Mailbag Roundtable: March 2020
Our first questions comes from M Unplugged on Twitter: Should Bayern look to sell either Goretzka or Tolisso in the summer, especially with Fein returning?
Daniel: I understand the basic principle that following an injury a player needs about as much time to come back to his physical best as he had missed. Thus I’m sympathetic towards Tolisso’s struggle this season. I mean, even Neuer needed a full year until he was Neuer again. But, if Bayern gets a decent offer for Tolisso, I’d sell him. As he continues to struggle with each performance, Goretzka has firmly overtaken him in the box-to-box midfielder-race. Additionally, being German, Goretzka naturally has more of a backing in the media than Tolisso ever could. Plus he’s more useful to Bayern as even without Hoeneß, they will likely not abandon their “FC Germany” policy.
It’s not just Goretzka who is an issue for Tolisso, but Müller in a sense, too. If we categorize midfielders in very broad term into fighters and technical players, Flick has struggled to start two fighters at the same time with both Müller and one of Goretzka/Tolisso (Gorlisso?), let alone all three of them – and Müller isn’t going anywhere. On the other hand, I definitely can imagine three out of Thiago, Kimmich, Fein and even a potential Havertz working brilliantly together.
All in all, selling players for good money is part of this business, too, and there should most definitely be a market for Tolisso. I think one dedicated box-to-box midfielder is enough with Goretzka.
Marc: Honestly, I think the answer is likely yes, one of the two probably be sold and I would also agree that Tolisso, assuming that they get enough, is the odd man out. That is not to say that I think Tolisso is a bad player though. I think he is struggling right now because of his return from injury, the options available in his preferred position and most importantly because his role does not really suit the way Bayern wants to line up. So long as Thomas Muller is at Bayern, and especially when he’s playing as well as he has for the last few months, there is really no room for more than one box-to-box midfielder who leans on the attacking side. Goretzka has had issues at times for the same reasons, but given how similar the two are, Goretzka has performed better overall and I think offers slightly more in terms of flexibility.
Alex: I agree with both my fellow contributors. Corentin Tolisso, once Bayern’s and the Bundesliga’s record signing, in my opinion never really made a real impact at Bayern. Of course, he has had the odd good game in the almost three years he has been at the club, but he has never enjoyed a prolonged spell of strong performances. Leon Goretzka, too, in my view has never fully realized his promise as a player. He seems to be a thoughtful guy, someone for whom the outline of a football pitch does not delineate the limits of his intellectual scope, but in terms of his playing quality, he has left a fair bit to be desired as far as I am concerned.
Both players’ first choice position is that of a number eight in offensive midfield. Both under Kovač and now under Flick, the number eight in Bayern’s game has the role of a creative player who picks up the ball in the engine room in midfield and has the vision and quality of distribution to either play a through ball in behind for the center-forward to attack, or put the ball out wide to the wingers if they are in a promising position. If they are not on the ball, they are supposed to make late runs into the penalty area to provide an additional goal threat and be available for a pass during their team’s build-up play in the final third.
While both Tolisso and Goretzka are quite apt at making late runs into the box and pose a decent enough goal threat due to their athleticism, aerial skills, and shooting ability, neither of them is a first rate build-up player. To me, they do not possess the requisite technical skills, vision, quality of distribution, and creative unpredictability that someone like Thiago has to be a truly indispensable factor in Flick’s football.
If Bayern were to sell one of them in the summer, it will not be Goretzka as that is not part of their modus operandi. So it would be Tolisso, a decision I would appreciate for it would rid the squad of a player who does not really fit in and give the club a bit more room financially and in terms of squad size to look for better suited players in offensive midfield. If Fein can be such an alternative, I honestly do not know. I have not seen him play enough to feel prepared to make that call.
Our second question also comes from M Unplugged: Is Kimmich more valuable as a midfielder or right back?
Daniel: I have actually privately mused that Kimmich will sadly have to return to right-back once Fein arrives and plays all 50 games next season. I mean that’s obviously a joke but I actually am vividly anticipating Fein, he’s a fascinating player and it would be a tremendous story if he could make it at Bayern.
