Mailbag Roundtable: July 2020
How do you rate Hansi Flick’s performance at Bayern this season on a scale from Jürgen Klinsmann to Jupp Heynckes?
Tobi: Andries Jonker, obviously. Really though, Flick has done an outstanding job so far. He didn’t pick the easy route of keeping things simple and calm after the Kovac mess. Instead, Bayern have started playing their most complex football in half a decade. An aggressive pressing that doesn’t leave the defense exposed, variable positioning with natural shifting, and even the most unlikely of accomplishments: making Bayern look semi-competent through the center.
The real challenge however is only beginning. Can he sustain this level of play for a longer period of time? Can he get the team to progress further tactically? Can he keep the players happy through an inevitable crisis? Things are looking promising, as we have yet to notice an underlying weakness such as those which became obvious early under Ancelotti and Kovac. The success looks sustainable, it’s up to him to prove us right.
Daniel: I’d say somewhere around Louis van Gaal but not quite Udo Lattek on your scale. I’m most impressed by Bayern’s transformation this year. They went from having no sensible pressing system at all to playing one of the best high attacking presses in the world. A team deprived of any attacking rhythm and direction to the point of them regularly reverting to simply put in a few dozen crosses and praying Lewandowski would do miracles in the middle.
Now nobody knows how the next goal will come about. Davies playing a one-two? Goretzka pushing through midfield? Lewandowski falling behind Müller to set up Kimmich? For the first time since the 2nd Guardiola season I feel that Bayern has truly liberated itself from their wing-focus. They’re still dangerous coming through the sides, but now it’s only one option out of many, not the only available method of scoring.
Still, Bayern hasn’t won the Champions League yet and I’m curious just how Flick’s demanding football will work without multiple de facto winter-breaks.
Dennis: I’m picking Jupp here, but not the triple-winning Heynckes from 2013, but the one who came in as an interim coach in 2009 to win four games and draw one to end the season. Like Flick he came in with only little prospect of being a permanent solution, but having an immediate impact on the results and the motivation of the players nonetheless. Flick had the benefit of coming in earlier in the season and still being able to demonstrate his effect over a longer period of games and in all competitions. The immediate positive effect of Flicks tenure and the immediate tactical changes are the things that stand out to me. Of course there are still many open questions going forward with Flick, but he really earned the right to prove himself. He created the impression that there is a new generation in the making, after years where the focus was too often to squeeze out the last drop of life from the old guard.
Time to hand out some awards: Which player is your winner of the current season?
Assem: It’s important to note that many Bayern players are worthy of the award. David Alaba deserves much praise for his emergence as a full-fledged defensive leader, and Alphonso Davies deserves praise for a landmark breakthrough season in which he became one of Europe’s most feared full-backs. Similarly, Manuel Neuer and Thomas Müller deserve a lot of praise for bouncing back from disappointing performances in 2018-19 and returning to their rightful places among Europe’s elite. However, one player deserves the Player of the Season award most, and that player is Robert Lewandowski.
Robert Lewandowski has once again managed to raise the bar for Bayern attackers. Not since Gerd Müller has Bayern had a striker capable of scoring an astronomical number of goals season after season after season. After scoring an astonishing 40 goals in 47 games last season, the Poland captain is currently on 49 goals in just 42 games this season, with up to five games still left in the season. He is simply unstoppable. The man hit a good run of form at the beginning of the season and he simply hasn’t looked back since. Everything is going his way, and even global unrest has aided his run of form. When he got injured against Chelsea back in February, he was expected to miss at least half a dozen games. He ended up missing three, however, as the coronavirus break put football on hold and gave him the perfect opportunity to recover and hit the ground running on the restart.
In my opinion, Robert Lewandowski mainly deserves the award for his role in keeping Bayern competitive even as the team was struggling in the fall. During Niko Kovac’s brief time in charge of Bayern this season, the team often struggled to perform, especially in the league. Wins were hard-fought and dropped points were frequent. Still, it was often Lewandowski who was scoring the goals and making sure that Bayern had a fighting chance. In the lacklustre draw against Hertha on Matchday 1, it was Lewandowski’s brace that helped Bayern avoid an embarrassing opening day home loss. In the underwhelming 3-2 win in Paderborn, it was Lewandowski’s late goal that secured victory. In the 5-1 thrashing in Frankfurt, it was Lewandowski’s goal that gave ten-man Bayern a chance to snatch a draw. Bayern may be German champions now, but that might not have been the case if it weren’t for Robert Lewandowski’s heroics when the going was much tougher.
