The MSR Fiver – Flick, Game control, the DFB-Pokal, and Sané
1. Flick and the case of the central midfielders
They truly do not have an easy time with him. Mikaël Cuisance was the first who learned this. His career at Bayern came to an abrupt end. Shortly afterwards, Adrian Fein, who had just arrived after a good season at Hamburg, was send to pack his bags faster than he could say ‘hello, I’m back’. Last-minute transfer Marc Roca has only played 298 minutes so far, and only 20 of them in the league. Miasanrot youth player of the year Angelo Stiller has not been given even a small opportunity to show himself. Only Tiago Dantas seems to have found the approval of Hansi Flick, but the Portuguese is physically still too far away from the Bundesliga. No, young central midfielders really have a hard time with Flick.
The central midfield is the heart of every team that is intent on dominating the game based on ball and field control. In build-up play, accurate passing and creativity are required, while positioning and tackling skills are important in the game without the ball. In addition, a high willingness to run, a good vision, and always being switched on are advantageous skills to have as well. Accordingly, the job description for a central midfielder asks for great versatility. One moment one is the initiator, the next the inhibitor. The pressure is immense, both physically and mentally.
In this respect, it is understandable that Hansi Flick has high expectations of his midfielders, while at the same time not wanting to ask too much from young players, let alone burn them out. Moreover, an outsider cannot judge the training performance that the players offer the coach day in and day out. But especially in the phase of Joshua Kimmich’s injury or when fresh legs are needed in the final stages of a game, it is hard to find a reason why Flick has not given Marc Roca even a small chance.
The Spaniard had been on Munich’s radar for some time. He was a signing favored by Salihamidžić last summer and was brought in at short notice during the closing stages of the transfer window. Do the sporting director and the coach not talk about such a player, about his fit for the team, and about his possible role before the decision to sign him? Or does the image the sporting director had of him not fit the real player Marc Roca? From the outside looking in, we are left with idle speculation.
During the few minutes that Roca was allowed to show his qualities on the pitch, he certainly impressed. His yellow card against Salzburg was not a recommendation, but before and after it he was very posied and confident and a calming influence in Bayern’s game. Such qualities are rarely attributed to Corentin Tolisso. Nevertheless, thus far the Frenchman has in the main been preferred by Flick, despite all the limitations that have by now become obvious since he was signed three years ago for more than €40m.
It is a different story with Angelo Stiller, who was a key factor in Bayern’s second team’s resurgence last season. Yet he never really got a chance to recommend himself for higher tasks, and was little more than a player to make up the numbers in training for Flick. Without steady training at a high level, development stagnates. Even more importantly, Stiller could not learn the (group) tactical aspects of Flick’s system. No wonder the coach does not give him a chance in the first team if the player is not familiar with his system.
The next exciting player for the position is already in the starting blocks with youth player Torben Rhein, who is described by many as one of the brightest talents on the Bayern campus right now. Will Flick do things differently with him than he did with Stiller? The transfer of Tiago Dantas, who is only slightly older and plays in the same position, has put a solid competitor in front of him. Not the best signs.
2. Myth of the all-buying ‘Buyern’
It is a myth as old as the Bundesliga itself: The great FC Bayern cripples their opponents by buying away their best players. While this may have been true in the 2000s, the Bayern team’s current success can no longer be explained by this old wives’ tale. So it is high time to get to the bottom of this legend and disprove it once and for all.
From the current Bayern squad, only eight players have joined from another Bundesliga team. Dortmund, whose boss Watzke likes to invoke the ‘Buyern’ cliché, have ten. Seven of them have joined BVB since 2017, while during the same period only four have joined Bayern. Of the eight players, Kimmich and Nübel also joined Bayern before their first international match. Even Gnabry and Goretzka at the time of their arrival were seen by the public as squad players rather than star signings.
If you search the list of the most expensive departing players in Bundesliga history, you have to scroll down to 17th place to find the first Bayern signing: Mario Götze. Ahead of him are VfL Wolfsburg, Newcastle United and West Ham United, among others. Meanwhile, the most profilgate spenders on Bundesliga players are found in the EPL: Manchester City with two players from the top ten for a total of €128 million, and Chelsea FC with three players for a total of €197 million. If you sort the list by market value at the time of the transfer (according to transfermarkt.de), Lewandowski and Goretzka are in the top 25, as are Brandt, Hazard, as well as Hummels and Götze on their return to their former club.