Kimmich is having a good season and I do think that one of the main reasons why Bayern’s attacking plan now goes beyond putting in 50 brainless crosses into the box is that they’re playing with Kimmich and Thiago in midfield. Before the Chelsea game, I have heard people calling them the best passing duo in Europe and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. Yet despite all of this and despite him wanting to play in midfield and even despite Bayern likely signing a new right-back next summer, I still think there’s actually a decent chance Kimmich returns to right-back next season. Thiago is staying and will play either way (for the love… give him a new contract already, Bayern!), so if he works well with Fein or potentially Havertz, that’ll free up Kimmich to play right-back. Right now, he’s more valuable as a midfielder to Bayern since everything is basically built around Thiago and Kimmich. But IF Bayern can get their midfield running without Kimmich, they will have truly hit the jackpot because make no mistake: They won’t be getting a better right-back than Kimmich.
Marc: This is a tough question for many of the reasons Daniel discussed and that is somewhat inherently implied by the question itself. I have long felt, and this has not really changed, that Kimmich is in the conversation for best RB in the world right now. I don’t think the same can be said at the 6. So just based on that, I think his maximum value lies at RB. However, he is also a very good midfielder and his value at that position this season is arguably higher, although I think this is partly due to poor squad planning. The stability that Bayern has formed since Flick has taken over is largely due to the duo of Kimmich and Thiago. Another factor is it being his preferred position. That’s not to say that Bayern should cave to his desire to play midfield simply because that’s what he wants to do, but it can’t be dismissed out of hand either and until Fein comes in and proves that he is a better option, I think the plan will be for Kimmich and Thiago to remain in those positions next season.
Honestly, Bayern will have a few problems to solve this summer. With the emergence of Davies, Alaba’s position is in serious question. He has performed remarkably well, but if Bayern either sign another RB or Fein steps up and moves Kimmich to RB, the competition at CB is heavy with, Pavard, Sule, Hernandez and Alaba (assuming Boateng and Martinez are both sold). I’ve actually been wondering if moving Alaba into that 6 role might not be a very good option given he plays more forward for his national team and is obviously capable of it. It could also allow Thiago a little more license to get forward and create which is something he doesn’t have much of an opportunity to do at present.
Alex: That is a good question that I have been puzzling over on and off for a long time myself. I am not quite convinced of what he offers in defensive midfield next to Thiago. I cannot really say why that is, and all the stats suggest that I am wrong – Kimmich regularly has close to the most touches in a game, an outstanding pass completion rate, and a knack of chipping in with a goal from distance every now and then – but, try as I might, I cannot shake the impression that he is certainly a decent, a competent, an adequate midfielder, but no more than that. Maybe my view is informed by the contrast with Thiago alongside whom he most often plays. Thiago is able to take out entire opposition lines with a simple turn or a drop of the shoulder. He can split open a defensive line with just one little, effortless, ingenious pass the likes of which I have hardly ever seen any other player play. Thiago, at his best, has something magical about him as if he were channeling a supernatural skill from a higher plane of football ability out of reach to mere mortals. Kimmich does not. He is no slouch, of course, but compared to a Thiago at his best, even an in-form Kimmich is a decent midfielder, nothing more.
I have better memories of him playing at right-back, even though him playing there regularly seems like a long time ago by now. I always loved his offensive drive and his exceptional crossing ability. When he and his counterpart Alaba on the left were responsible for Bayern’s overlapping play on the wings, there was a constant air of threat in and around the opposition’s penalty area. Kimmich could do both, drive in high crosses and push through to the byline and cut the ball back into dangerous areas at ease. Now experts, not least here on the blog, assure me that Kimmich has not the requisite pace to be a modern day full-back. Seeing Davies and his speed, which more or less single-handedly has catapulted him to full-back stardom, I am inclined to agree. Speed is incredibly important for a full-back. The game of football has accelerated significantly over the last 10 to 15 years, and nowhere more so than in the full-back position.