Tobi: The heart says Davies, an absolute explosion of a career. The mind says Lewandowski, having played what might’ve been his best league campaign. But I’ll go with the itching middle finger and say Thomas Müller.
First he started to struggle in a national team that became more and more of a tactical husk. Löw’s 2010s strategy of picking the juiciest cherries from the gardens of Munich and Dortmund turned rotten in the post-Guardiola/Tuchel era, as neither team had much to offer anymore. All this culminated in the 2018 World Cup, where Müller was identified as an easy scapegoat. It’s barely a shock that he struggled: with the team lacking any type of game plan, his movements confused his own teammates more than the opponents. At Bayern, he wasn’t doing that much better. Some temporary ups aside, Müller and Kovac had a failed relationship. The former coach committed the sin of putting Müller in a cage when you should build the cage around him.
Now, after half a year with Flick, Thomas Müller is playing as well as ever. Between the pressing leadership, the valuable runs, and the incredible assists, his 2020 has been world class. So an early thanks to Joachim Löw for granting him some well-deserved rest in the upcoming summer. Don’t complain if his absence ends up lengthening your own summer break, as well.
Daniel: It’s one of Davies, Alaba, Boateng and Müller. I’ll choose Alaba for argument’s sake. For how long were people talking about Alaba as another player who rose to quick stardom only to then live off their past successes? We’re now all desperately clamouring for him to sign his new contract but things looked much differently a year ago. Honestly if you had told me they would run down Alaba’s contract until he’d enter his final year and then sell him, I wouldn’t have been too distressed a while ago. I felt that on multiple stages a player like Juan Bernat should have been given the chance to seriously challenge Alaba for his spot, that’s how lackluster I felt his performances were.
Now everything’s changed. I felt Alaba was among the better players during Niko Kovač’s short lived stint and then as soon as Flick took over he basically jumped to world-class-mode and never really went back. All while reinventing himself as a player. He’s not the centre-back he was during the time Guardiola was forced to play him there in 2016 and he’s not the attacking-minded half-space-sweeper of 2014. He’s a bit of both, plus Boateng’s passes and just overall much better defensive decision-making. Previously he hasn’t been nearly as good a centre-back in a back-four as he’s now.
And I haven’t even touched upon his new-found maturity as a leader! You see, whenever Alaba was previously talking about wanting to captain Bayern at some point in the future, I’d always laugh a little. I questioned his performances, his commitment and never really saw any leadership qualities in him. Well I’m not laughing anymore. The way he’s leading the team from defence, teaching Davies, I definitely see the captain’s armband once Neuer, Müller and Lewandowski are gone.
@me_unplugged20: Do you think the break before the Champions League tournament will play to Bayern’s advantage or disadvantage?
Alex: Many have mused that Bayern’s long break between the DFB Pokal final on July 4 and the second leg against Chelsea in the Champions League on August 7 will be a disadvantage for them vis-a-vis their competitors. The main reasons cited for this are the supposed lack of match practice, fitness and rhythm the team will have when the Champions League returns.
While such worries do not seem completely unfounded, I do not share them. Do not forget that there was a sort of large-scale pilot experiment in Germany on exactly this question not too long ago. When coronavirus first struck and all Bundesliga football had to be suspended, the players were limited to individual training at home for more than a month. When team training resumed, it was only in small groups at first before only two weeks or so prior to the resumption of the Bundesliga, the teams were allowed to take up regular training again.
Yet when the Bundesliga finally kicked off again in May, Bayern came hot right out of the gate. Their first match against Union Berlin may still have been a close and somewhat cagey affair without the typical free-flowing and unrelenting attacking Bayern football we have become accustomed to under Hansi Flick. But no later than from the second match on, Bayern were back to their old, domineering selves. Since the resumption, they did not drop a single point in the Bundesliga until the end.
