The absence of Bayern Munich's World Cup players in the preseason has allowed manager Pep Guardiola to continue the beta test of a three center back defense. With the domestic season just days away, what seemed like a harmless experiment appeared more like a long-term tactical plan.
That plan might have to change again now with the injury to Rafinha. Bayern have announced that the 28-year-old fullback tore a ligament in his ankle in Saturday's training, which will reshuffle the depth that Guardiola can use.
.@R13_official suffered a lateral ligament tear in his left ankle yesterday. The defender is unable to train for the time being.— FC Bayern English (@FCBayernEN) August 10, 2014
Rafinha career resurrection came as a result of Philipp Lahm's move to midfield. His performance made that move permanent last season, one of Guardiola's tinkers that worked with relative success. With the Brazilian's injury, the room for the gaffer to tinker is tighter.
Rafinha's three-match suspension at the end of the season revealed the ripple effects of his absence. Lahm returned to right back, Mitchell Weiser supporting him in depth, and Rafinha getting a chance in other competitions. That combination was in a different system though, and with personnel that, while relatively unchanged, is different enough to manifest an alternative circumstance.
Even so, the discernible move would be for Lahm to assume the right flank, making the adjacent pairing of him and Juan Bernat guard towers at the edges of a fortified wall in defense. While Guardiola could wipe his hands with that and call it a day, it would be a simple solution to a complex problem. As hard as it is to admit, Lahm's move to midfield was like eating a potato chip; once we got a taste for the stability he brought in the middle, it is something we now crave.
Bayern Munich Injuries
Bayern Munich Injuries
The other latent problem that arises is the lack of attacking chutzspa due to more cautious flank play. Bayern scored two goals in their trip to the United States, one on a set piece header from Claudio Pizarro and the other from the stellar individual skill of Robert Lewandowski. Lahm's offensive record as a fullback in his career is at an elite level, but that does not mean that he can man the flank on his own; whether Thomas Müller, Arjen Robben, or Mario Götze, Lahm's recent success out wide has come with someone to partner with.
The replacement formula could already be in place as well, for Pierre-Emile Højbjerg has been flanking Rafinha on the right in the preseason. It was a resolution Guardiola arrived at in the DFB-Pokal Final with David Alaba unavailable, one that allowed Bayern to keep a clean sheet against Borussia Dortmund. Højbjerg believes his best position is as a holding midfielder, but even he can't rule himself out as a fullback.
"Right now it's silly to say that I'm not a fullback. If [Guardiola] wants to bring me in as one then he should do so," Højbjerg said during Bayern's training last week at Providence Park. "But I know that when my career ends it will be as a No. 6."
Similarly to Højbjerg, Sebastian Rode played on the right in a few preseason games, but a majority of his time has been running end line to end line as a central midfielder. Weiser seems like the only other direct option, although with his lack of experience and lack of fitness, his ability to step in does not exist.
The transfer window also remains open, although Bayern tend to not make transfers based on knee-jerk reactions. The actual severity of Rafinha's injury is still unclear, and a quick recovery could make the ramifications of his absence moot.
The quest to find the right mixture in defense has already had a few bubbles,and Rafinha's limited availability will change the eventual solution even more.