be honest, I think Barcelona are in a transitional phase right now in terms of their style. They play a bit more direct than before, they are an incredibly good team, they won 4-0 against Real Madrid before the international break and could have scored eight goals. The game against Benfica was also very interesting because Benfica were quite good between the penalty areas, but Barcelona still scored nine goals. They are so efficient. If you give them just a half-chance, they will finish you off.
It’s no secret that you demand a lot of control from your team. Barça are possibly the best team in possession. Against Wolfsburg last year, you put a very mature team under pressure in an impressive way. Will having the ball as often as possible be the tactical key to get them out of their comfort zone?
That’s a big question we’re working on and I’ve already got my ideas on how we can do that. I don’t think this is going to be a game where, based on our current level of development, we should expect to control the game for 90 minutes like we often do in the league, for example. In this game, we also have to feel comfortable with the idea at times that they will have the ball. If we don’t do that, we would be naive and we don’t want to be that. We want to be able to defend them even without the ball.
In the preseason, your team won 2:1 against Barça. Can you draw conclusions from that for these duels?
We did well in France in the summer. So we know it’s possible to beat them. In Spain, they are not so used to defending a lot. They push a lot of players forward and try to win the balls back quickly. The gegen-pressing is really good, but when that doesn’t work, they are quite open. Then there are spaces that we have to conquer and where we have to take advantage of possible mistakes. The question will be whether we have the quality to do that on the day.
Which brings us back to the efficiency you often talk about …
… We will not get as many chances as we are used to. One of our problems this season is that we create chances but need too many to score. Especially against Barcelona, we have to be more efficient and take advantage of half-chances.
Is it also about getting into better shooting positions? Not only against FC Barcelona, but in general. Wolfsburg, for example, have an average shooting distance of around 13 metres in the Bundesliga, Bayern are at 16 metres. Is that something you are working on?
Absolutely! But to be honest, the difference here is also in the way we play. We have our way of doing things, Wolfsburg have their way. When we are far enough along in our development, we will not only play attractively, but also get better results more consistently. I saw how Wolfsburg played at Hoffenheim this season when they were behind. They were using a lot of long balls towards the end because they couldn’t break through the lines and create big chances from possession. So they went for second and third balls. At the moment, we would do the same, but my goal is that we learn to find solutions against teams that defend as deep as Hoffenheim did in this game. For that, we need more dynamic play, more positional changes in the offensive and that’s what we’re working on. You’re always stuck between two options: On the one hand, you want to win and do everything to do so, like Wolfsburg did in Hoffenheim. On the other hand, you want to develop your style of play and try to find the balance. We can’t take any shortcuts there.
How satisfied are you with the start of the season?
We had tough away games in Frankfurt and Wolfsburg, but we won all the other games. Some performances were more convincing than others. The point in Frankfurt against a strong team that is somewhat underestimated was important. They have great players who have played together for a long time. That makes them a dark horse for the league. In Wolfsburg, we had a strong final minutes in which we could have turned the game around, as we did against Benfica. We have to be more consistent and deliver these performances over 90 minutes.
Let’s talk about how FC Bayern has changed under you. In the last few years, the team played a lot on the wings and whipped in a lot of crosses. Your focus is more on the half-spaces with usually two attacking players next to the striker, who offer passing options and runs in more central zones, while the full-backs give width to the game. First of all, are these observations correct? And if so, what is the idea behind it or what advantages do you hope to gain from it?
I read the article you wrote before I arrived here and I think you were quite right. I have my idea and my philosophy. Of course everyone wants to be in control, score goals and create lots of chances, but we have a concept that is maybe a bit more precise than that.
What does that look like?
We want to have control over the central channels and accordingly we have the most players there. We want to keep the distances between the players small. When we attack, we want to be compact. We often talk about compactness when we defend, that’s a natural idea, but we also want to have compactness when we attack. If we have shorter distances in our passing game, we have a higher tempo. At the moment, we’re still a work in progress, but when we’re at that point, our combinations will be even quicker and we’ll be able to break through more often in the central spaces and in the half-spaces, which will then put us in excellent shooting positions. But also when we lose the ball, we have shorter distances in winning it back and then attack again quickly. When you have a lot of players positioned out wide, maybe even on both sides at the same time, you have longer distances when you lose the ball and, in my experience, you have to fall back immediately to close the gaps in defence.
Is it mainly about the distances in the spaces close to the ball?
The basic concept is to create overloads. We have to be aware of when and where we apply these overloads. This process with all its details may not be visible to everyone on the outside at all times, but we work on it every day behind closed doors. It will take time, but we are on a very good path. We just have to get the players to identify with it more and to act effectively in the right situations. We are not at that point yet, but we are making progress. You talked about Barcelona. They have created an identity and worked on it for many years. I am a coach with a concept of how we want to achieve things and how we want to play and the way we want to get the results.
How long will that take at FC Bayern?
You can’t say that as a general rule. As I said, we are on a very good path. An identity is very, very important at a club like FC Bayern. I think there are already the first differences in how we see the game now and how we saw it the last few years. Some things worked well and we try to adopt that into our concept. Some things we had to change because we have different views. The first question that was discussed before I arrived, which for me is the most important one of all, was: What does the club want when it comes to creating an identity? How should an FC Bayern team play? Based on that, you decide on a coach. We are currently working on the right things.
Have you thought about major changes?
I believe in the people here and that sense of belief was very important to me when I took over in the summer. I believe in the players and in everyone else. We have a very good basis here for this big journey we are currently embarked on. And so far we’re doing pretty well. We can still improve football-wise, but we’re already getting great results. It wasn’t easy after the European Championship, we only had a few days with the squad in preparation, many players were still tired. In addition, there were some injuries. We are not looking for excuses: We have a great squad that we will continue to develop.
In the press conference between Wolfsburg and Benfica, I asked you about the importance of statistics. How important are statistics for your analysis and what kind of data do you use?
We draw on a lot of data, but the key is always to use it in a way that fits the way we play. You always have to know what we are trying to achieve before you throw numbers around. Nowadays you get a lot of data on everything. We look at what types of chances we are creating, we also use Expected Goals. You can question the methods of the models, but they are a good indicator of the quality of the chances and where we can maybe make that extra pass to create an even bigger chance. But dealing with numbers is always complex and there is rarely a simple answer as to why a statistic is the way it is. For example, when we talk about high pressing, we always have to consider who we are playing against and how they are playing. So we use data, but always in relation to what we want to achieve.
Mala Grohs has played a great season so far. What is the plan with her and Laura Benkarth, who is now slowly getting fit again?
We have a lot of competition in goal. You are right, we are very happy with Mala, who has done very well. She’s young, played one or two games for Bayern before and now several at a time, which is a great experience for her. But she still has to develop further and she is still very young. The other goalkeepers are pushing themselves very hard. Laura was injured for a long time, but she’s now been in full training for four or five weeks and will be knocking on again. Janina (Leitzig, editor’s note) has also done well in recent weeks and Cecilía (Rúnarsdóttir, editor’s note) is also fit. We have four very, very good goalkeepers.
Two very short questions to finish up: Did you have any contact with Julian Nagelsmann in your first months?
Not so far. We’ve both been busy, but sooner or later the opportunity will surely arise.
Will we see the 3-4-3 again in the future?