The plan now is to give the players two weeks off after the DFB-Pokal final with individual training programs at home – just like during the coronavirus break – before the team reconvenes for team training in order to prepare for the match against Chelsea. Given how well the same kind of scheme already worked earlier this year, I have no doubt that Bayern will be ready and able in time to contest the Champions League.
There is another aspect that should not be overlooked. In a strange way, Bayern are fortunate that they still have to play the second leg against Chelsea, a tie in which they are three away goals up. Similar to the game against Union, they can use this match as a practice run to shake off any downtime rust (should there be any) and get back into gear.
All this taken together in conjunction with perhaps the slightest hint of mental fatigue that may have crept in at Bayern in the last few games, I see the month long break from competitive football before the Champions League as an advantage rather than a disadvantage. For me, the benefit of the players being able to let their hair down for a few days and recoup their mental energy outweighs the supposed lack of match practice and rhythm.
Dennis: There is only little to add to Alex’s logic. I also see the benefit in having a “free game” against Chelsea to get back into rhythm and then having the luxury to focus on the Champions League matches, especially after witnessing how exhausted many Bayern players were in the last couple of games of the Bundesliga season.
Assem: The effect of the break on Bayern will likely be determined by how the club approaches it. Following the Leverkusen game next Saturday, the team will have approximately one month off before they face Chelsea in the Round of 16 second leg (Agg. 3-0 for Bayern). During this break, there are two key goals: 1. to give the players a well-deserved rest and allow some injured players to fully recover, and 2. to ensure that the players are fully match fit for the Champions League games. Achieving the first goal is relatively straightforward, with a 10-14 day break a likely option given the circumstances. Players like Neuer, Pavard, Kimmich, Müller and Lewandowski have all played over 40 games each this season, and their bodies will benefit greatly from a week or two of rest. This break will give Bayern an advantage that most of its European competitors won’t have, as they will travel to Lisbon fresh off a gruelling league season in summer conditions. A well-rested team is less likely to physically break down in the latter stages of the Champions League, something that has plagued Bayern in recent years.
The second goal, ensuring full match fitness after the break, is a bit trickier. The obvious solution for Bayern is to arrange a few friendly games in the three weeks before the Chelsea game in order to bring the players back to full match fitness ahead of the Champions League. The main challenge with that approach, however, is finding suitable opponents. Sides from the other major European leagues will be busy with their league campaigns, while German sides will likely be on summer break. Accordingly, finding quality opposition to ensure that Bayern’s players return to full match fitness might be tougher than expected. One advantage that Bayern does have in this regard, however, is the 3-0 lead against Chelsea. With the tie currently heavily favouring Bayern, the remaining match against Chelsea will provide Bayern players with a good chance to readjust to the Champions League tempo while benefiting from a comfortable 3-0 away lead.
If Bayern can come out of the break with a well-rested, fully fit squad with a good level of match fitness, then this break will definitely be more of an advantage than a disadvantage. If the team fails to achieve that, then things will get tricky in Lisbon.
@me_unplugged20: What are your thoughts on the possible midfield duos going forward: Kimmich/Goretzka vs Thiago/Kimmich vs Thiago/Goretzka?
Tobi: While kicker magazine offered me a noticeable sum to say otherwise, it’s still Thiago/Kimmich. Don’t let the admittedly impressive Goretzka run fool you.
It’s difficult to justify this statement, as it feels so obvious. Sure, Goretzka has developed a sudden love for protein shakes and scores some nice goals, but have you seen Thiago and Kimmich? What’s not to love about the Magician and the Bitchface?
Since nobody wants to bench Kimmich, the question is quite obviously hinting at the recent Thiago doubts. Those are nothing but insanity. It was already ridiculous when Thiago was praised in the early Flick stages, as if his performances under Kovac were awful. You try covering half the pitch all by yourself and still ending up one of the best players most days. The stupid passes he played on occasion? Mental exhaustion from saving the collective ass of your tactically pathetic team. Thiago wasn’t a culprit of the crisis, he was one of its biggest victims.
Goretzka deserves regular appearances, no doubt. But when all three are fit and available, he’s still #3 on that list. Suck it, kicker.
