Before the game there were few surprises.
Kovač rotated the side again in comparison to the game in Lisbon. Goretzka came in for Sanches, James slotted into a wide role for Robben, and Müller was likewise back in the starting line-up, as was playmaker Thiago. Other than that, Boateng took a rest and so made space for Süle.
Schalke started with the expected back-five. Ahead of them were two defensive midfielders and three attackers who positioned themselves according to the game situation and were supposed to disrupt the visitors’ build-up play.
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In the first half, Bayern were initially clearly superior. From a set-piece, James got the deserved opener. The longer the game went on, however, Schalke became better and more aggressive in duels. Bayern gifted them several openings, which they were unable to make the most of. As a result, Bayern gradually regained control in the match and went into the break 1-0 up.
In the second period, Schalke came out livelier. The hosts, however, were still unable to generate genuine opportunities in front of goal. After an unnecessary foul on James, Robert Lewandowski converted a penalty in the 64th minute that decided the game with time still on the clock. The closing quarter of an hour was used by Kovač for some rotation, as the game ran down entertainingly yet unspectacularly. It remained a deserved 2-0 win for Bayern in a somewhat wild game that is hard to evaluate.
3 things we noticed
1. Playmaking defensive midfielder
One doesn’t want to repeat it every single week, but Thiago’s performances as a lone holding midfielder at the moment are nigh on flawless. In putting in these performances, the Spaniard is bringing together the key abilities of a few predecessors of the recent past.
Certainly he’s not as physically dominant in direct one-v-ones as Javi Martínez. He’s also not a merciless metronome like Xabi Alonso. The bursts forward aren’t quite as potent as they once were with Bastian Schweinsteiger. But he brings together all of these qualities at a high level and is simultaneously more explosive than his three predecessors together.
Alcantara interprets the role more actively and creatively than Martínez. His roaming into the attacking areas always comes naturally out of the flow of the game, and what’s more he constantly demands the ball. The constant search for the best possible option rather than the safest give Bayern’s possession game another dimension and strengthens their pressing resistance.
If he withstands the playing time without injuries, Thiago could become the defining figure of the season. Let’s hope that the Spaniard stays fit and is able to cement his place in the top tier of players in this new role.
2. Fluid formation
Since Louis van Gaal’s departure, you hear it every year: FC Bayern have become more flexible. This claim hasn’t always been true, but in certain aspects currently it’s certainly the case again.
The attacking players, in particular Franck Ribery, position themselves less rigidly and often overload on one side early in an attack. At Schalke that was clear in the first half. Ribery operated as a roaming playmaker from the touch-line to the centre, while James Rodriguez regularly rotated with Thomas Müller. In Bayern’s game there is no longer a genuine winger who sticks to the touchline.
Another aspect of flexibility that has been gained is the art of getting free from pressing situations. Short passing remains the first option, but also the medium-length is often looked for. That’s the way to play through the first line of pressing, which is often the most intensive, without relying on the gamble of a long ball. Instead of that, a midfielder 20-30 metres away is looked for with a lofted ball, and this midfielder can then either lay off the ball or turn to play in the opening space and lead a more stable counter.
3. Roaming Robert
Robert Lewandowski’s drifting movements have been a reliable weapon for years and a key part of FCB’s tactics. At Schalke they gave the hosts headaches.
The Pole’s horizontal drifting pulled apart the home side’s back-three and made it easier for James, Müller, Ribery and also Alaba, who was impressive today, to find space in attack.
In bad periods this variation often embodies harmless possession out wide. In good periods, meanwhile, as was to be observed in this game, it makes Bayern’s attacking game hard to predict and provides an improved integration of the midfield in the penalty area. Alongside day-to-day form, the details often make the difference. If Niko Kovač optimises this in the long-term, Bayern’s attack will have an entertaining season.