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Problems at Stage 3

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So before even getting in to this post, it’s necessary to state that FC Bayern’s season has been a remarkable success so far. The club is sitting on top of the table in both the Bundesliga and the Champions League group stage. We’ve played 15 games and won 12 outright, including 10 by multiple goals. So loyal fans really can’t have any huge complaints, especially when compared to last year.

Having said that, there have been a few less-than-stellar moments so far. With goals as lofty as ours, we’re going to have to be playing at a high level pretty much non-stop from January through June. We’ve been doing that for a majority of this season so far, but we’ve also seen a few slip-ups that would doom us against Barcelona, Real, or Manchester United. Out of the 15 matches we’ve played, I would say the following were the most disappointing in terms of how Bayern looked/what they were able to accomplish:

- August 7 loss to ‘Gladbach

- August 13 win over Wolfsburg (late Gustavo winner, but we looked slow and uncreative most of the day)

- August 17 win over Zürich (the first leg - this is the one that set off angry arguments around here)

- The first 20 minutes of the Sept. 27 win over Manchester City (we eventually seized control, but they were bossing the middle of the field for a while)

- This week’s 1-1 draw vs. Napoli

Note that the 0-0 draw vs. Hoffenheim is not included - we were on the road after a tough Manchester City game, it was the last match before the international break, and the players were clearly exhausted.  I’m also not including the lackluster 1-0 win over Zürich in the second leg.  For purposes of examining defects in the club’s roster and strategy, I think the 4-and-a-bit-more games in the above list are the best place to start.  Even with some non-spectacular play, we were able to win 3 of those 5 games, but we definitely didn’t look like Champions League contenders for those matches (of parts of them).  So it’s probably worth examining and trying to determine what can be improved upon.

From my notes and memories, there was only one of those matches where our problem was poor finishing: the Zürich match.  That’s the one occasion where we created enough scoring chances and/or got the ball to our forwards in advantageous positions, but just failed to put the ball in the net.  But for the other 3-plus matches where we’ve looked less than great, I think the biggest problem has been in the middle of the field - specifically, turning sustained spells of possession into good, high-percentage scoring chances.

In a majority of situations, a successful offensive attack, or offensive “possession,” if you prefer, goes through the following stages:

(1) The team wins and establishes control of the ball. This might take place in the midfield area or the defensive area; it might come from cleanly controlling a loose ball, or from collecting a missed or blocked shot of the other team, or from an out-of-bounds call or a foul that results in a change of possession.  But one way or another, this is the stage where possession is gained, solidified, and the team turns its sights upfield.

(2) Moving from “establishing possession” to getting the ball to the play-makers. This occurs when the ‘keeper, defenders, or whoever secured possession (even if it’s just the guy throwing in from the sideline) manages to get the ball to one of the team’s offensive creators, and in a place/manner that the creator can do something with it.  The most common example would be a CB or fullback passing the ball to a midfielder as he enters the opponent’s side of the field.  But the creator could also be a wing, or could be a fullback himself.  The defining characteristic of this stage is that the team has gone from securing the ball to moving towards doing something valuable with it.

(3) The play-makers make plays. Again, your play-maker could be anyone, but usually it will be a midfielder, wing, or in some cases even a fullback.  This is the stage at which the offense is trying to create a good scoring chance, and the defense is trying to defuse the attack before a scoring chance can take place.  Common examples would be: two straight good passes get the ball to a player near the goal; a series of dribble moves unlocks the defense and a teammate comes open; a high cross floats over two defenders and finds a striker in the area; etc.  The variations are infinite, but the defining characteristic is that, when stage 3 starts, the other teams fan’s are thinking “I hope they don’t break down our defense,” and when stage 3 ends, the other team is thinking “oh, shit.”

(4) Scoring. Self-explanatory.  This is when the opportunities that were created by proper execution of the previous stages are cashed in.  This does not necessarily refer just to the last shot - sometimes the final pass within the area, or the final two touches of a dribbling sequence, would also be considered part of stage 4.  But the important characteristic that defines this stage is that, by the time stage 4 starts, everyone watching the game knows the team is going to have a scoring chance.  Stage 4 is the outcome of the scoring chance itself.