Daniel: Thiago/Kimmich > Kimmich/Goretzka
I’m happy Goretzka is finally consistently showing why Bayern signed him in the first place and that he has firmly won the battle of the samey box-to-box midfielders between him and Tolisso. I think it was a wonderful idea for him to use the spare time efficiently and overdose on gamma-rays to turn into the Hulk. He now has the body he needs for his forceful game. But let’s not talk like Thiago didn’t play a world-class Rückrunde. Like he wasn’t the best midfielder on the planet from January to Covid. Thiago was the player under Ancelotti and Kovač when things were dire, a few lackluster weeks in the first half of the season didn’t change that.
From a more philosophical standpoint, I am of the belief that in general a truly great team needs two controlling midfielders, not just one. One Toni Kroos or Luka Modrić isn’t enough, you need both of them to run the show. I to this day maintain that the reason why Schweinsteiger and Martínez were enough to dominate was Lahm essentially being another midfielder. Kimmich and Thiago learned to work wonderfully together and I’m eagerly awaiting the return of this magical duo (and Thiago’s contract extension).
Lastly I do think this whole Goretzka vs. Thiago debate was a gigantic invention by the media anyway. As soon as Goretzka started playing well, for some reason, everybody started to push this narrative that it was Goretzka OR Thiago and I don’t believe that to be the case. If we look at who really played well ever since Bundesliga restarted, we really have nine players performing well plus Coman and Gnabry who were mostly so-so. I’m absolutely convinced had Thiago been fit, he’d play next to Kimmich, with Goretzka and Müller rotating between centre and wing. Maybe we’ll see just that in the Champions League.
Assem: I think that we will see all three of these combinations in some capacity in the near future. Since the restart, Goretzka and Kimmich have worked very well together and this has translated into a string of wins for Bayern. Their combination of technical ability, physical prowess and aggression makes them a very dominant midfield pairing. However, it must be noted that they haven’t really played against elite opposition the way Kimmich and Thiago have. Thiago is a masterful playmaker and has, over the course of the last few years, shown that he is one of the best five central midfielders in Europe. I believe that Thiago and Kimmich will be favoured in the biggest games, but that Goretzka will feature a lot, especially in games against deep-lying opponents. It’s also conceivable to imagine all three starting in a 4-3-3 setup, but that would likely be in exceptional circumstances against very aggressive opponents.
The transfer window is open! Time to dig deep on everyone’s favorite debate: Sané or Havertz. @me_unplugged20: Should we buy Sané in 2020 for a fee or wait until 2021and sign him for free? Should Bayern even go for Havertz?
Dennis: Signing Leroy Sane is the transfer that is needed to immediately strengthen the Bayern wings. Even though Flick found a way to reduce the wing focus it became clear that Gnabry and Coman as the sole wing options going forward would be too risky for Bayern’s ambitions. With the heavily reduced transfer fee and the prospect of Sane reaching his old performance level, signing Sane this summer is a reasonable decision.
Should Bayern go for Havertz, a generational German talent? Obviously yes. They should try everything within reasonable limits to sign him. Thus they should not sell players like Alaba or Thiago to get the cash for Havertz and they should not lure him to Munich with the promise to make him the highest earner in the squad. Havertz would be a good bet to have a successor for Müller or Lewandowski in the future. Maybe the transfer comes one or two years too early, but transfers of this calibre are rather a factor of chance than fit. Meaning the perfectly fitting player is almost never available at the perfect time, thus one has to get them when they are available and figure out the rest later.
Tobi: Sane, assuming he will return to his old level, is the most significant improvement the Bayern XI can receive right now. The Bavarian wings need a fresh injection, and I don’t mean to treat another Coman injury.
Both Gnabry and Coman can be outstanding but also disappear regularly (the Frenchman more so). Not only that, neither of them is the classical creative winger of the Ribery mold. Gnabry’s runs usually end up in a shot attempt, whereas Coman lacks vision on the pitch. Sane could instantly fix those issues and bring back some of the wing flair that defined the Bayern game for over a decade. If you are to believe the media reports, the asking price already dropped by half. The supposedly remaining gap of 10m shouldn’t cause this transfer to fail. Bayern have kept the equity high for moments like this, so take advantage.