So Bayern can hardly be seen as the Bundesliga predators who prey on their competition at every turn. The truth is that the best players of the Bundesliga have preferred to move abroad in recent years. Dembélé, de Bruyne, Havertz – in the end, they all did not sign for Bayern. The last real superstar to join Bayern from within the league was Robert Lewandowski, and that was at the end of his contract. The club’s current stars are rather well-scouted players who were signed early on or joined the team from abroad.
3. The phases of a game
The famous first quarter of an hour, the time directly after the half-time speech, or the infamous final push – all three are much-cited phases of a game. But how does FC Bayern perform during these periods in the current season?
The statistics website understat.com provides data for expected goals, but also more conventional values such as goals and shots broken down in 15-minute periods. The game is thus divided into six phases. Comparing and contrasting these phases, several interesting conclusions can be drawn from this for the Bayern team.
The opening phase of the match, when both teams often feel each other out, can already decide a game. Last year, Bayern regularly pounced on their opponent’s early disorganization during this stage, scoring 19 to 4 goals. This year, on the other hand, they stand at 6 to 4 goals so far. In no other 15 minute interval did they manage to score fewer goals. Above all, there is a lack of clinical finishing as understat also posts the highest value of 7.7 expected goals. In no other phase should the Bayern team dominate their opponents so much, as the xG difference is 5.19 goals. But the reality on the field looks different.
The phase before the break is also a cause for concern. In this quarter of an hour, the team has more shots than in any other period, but with 7 goals conceded, they also concede more goals than in any other period. It almost seems as if the opponents realize that, at the moment, they are not up against the all-conquering Bayern of last year and visibly gain courage. Seventeen goals in total have been scored by both sides in these 15 minutes – another best.
Directly after the break – at least statistically – follows the record champion’s strongest period. Eleven goals in the 15 minutes immediately after the restart are the highest return of all periods. The goal difference of +7 is otherwise only achieved in the phase between the 60th and 75th minute. This phase is also one of great efficiency. The nine goals in this period were scored with eleven shots fewer than the ten goals in the quarter hour before the break. In the half hour after half-time, Bayern thus score 20 to 6 goals, almost 37% of their total.
The final quarter of an hour is as hectic and open as you perceive it to be on TV. The opponents manage to give off 38 shots on goal, which is the highest number with five shots to spare. At the same time, Bayern also register a comparatively low shot value with only 47 shots. Before the Schalke game, it was even less than 40. On both sides, the chances are also of high quality, as the combined xG value of both teams is 12.8 goals, which is also a cross-period high. It seems almost a miracle that Bayern have won this section with 10 to 5 goals so far.
4. The importance of the DFB-Pokal exit
I admit it openly: I am a fan of the cup. The format with a series of knock out games has given me many intensive and emotional moments in recent years. Who still remembers grey Saturday afternoons with the umpteenth 3-0 victory over SV Augsburg 05, or something like that? But in the cup, on the other hand, Bayern play 5-4 against Heidenheim, miss four penalties against Dortmund, tremble their way to the penalty shootout against Burghausen or play against the club from the city where I was born.
So what does the earliest cup exit since 2000 mean? I can still remember the elimination back in December 2006 in Aachen. The cauldron that was the Tivoli was a stumbling block for Bayern in Magath’s final year. Incidentally, it was also a springboard for Jan Schlaudraff, the scorer of the last goal in the 4-2 end result. Bayern’s eleven had finally reached the end of its life-cycle at the time. A mixture of mismanagement, a lack of tactical finesse, as well as a lack of physical and mental freshness caused frustration in the year after the repeat of the domestic double and ultimately led to the ousting of Magath and a bitterly needed renovation of the squad.
The signs today are very different, even though the Bayern team under Flick is also going through a bit of a slump at the moment. The squad today is considerably better than in 2006, and it can even be argued that the four additional week-long spells without a game in the remainder of the season can benefit the team in terms of their ability to reach their remaining goals. For winning the treble, the cup has always been a necessary duty rather than an enjoyable pleasure.
