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Five observations on Bayern’s surprising 3-2 loss to Rostov

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Several players are struggling, but they are by no means entirely to blame.

FC Rostov v FC Bayern Muenchen - UEFA Champions League Photo by Joosep Martinson/Bongarts/Getty Images

1. Holger Badstuber is not ready

Today was the first time that Holger Badstuber has started a game this season, and it will probably be the last for some time. Expectations may already have been moderate, but Badstuber’s performance today proved that he is nowhere near ready to play against serious competition. Badstuber repeatedly misjudged long balls to Rostov’s forwards, creating at least three extremely dangerous situations that could have led to goals. The most notable was probably the scene ten minutes into the game, when he misjudged a long ball to Aleksandr Erokhin, allowing Erokhin to head the ball over Sven Ulreich toward the wide-open net - only to be cleared off the line by Juan Bernat. In the event, the real damage came from the mistakes of others - above all Boateng, who now is injured - but Badstuber looked thoroughly outclassed and as unsure of himself as Sven Ulreich.

2. Costa giveth, Costa taketh away

For much of the first half, Douglas Costa looked like a shoo-in for Meister of the Match, but his performance today seemed to test the young winger’s maturity. Starting in place of the injured Arjen Robben on the right wing, Costa’s initial performance recalled his devastating debut with Bayern under Pep Guardiola, as he dribbled circles around Rostov’s defenders and launched most of Bayern’s attacks in the early first half. When he scored the opening goal for Bayern, it seemed only too fitting. But Costa also betrayed a lack of focus and maturity today that cost Bayern dearly. It began with a moment of extreme carelessness and a catastrophically bad pass intended for Jerome Boateng, but sent directly to Poloz, who launched a game-tying breakaway. Seemingly rattled by his own mistake, Costa then faded from the game when Bayern needed him most, only to reappear as a threat in the final minutes when it was too late. Costa has room to grow, and this game highlighted some of the growing pains.

3. Philipp Lahm continues to struggle, Rafinha not much better

Part of today’s unconventional lineup was marked by Philipp Lahm’s return to the midfield, a role he played frequently under Pep Guardiola. Ancelotti had perhaps hoped that the move from right-back would spare Lahm’s legs somewhat, but even in the midfield Lahm failed to impress. He was the weakest and least accurate of the three midfielders today, at just 84% pass accuracy. He garnered slightly more touches than Renato Sanches (subbed out at 73’), yet seemed far less dynamic, as Rafinha and Douglas Costa generally bypassed him entirely, and far more error-prone. We’d feel differently if he had made the open shot he had on goal, but even that is a prefect reflection of his game today. Rafinha meanwhile had possession of the ball almost twice as often (124 vs 79 touches), but he hardly looked more convincing. As Lahm fades, Bayern seems to face the same dilemma as the German national team - but the obvious solution, Joshua Kimmich, is needed elsewhere - potentially now at center-back.

4. Strong showing by Sanches

On a positive note - one of very few - Renato Sanches had an excellent, energetic game. In the first half, he even eclipsed Franck Ribery and provided much of the attacking impetus on the left side. It was his shot at the near post that was deflected out for Douglas Costa to collect and fire into the net. Sanches also combined later extremely well with Ribery and was directly involved in the interplay that led up to Juan Bernat’s goal. Ancelotti subbed him out after 73 minutes to bring on Thomas Müller, but he was clearly not the weak link in Bayern’s midfield today. Ancelotti possibly did not want to exacerbate tension with Philipp Lahm, who was unusually outspoken about his substitution against Dortmund over the weekend, and so opted to take the junior player out instead.

5. Is Ancelotti too conservative for this team?

Projecting Ancelotti’s starting lineup for important games is too easy. We know it will be a 4-3-3, and we generally can guess who will be playing where, allowing for injuries. The game instead becomes projecting the least likely formation. (Julian Green, anybody?) Perhaps we have been spoiled by Pep Guardiola’s incessant tinkering - although there were plenty of critics of that as well. Be that as it may, Ancelotti has relied on a 4-3-3 in virtually every match, switching to a 4-2-3-1 (or 4-2-4, however you read it) only in desperate situations, as he did today. This rigid insistence on the 4-3-3 has coincided with the worst slump of Thomas Müller's career and a string of mediocre performances in which some of the best attacking players in the game fail to score. Playing with a third midfielder may seem safer, but has it stifled Bayern’s offensive game? All too often, it seems as if Bayern are playing with a redundant midfielder, as one of them simply drops out of sight for long stretches of the game - Lahm in this game, Thiago or even Kimmich in others, and so on. While each of these players faces his individual struggles, Ancelotti needs to play them where they can succeed.

Match Awards... nah

Because we are short-staffed, there will not be a separate Match Awards article, so let the following suffice:

Jersey Swap: Sardar Azmoun

Sardar Azmoun played brilliantly today and was directly involved in two of Rostov’s goals. After his teammate Poloz intercepted Costa’s pass to Boateng, Azmoun made Boateng himself look foolish - we haven’t seen the like of it since Lionel Messi - before treating Sven Ulreich like the backup keeper he is. Azmoun was utterly ruthless. He nearly had another chance when called for a foul on Holger Badstuber, and he in turn found Poloz on a breakaway that Thiago stopped with a tactical foul - leading to Noboa’s free kick goal. Azmoun, Poloz, and Noboa all were great today, but Azmoun was the best of the three.

Who was least bad?