As for Havertz, Bayern should go for it but not at all costs. What would his place be in the squad? In an ideal world, you get Havertz and slowly groom him to replace Müller in a few years. However, it seems unlikely that the player would agree to this plan. It wouldn’t be the first time Bayern pulled off such a deal yet it’s not something I would want to bet on. Talk with the player, talk with the agent, do your pitch, see what happens. The answer is as boring as it is reasonable.
Assem: If only one of Leroy Sane or Kai Havertz can be signed, then I believe that Bayern should go for Leroy Sane. Although he is only 24, Sane is a much more proven player than Havertz and has excelled in the Bundesliga, Premier League and Champions League. He is also someone who can immediately improve Bayern’s starting lineup. If he were to partner Gnabry on the wings, Bayern would have a wing pairing made up of two players who can realistically reach double-digit goals and assists every season, something that isn’t currently the case. Additionally, Sane already clearly enjoys a good relationship with Bayern’s German NT contingent, especially Gnabry, Kimmich and Goretzka, who have expressed their eagerness for him to join. In such a welcoming environment, Sane will have the needed support system to develop into a world-class player.
Regarding signing Sane for a fee or signing Sane on a free, it seems that recent developments indicate that Sane is indeed set to join this summer. In any case, I believe that Bayern need to sign him as soon as possible and avoid the urge to run down his contract further. Less than a year ago, reports indicated that Bayern were set to sign Leroy Sane for over 100M Euros. Add one unnecessary Community Shield appearance, one ACL injury, one global pandemic and subtract one year of his contract to that 100M valuation, and Sane’s price has fallen to about half of that. To sign a player of his obvious and proven quality for less than 50M is an absolute steal by all standards, and Bayern should go for it. For one, it will strengthen the team considerably for the next season, and there’s really no excuse to not build the most competitive Bayern squad possible just to save a moderate transfer fee. The second issue with trying to run down Sane’s contract is the number of potential risks that might occur, such as Sane signing for another club or even renewing his contract. The cards are clearly in Bayern’s favour now, and it’s important that the board acts while this is still the case. Sign Leroy Sane this summer.
Following the last question: Who else do we need?
Alex: I would like to slightly amend this question. For me, it’s less a question of who do Bayern need than of how many. I would say that a healthy squad strikes a balance between not being overly susceptible to having to play understrength because of too many injuries and avoiding latent disgruntlement in the squad because too many star players have to be benched at the same time. I think for a club of Bayern’s ambitions and star studded squad, the sweet spot lies somewhere in the region of 17-18 first rate players with the ambition to always play, and another 6-8 promising talents and end-of-lifecycle veterans to make up the numbers. A useful distribution would probably consist of 1+2 goalkeepers, 5+2 defenders, 5+2 midfielders, and 5+2 attackers.
With a view to the squad composition in the summer, at this point Odriozola and Coutinho are certain departures, Martinez and Thiago look increasingly likely by the day, Alaba and Boateng are distinct possibilities, and there is speculation about Tolisso and Hernandez. I cannot call the likelihood of Perisic staying, but his current loan ends at the end of the season and although he wants to stay, he may have to return to Inter. Of course not all of these transfers will happen, but who of these players leaves will determine how many players Bayern will need in which department. In the most extreme case, we could be looking at 2-3 new defenders and 2-3 new midfielders (two if Havertz comes and one if Havertz and Sané come and Müller is pulled back to midfield), if Bayern want to avoid the situation of their bench for a large part being comprised of second team players, as it has done so often of late.
Therefore, a lot of the squad rebuilding issue in summer depends on what happens with the aforementioned players in the coming weeks. At any rate, at this early stage Bayern’s squad planning is more of a numbers game to me than a discussion of specific names.
Daniel: Nobody really to be perfectly honest. I think another attacking right-back would be very valuable but Pavard has been so consistent that you’d really need another Davies-like player. I don’t think the players Bayern has been linked to thus far have been exactly that.
Other than that I’m wary of over-stuffing the team with mediocre filler that just halts the development of the youth. We have some wonderful kids there and they won’t be getting any chances if we stuff the team with Perišićs.
Final question: How many trophies will Hansi Flick lift by the end of this season? Is the much anticipated treble a realistic scenario?
Dennis: The domestic double is very likely and after many years in which I deemed winning the Champions League rather unrealistic, I have to admit that I start to phantasise a little that maybe this year and with all the momentum and circumstance and the sheer luck that is in place with the corona caused tournament set-up, Flick’s chances of winning it all in his first year is actually probable.
