Manuel Neuer: “We played Pep football”
When Pep Guardiola gathered his players around him for the final team talk to give out his last tactical instructions before a game, Manuel Neuer would allegedly always sit in the front row. Sources close to the club said at the time that he was one of the team’s biggest admirers of his coach.
It can thus hardly be called a big surprise that the first half against Cologne did not remind the 33-year-old of the treble winning season under Jupp Heynckes, but of the extremely well planned and suffocating football his team played under Guardiola. “We played Pep football”, “Sport1” quotes Neuer as saying.
The reporter Carsten Arndt used this opportunity to compare Bayern under Flick with Bayern under Guardiola. His result: Going forward the current team makes a really good impression. Despite making fewer passes and having less possession of the ball, they currently have more shots (20 to 18) and more big chances (5.2 to 3.2) than the successful Pep team. Their chance conversion is a bit better at the moment too (19 to 17 percent). As far as goals are concerned, the difference is actually quite clear: 3.1 goals per game under Flick opposed to 2.5 per game under Guardiola.
So far, so good. But the article does not consider the defense at all. On average, Bayern has conceded 9.33 shots per game in the Bundesliga since Hansi Flick took over. Under Niko Kovač they averaged 10 this season and 7.6 last. In the 2017/18 (8.5) and 2016/17 (8.9) seasons this figure was also below the current average.
In the first year under Guardiola’s reign, Bayern also conceded 8.9 shots per match, but in the following two years the figure dropped to 7.5 respectively. Since shots alone do not provide a complete picture, the quality of the chances should also be taken into account. Perhaps Bayern under Flick only allow half chances?
Here, the expected goals model from StatsBomb, whose values are openly accessible on the fbref.com website, is a suitable tool. Compared to the 2017/18 season under Kovač, the number of expected goals per game against has increased: from 0.77 to currently 0.96.
Unfortunately, the data on fbref.com does not go back further than the previous year. However, if you look at the data from other, possibly less accurate models, an estimate for the time of Guardiola at Bayern might be around 0.6 to 0.7 expected goals against per game.
Without a doubt, Flick’s offensive playing style is the main reason why Bayern play successful football again and the players enjoy their time out on the pitch. On average, the reigning champions allow their opponents only 6.35 passes until they take a defensive action. A figure that was quite similar under Guardiola.
But Guardiola’s greatest achievement, which he developed bit by bit over the three years he was at the club, was to make his football appear as though he had all phases of the game always carefully planned through to a T. There was always an alternative to every course of action. The players always knew what they had to do next. Even when things did not work out.
In this regard, there is no comparison to the team’s current level of performance. Even if the development of Bayern under Flick is more than remarkable and his promotion to head coach was the right decision to rescue a faltering season, his team does not demonstrate that it is capable of the same extent of flexibility at the moment.
If all goes according to plan, there are hints that Bayern is able to play an overwhelming and dominant football that even teams like Leipzig are unable to cope with. But the fact that the team’s performance significantly slumped after the break in the game against Cologne for the fourth time in a row gives rise to the question as to whether there is a plan B. This also applies to those rare situations in which an opponent manages to break through Bayern’s high press. Going back, the team remains vulnerable – more vulnerable than a few years ago.
Bayern’s current playing style has the players make so many sprints that they need intermittent periods of rest. Under Guardiola, these came about through longer passages in possession where the team just circulated the ball around without any significant territorial gains. However, at the time their positional play was so good that their opponents hardly had a chance to intercept the ball. And so they were able to recoup and save energy within a game. Either for coming games, because they had already scored enough goals, or for a final attack. Today, however, as soon as Bayern decrease their intensity and focus by only 5%, they lose their basic structure and open the door to their opponents. This contrast is all the more stark for the huge discrepancy to what the team regularly proves they are able to do in a game’s early stages.
One of the greatest qualities of Bayern under Guardiola was their capability to seamlessly shift up and down several gears at any point during a game. After taking a break for ten minutes or so, the team was able to pick up speed again and continue where it left off. Against Gladbach and Leipzig, for example, this was completely missing although it would have been necessary, possibly also because the team was unable to react to the opponent’s adjustments. Another quality that makes Guardiola so unique is that he is able to read a game better than most and react to what he sees accordingly – in terms of personnel or tactical adjustments.
All in all, one should be cautious not to prematurely dream of the best times. It is not for nothing that even under Guardiola the team needed several years before they reached their peak. To ask Hansi Flick to do the same now in just a few months would be illusory.
Bayern are playing good football again and are back at the top of the table. Flick’s part in this is so substantial that he has certainly put himself in a strong negotiating position for the upcoming talks about who will be Bayern’s permanent head coach. But having said that, no, Bayern are a far cry from playing Pep football. The list of homework for the coaching staff and the team is still too long for that.
Against this backdrop, it is remarkable how much complacency there seems to be at Bayern currently. Sure, here and there someone will voice a bit of criticism of a weaker second half, but that is quickly brushed aside with the argument that in the first half the team has indicated what it is capable of after all. It is all down to psychology, says Thomas Müller. But if the players do not soon realize that complacency and self-contentment could be a decisive reason for the strong fluctuations in performance within a game, they might be denying themselves the chance to achieve great things this season.
A season that many had written off in November, but which is now suddenly opening up for them again. But the team needs the capacity to see out games with confidence, and if necessary, to increase the pace again. The question remains: will there be a warning voice at Bayern in 2020 who will remind the team that just one Pep half does not equate Pep football? The Champions League round of 16 will probably tell us more.