And yet, on 13 May in Berlin, for the first time since 2017 and only the fourth time since 2010, Bayern will not take part in the final. Will I even watch another cup game this season? I do not know. Incidentally, one catastrophe can fortunately not happen again: While Nürnberg had won the cup in 2007, the Clubberers have already been eliminated this year. A title in the region of Franconia, nobody really needs that.
5. The first 200 days of Leroy Sané
Few transfers in recent years have been associated with as many expectations as that of Leroy Sané last summer. The German winger was supposed to be the legitimate successor to Bayern’s legendary Robbery duo as a world-class player on the attacking flank. Mind you, this was after a season in which one of Bayern’s current first choice wingers had scored the winning goal in the Champions League final and the other one had contributed 23 goals and 14 assists in all competitions. So what does Leroy Sané’s record so far look like?
In a direct comparison with his two rivals Coman and Gnabry, Sané does not stand out statistically. With seven goals, he is the most successful goal scorer of the three, while his total of 12 scorer points is only slightly less than Coman’s 15. All three have played around 20 games, with Gnabry having the most with 24 appearances. In terms of minutes played, Sané, who has only played a full 90 minutes twice has been given the least game time so far.
In terms of advanced stats, the picture is similar. Whether it is shots, key passes, expected goals or expected assists – per 90 minutes Sané is always on a par with his two team-mates, give and take a little. So far, at least, the newcomer has not been able to elevate Bayern’s attack to a new level on his own. However, there are good reasons for this, as Sané had only little time to prepare after his long injury.
However, it is noticeable that Sané’s visible lack of precision and lapses in ball control are reflected in the statistics. 2.6 unclean ball receptions are the highest value among the trio and one more than Coman. 77% passing rate is the worst value among the three by some margin and he does that with only 20 touches per 90 minutes, which is also the lowest value. It seems a lot of the play goes past Sané instead of through him.
The impression is growing that Sané is more a player for one action than for a game. An action can also decide a game, but Sané has not yet come close to fulfilling the expectations towards a player of his stature over 90 minutes. However, both coach and player are aware of this, and both keep emphasising that the road ahead is paved with careful work and slow progress. Who knows what a fully fit Sané is capable of on the back of a full preparation…
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I appreciate #2, the false narrative that Bayern buys the best players from the competition to ensure their continued success. While that might have been true in the past (and to be honest, fairly distant past); that is fake news. To me how one responds to that suggestion is a litmus test to assess if someone actually follows the Bundesliga. What I find especially absurd is how Dortmund (both the actual team and it’s fans) support this all the while, it is they who are the most guilty of this. Furthermore, they are guilty of this in the worst way. They have quality Bundesliga players that they bought from other clubs who are just sitting on their bench. At least we try to use players we purchase and let those who can’t break the starting 11 look elsewhere, like Rudy. How many minutes have Schultz or Dahoud gotten since their moves? What was the thinking behind Brandt and Hazard when you aren’t going to move Sancho. Seems like raiding teams like Gladbach and Leverkusen is par for the course for Dortmund these days, so their crying over “Buyern” really miffs me.
I think that players like Schultz, Dahoud, and to a lesser extent Brandt, deserve 1st team minutes and it is a disservice to the Bundesliga that the only place you could see them these days are the national team or Dortmund training ground.
I hear you, but to be fair the ‘Buyern’ accusation has been levelled much less against the club in recent years. First, the overriding economic logic of the modern game has caught up with the other Bundesliga clubs, too. The clubs with the most money (and the highest sporting aspirations) buy the best available players, who typically play for their biggest competitors, while those raided reinvest the money they have received in slightly less finished players from slightly less competitive clubs, and so on all the way down. There is no place for sentiment. It’s an economic food chain and Bayern are the apex predator – but every club at their level is as well
Second, Bayern in the last decade have increasingly looked for reinforcements abroad and not in the Bundesliga, as Maurice’s article points out. So even if you’re inclined to be always critical of Bayern, the charge has lost a lot of its sting. Even for the most tradition-heavy Bundesliga supporters, the sober economic and sporting realities of the game have begun to sink in. The clubs’ first oder of business is to improve their squads and not to weaken the squads of their competitors. In some years that might mean buying an up-and-coming talent from abroad, in others poaching a finished player from your biggest rivals, as the case may be. But there is no method behind that other than always buying the best players you can get, no matter the source. I believe fans everywhere have understood that, especially as they realized that their own clubs act just the same.