Alex: Well, lacking the gift of prophecy, I can of course not reliably predict how many trophies Hansi Flick and his team will have lift by the end of this season. Yet I would say that the chance that Bayern may actually win the treble has not been this strong in a long time. Bayern have already won the Bundesliga, the DFB-Pokal is just one more win away, and the team has looked more or less invincible since the coronavirus break.
In the Champions League, Liverpool is already eliminated and the remaining competition from Spain, Italy and England does not exactly pull up trees in their domestic leagues at the moment. But it would of course be far too early to write them off already. After a month long break – far longer than in the Bundesliga – they are just at the beginning of their playing cycle with the Champions League in August coming as the grand finale. Who knows how much these teams will be able to iron out their current problems and find their rhythm come increasing game time and practice in the coming weeks.
Yet even if Europe’s big guns were to arrive in Lisbon in a competitive shape, Bayern appear so stable and solid at the moment that in my opinion they are the odds on favourites in every draw.
Having said that, due to coronavirus, UEFA changed the finals tournament to a single-leg elimination format. From the quarter-finals on, every winner will be determined in a single game. Anything can happen in a single game. Luck and chance play a much bigger role than even in a two-legged contest: Which players are injured on the day? Who happens to be in good form? Who is out with a red card? What is the weather like? And so on. The greater the element of chance, the better usually for the weaker team (as it lessens the deterministic influence of the factors that favor the stronger one). So even if Bayern should enter every game as the favorites, their eventual triumph is anything but guaranteed. Nevertheless, what I have seen of them in recent weeks makes me highly optimistic.
Assem: It’s always hard to predict the outcome of a season, and this season it’s especially hard due to the nature of the two remaining competitions. While on paper Bayer Leverkusen may seem like a strict underdog, they have recently shown that they can beat Bayern both home and away. In such a one-off game, Leverkusen going home with the DFB Pokal is a more realistic scenario than their underdog status would suggest. Still, I believe that Bayern can win that game.
The new single-match elimination format of the Champions League raises the chances of glory for teams like Atalanta and Leipzig and lowers it for teams like Barcelona and Manchester City. Bayern’s dominant style of play is more suited for 180-minute ties where they can comprehensively punish teams without being as vulnerable to opposition luck, pragmatism and gamesmanship. That being said, the concept of “realistic scenario” doesn’t really apply for this season as very little of football’s current existence seems “realistic”. Champions League chances will likely be determined by a set of factors including fitness, form and morale, and these will be greatly shaped by the events of the next few weeks.
To answer the question, I’m going to say two trophies, but that’s not because I believe that Bayern can’t win the Champions League, but rather because the Champions League is especially difficult to predict this year.
Daniel: Oh yes, the treble is absolutely a realistic scenario. I for one view the break between the cup-final and the Champions League to be a gift more than a curse. Bayern had really looked like they needed a break and that’s what they’re getting now. No matter how rusty Bayern might be, they’ll never let go off a 3:0 advantage (they’re not PSG!) so it’s basically just three games. Liverpool’s out, one of Real and City isn’t travelling to Lisbon and I haven’t been all that convinced by Juventus, Barcelona, PSG or Atlético. Bayern can absolutely win this whole thing… just like they absolutely can lose all momentum now. I guess this year hindsight quite literally is 20/20.
As for the cup: Bayern is the clear-favourite but nothing will fundamentally change if they lose the final. People are always talking about the treble but realistically they mean the Champions League. That’s the title they’re so desperately clamouring for.
Tobi: Flick will lift four trophies, as Leon Goretzka will accidentally rip the Champions League trophy in two…
The treble is possible but even more of a crapshoot than usual. The upcoming cup final against Leverkusen naturally sees Bayern as favorites but it’s far from an easy victory. Not like anyone will care about this match in six months’ time.
The Champions League? Who knows. One can make a reasonable case for Bayern being favorites right now. On the other hand, they will have a long break while the other teams stay in their competitive flow – could be a good thing, could be a bad thing (just ask 2013-14). Ask me again in two months and I can pretend I knew all along. Until then, there is lots of hope and zero expectations.