The return of the 4-2-3-1.
Sometimes injuries are blessings in disguise. With Xabi Alonso unavailable today, and Arturo Vidal not ready to start, Carlo Ancelotti returned to an old friend: the 4-2-3-1. The result was a brilliant success, eliciting outstanding performances from both Philipp Lahm and Thomas Müller, who looked like shadows of themselves just last week. Bayern’s offense shifted into high gear, and the strikers struck: Müller and Robben served up assists, and Lewandowski and Robben both scored. In other words, the offense worked as advertised. And despite the two-man midfield, Bayern utterly dominated Mainz to the tune of over 70% possession.
The Müller effect
Thomas Müller looked like Thomas Müller again today. Playing today more alongside Lewandowski than really behind him, with Ribery to his left and Robben to his right, Müller was at last free to roam at will. The effect on Mainz’s back line was total chaos. Their defenders constantly struggled to chase him down while trying to cover Bayern’s three conventional forwards. The bounty for Müller? Three shots on goal – and really, it was unlucky that Lössl managed to deflect one of them off his shins – an assist, and constant danger. Müller was involved in Bayern’s offense more today than we have seen virtually all season. And even when he was not immediately involved, his mere presence affected Mainz’s defense just as a black hole distorts the space around it. To top it all off, he was fouled for what should have been a penalty shortly before he was substituted out. A great game for Müller and hopefully a sign of great things to come.
Javi’s luck runs out
Javi has struggled to regain his form after missing two matches because of a thigh injury. Last week I complained that Javi Martinez was playing with fire. Today he got burned – twice. Literally Yunus Malli’s first touch caught Javi out wrong-footed, as Malli shot the ball past him to Jhon Cordoba, and Hummels couldn’t bail him out, giving Mainz an early lead. Seemingly unable to pull off a clean tackle (just one all match), Javi compensated with fouls. More alarmingly, after a blatant handball denying Leverkusen a goal was caught on replay last week but not called, Javi tried the trick again today. This time, though, he was spotted and carded. The only good thing about the play was that it occurred just outside the penalty area and Mainz shot the free kick into the wall. Jerome Boateng can’t come back from his injury and form troubles soon enough.
Lahm the midfielder 2.0
Last week, Philipp Lahm moved to the midfield together with Thiago and Xabi Alonso. His poor performance there made it look as if he really should retire after the season.
Today, playing in a two-man midfield as Thiago’s more defensive partner, Lahm looked like he should be playing for years to come. From looking like a third wheel, Lahm was fully integrated into the gameplay. His passing rate leaped up to 92% accuracy (Thiago’s was 93%), and he stifled Mainz’s offense at key points of the game, including three perfectly executed tackles in the first half. This is the captain we know and love. If a two-man midfield brings Lahm into the game (like Müller), then today should provide Ancelotti all the proof he needs.
Sportsmanship and respect on full display
We have watched fierce contests between Bayern and various rivals where there was no love lost. Today somehow seemed different. Even in the tunnel before the match, several players from Bayern and Mainz greeted each other and seemed to have an unusually good rapport. That respect carried over onto the field, despite some tense action. The players checked on each other after fouls and tackles, exchanged pats on the back, and simply seemed to respect each other to an extent we don’t often see. Even hot-headed Ribery could be seen helping up Giulio Donati after a tactical foul. Of course, there were some moments of frustration. Jhon Cordoba, for instance, had a tough game and was clearly not pleased with being marked by Javi (not always cleanly) for 90 minutes. And Leon Balogun was not pleased with the referee after fouling Lewandowski late in the game. But those moments don’t detract from the sportsmanship we saw on display today. Hats off to you, Mainz!