Obviously this general pattern isn’t always repeated.  Sometimes the ‘keeper will stop a shot, send a long, deadly pass upfield to a forward who’s broken loose, and the team will skip stages 2 and 3.  And sometimes a striker will jump on a lazy pass from the other team’s back line and smash it home - essentially eliminating every stage before stage 4.  But in the majority of successful possessions, I would say the offense goes through those phases - securing possession, getting the ball upfield to your play-makers, having your play-makers break down the defensive formation and create opportunities, and then converting those chances with final passes or moves and good shooting.

And in most of the matches in which Bayern has failed to control the game, it’s been stage 3 that has been the problem.  There are exceptions - the Zürich match when he blew several good scoring chances, the early part of the Manchester City game, where we struggled to even win possession cleanly.  But on the whole, I think our defense has played well (two or three mental errors aside), and we’ve controlled possession of the ball a majority of the time.  When we’ve had problems, it’s been because we haven’t been able to break down a defense, especially if the opponent is committed to tough defending and keeping their fullbacks drawn back.  Basically, we’re in need of a creator.

Here are our creator options, as of now, and some of the benefits and drawbacks I see:

- Ribery: he can always serve as a play-maker, in a sense, because of his dribbling ability.  He’s almost impossible to mark with one defender, so getting him the ball forces the defense to adjust and opens up spaces.  He also has a decent shot that other teams have to respect.  But the problem with relying on Ribery as your play-maker is that he plays almost exclusively on the left side.  The other team’s defense can almost use the sideline as a defender, and trap him in space.  And without Robben on the other side, opponents can roll the formation towards Ribery and not be punished for it.  Also, while Franck is a good passer, he often seems to wait until he’s trapped in a corner to look to pass, rather than picking out his man as soon as he gets the ball at his feet.

- Müller: well, first of all, he’s being played out of position on the right.  But even when he’s set up in his preferred second striker role, Müller is a little more towards stage 4 on the offensive flow-chart.  Once you get him the ball in or near the box, he’s great at making the last pass, dribble, or run that leads to an open shot.  But a creator has to play a little deeper towards the middle of the field, and has to do his thing earlier in the development of the play.  In short, our creator has to be the guy who gets Thomas the ball, rather than Thomas himself.

- Kroos: same problems as above, only he’s not even as good a passer as Müller.  Kroos generally looks for a shot of his own from that second striker position (which is OK, because he has a good shot, and that’s the better part of his game).  He was working on that elusive quick give-and-go play earlier this year, but he seems to have abandoned that.

- Robben: he can’t stay healthy, he doesn’t like passing the ball unless he’s forced to, he’s kind of a jerk.  Other than that, he’s perfect.

- Schweinsteiger: this is the guy who SHOULD be performing the creator role, and in some cases he is.  But things haven’t worked in his favor over the past couple years.  First of all, Bastian has refined his game to be a little more of the “boss of the midfield” type, and a little less of the Wesley Sneijder “pull the strings and set up a scoring chance type.”  In some ways, this is good, because we aren’t giving up as many fast break chances as we used to, and when there’s a loose ball in the middle of the field, we always seem more likely to come up with it.  But I think Bastian has sacrificed a bit of his dribbling and passing game to become a better marker and ball-winner.  And, anyway, often when Bastian gets the ball, it’s back at our own end of the field, and he has to labor just to get past the midfield stripe (meaning he’s as much a stage 2 player as a state 3 player in many cases).

I guess ideally we’d combine the best attributes of all these guys - someone who can control the midfield and settle the play like Schweinsteiger, who can read a defense and make a perfect run like Müller, and who can beat guys off the dribble like Ribery or Robben.  But of course, that’s just wishful thinking.  For now, I think the best hope is that Schweinsteiger gets his touch back, the fullbacks play like they did last weekend and not on Tuesday, and eventually Robben comes back and our opponents can’t lock down on one side of the pitch.

Back with a preview of the Hannover game tomorrow.  Thanks for reading.