So I am a bit torn. Based on my qualitative impression of Kimmich when he plays, I prefer him to be used at right-back as he seems to have a greater effect on the game in that position than in midfield. But going by the stats and in light of his speed deficit, he seems to be better placed in midfield. All in all, I personally would probably prefer him at right-back but I happily defer to the objectivity of the stats and the superior knowledge and insight of Flick and his coaching team – and not least Kimmich himself – who see his best position in midfield.
The last few weeks have seen a wide range in performances, from the trouncing of Chelsea in the Champions League to the meager performances against Schalke and Augsburg. Is this simply a matter of the current injury situation or are there bigger issues at play?
Daniel: I have previously said that Flick needed to break that “2nd-half-curse” Bayern was running around with for a number of weeks and there’s definitely an argument to be made that said curse had returned against Schalke and Augsburg but I don’t quite see it that way. Those Chelsea and Hoffenheim games truly put me at ease. Bayern really showed up there and in my eyes showed their true colours on those days. To the point that I’m willing to file the two subsequent matches under “scrappy wins that just naturally happen”. The performances weren’t great but they got the job done. Look at Leipzig, they drew their scrappy game of the week. You know what they say, you don’t win championships in those blowout victories against Hoffenheim, but in those narrow games against Augsburg.
I’m actually not that much of an optimist but with everybody else in Europe struggling right now, these two games against Chelsea and Hoffenheim really made me excited for the rest of the season. It would be a real shame if COVID-19 stops that excitement because something special is possible this season.
Marc: I’m cautiously optimistic on this team. The performance against Chelsea to me is the most important in recent memory. I’m not that surprised that Bayern won, but that they did so while clearly dominating the entire match is very encouraging. As Daniel says, teams are not going to play to their best every night. But dragging out wins is important and knowing when to turn it on is also important. That was clearly the biggest match of the season so far and they showed up. Especially when you look at the other performances around Europe during those first games, it gives some hope that they have a chance to go deep this season.
That said, the last two matches have been pretty abysmal. I huge factor is obviously the injuries and let’s face it, any long term injury to Lewandowski will end any chance we have in the Champions League. While part of me commends Flick for trying something new, another part of me really didn’t understand his squad decisions in the Schalke match. Given how well the team had performed for the preceding weeks, it seemed an odd time to completely change the makeup of the squad when there were several options available to more or less keep the same set up.
Finally, as Daniel mentioned, the threat that the “Coronavirus” has become to this entire season is concerning. Given the television money involved, I think it’s unlikely that any of the competitions will actually get cancelled, however even assuming they do go on, playing in empty stadiums will have a real impact on the games. The health of the community is obviously the most important thing, and I commend the various governing body’s for taking the necessary steps to keep everyone safe. However, it makes things very difficult for the footballing world given the Euro’s and Olympics this summer. The schedule can’t really be pushed back any further so it seems likely that this sport, which is renowned for its passionate supporters, will be played with no one in attendance for the foreseeable future.
Alex: I think that Bayern’s fluctuations in performance are perfectly normal and expectable, not just for Bayern but any performance of a social collective. A football team is not a machine that, given a proper programming, can be switched on and turn out a perfect performance without fail every single time it is called on. Moreover, Bayern’s performances are held to an exceptionally high standard by their fans and the public. All it takes is one half of an (for their standards) mediocre 7/10 performance and fans and pundits start worrying about why they cannot maintain a 9.5/10 for an entire 90 minutes. The facts are that Bayern have won 17 of their 20 games under Hansi Flick, scored more goals this season than any other Bayern side ever in the history of the Bundesliga, and have conceded the joint least number of goals (together with Leipzig). If on top of that they delivered one 90 minute 9/10 performance after another, I would be rather worried than delighted. First, it would not make rational sense to maintain a very high and demanding level of physical and mental energy for the rest of the game when you are 3-0 up after 30 minutes. It is much more rational in such situations to shift down a gear or two, save energy and try not to get injured, no matter how laboured this might look to the outside. Second, rationality aside, this way they also prove that even highly trained football professionals are just human beings who are susceptible to fluctuations in form, group dynamics, and such essentially human traits as adapting one’s level of effort to the demand asked of it.