Bayern decisively won the match of the season, putting Leipzig in its place with a combination of astute tactics, individual brilliance, and seasoned experience.
Win the midfield, win the game: Carlo Ancelotti scoffs at your 4-2-3-1
Ah, the groans from the cognoscenti when today’s lineup was announced: “What!? He’s going back to the 4-3-3? He’s benching Thomas Müller?” Indeed, he did and with tremendous success against the second best team in the Bundesliga.
But it wasn’t a straightforward 4-3-3 that lined up today at the Allianz arena. The key difference lay in the man at the heart of the midfield: Thiago Alcantara. It is no coincidence that Thiago got on the board today with a goal. He was the man around whom Bayern’s entire game plan revolved: on defense, Bayern played essentially in the familiar 4-3-3, as Thiago dropped well back to press Leipzig’s midfielders, joining box enforcer Vidal and a defensively oriented Alonso. But on offense Thiago shifted into high gear, occupying the space behind Lewandowski and driving Bayern’s attack forward. The hybrid formation worked brilliantly: defeating Leipzig in the midfield while throwing more attackers forward than they could defend. Thiago was the key to it all.
Bayern answer force with force
Within minutes of kick-off, it was clear that Leipzig came to the Allianz today intending to play a physical game and drive Bayern off the ball bodily. But Bayern retaliated in kind and proved to be even more than Leipzig could handle. Thanks to the physical presence of Vidal, Lewandowski, and . . . Alonso, among others, Leipzig found itself more often on the receiving end of strong tackles and challenges and responded with increasingly sloppy and reckless play. After dominating a hapless Yussuf Poulsen for the entire match, Vidal would finally be carded for fouling him in the second half. Of course, by then, the game had been won.
Douglas Costa replaces both Ribery and Robben
In the same match. Coming off his game-winning performance against Darmstasdt, Douglas Costa started today on the left wing, allowing Franck Ribery to enter the game later with fresh legs. Costa, in a word, was phenomenal, and on both sides of the pitch. Costa toyed with Leipzig’s defense from the opening minutes of the game, dribbling circles around them and posing a constant threat by virtue of his chemistry with David Alaba and Thiago.
Those efforts were eventually rewarded when he broke away from Leipzig’s Bernardo and drew a penalty off of Peter Gulacsi. In the second half, he took over the right wing for Robben. Costa’s versatility is doubly valuable, not only because he is flexible on the field, but also because he provides Ancelotti with the means to rotate on both wings at will.
Dribbling, dribbling, and more dribbling
A common theme to Ancelotti’s lineup choices today is an emphasis on dribbling: Lahm put on yet another gala performance, while naturally Arjen Robben and Douglas Costa tormented Leipzig’s defense on the right and left. Thiago likewise showed his prowess on the ball – although he would score with his chest – and Robert Lewandowski had already logged 3 dribbles of his own by halftime, as if you needed more evidence of how complete a striker he has become. Franck Ribery was the only dribbling expert who found himself on the bench, but he would join in in the second half, replacing Arjen Robben and turning the screws that much tighter on the Lawn Ballers. By the 80th minute, the balance on dribbles? 15-5 in Bayern’s favor, with six by Costa alone. Only Naby Keita came close with three, but his day came to a close at halftime.
Leipzig are a brilliant team, but they are very young, and that inexperience and lack of seasoning were on full display today as they collectively collapsed after conceding twice. Leipzig responded with some dangerous attacks – most notably a set-piece header by Willi Orban that was expertly blocked by Maneul Neuer – but Bayern remained coolly in control. The dam broke the next time that Bayern stole away with the ball: Emil Forsberg completely lost his composure and took out Philipp Lahm with a very dangerous, spikes-up tackle from behind. The most surprising thing about his ejection is that he is normally one of Leipzig’s smartest players and, at twenty-five years old, relatively senior. Leipzig’s mental lapses cost them dearly. Bayern was ice cold.