A one-winged bird that still flies
With Arjen Robben not quite ready to start, Carlo Ancelotti fielded a 4-3-3 on paper that looked very different in practice. Thomas Müller initially played in Robben's position outside on the right wing, but as the game progressed, Müller drifted in to the center and had the most promising combinations with his theoretical counterpart on the left, Franck Ribery.
The formation morphed into something resembling a 4-3-1-2 leaning heavily to the left, as Müller played primarily in his favorite space behind Lewandowski. With the right wing left largely vacant, Corentin Tolisso pushed forward, putting him in the perfect position to become an offensive threat with a team-high 4 shots by halftime. With a majority of Bayern Munich's buildup coming from the left flank and Leverkusen’s from the right, Joshua Kimmich found himself uncharacteristically isolated.
The experiment ended after an hour, as Müller made way for Robben, restoring the right wing to a proper 4-3-3. Müller was not as integral to Bayern's offense as he might have been, but neither was he redundant.
Gifts from the Hoff: Rudy and Süle
Bayern's new signings from Hoffenheim look better with every match. It was a perfectly taken set piece by the two Hoffenheimers - a free kick by Rudy headed home by Süle - that opened the scoring for Bayern and the Bundesliga. These two clearly have lost none of the chemistry that powered Hoffenheim last season.
Süle's towering presence as an aerial threat makes him a perfect addition to Bayern's set-piece arsenal. It must be said, however, that the giant center-back occasionally looked unsure on his feet as he attempted to contain the fleet-footed Leon Bailey, Kevin Volland, and Julian Brandt.
Rudy played the role of the 6 perfectly. His only serious mistake - when he was beaten by Bellarabi, allowing a dangerous shot - occurred after he was elbowed in the face, a foul missed by the referee. Rudy was completely comfortable on the ball, hanging back to give orders and hold the fort while Arturo Vidal and Tolisso pressed forward.
Leave it to the Germans to get VAR right
The DFB has introduced the video assistant referee (VAR) to the Bundesliga, and it has already paid dividends. The first call for review occurred after Robert Lewandowski fell inside Leverkusen’s penalty area in the 52’ minute. On review, it was clear he had been pulled down by Charles Aranguiz. The verdict from the VAR office in Cologne was so certain that head referee Tobias Stieler immediately awarded Bayern the penalty, without reviewing the replay himself. Lewandowski converted it with almost mechanical precision.
New season, new style?
One of the more remarkable statistics of the match was possession: rather than dominate the ball, Bayern shared possession evenly with Leverkusen with each hovering around 50%. This concession of possession was reflected in Bayern’s willingness to push forward rapidly and counter with lightning-fast combinations.
The change in tempo was most apparent in the brilliant attack that led to Tolisso’s shot off the post in the 23’ minute: Alaba and Ribery drove the ball up the left flank, finding Vidal inside. Without missing a beat, Vidal slipped it on to Tolisso to take the shot. The combination happened in the blink of an eye. A chance deflection off of Leno’s body sent it into the post rather than the net. This is exciting soccer.
Signs of defensive vulnerability?
Bayern’s fluid offensive play, however, seemed to go hand in hand with a sometimes wobbly defense. Bayern frequently struggled to contain Leverkusen’s pacy forwards, whose own rapid-fire combinations opened up enough space to allow several dangerous shots. Karim Bellarabi in particular posed a constant threat on Bayern’s left. Fortunately for Bayern, Sven Ulreich proved equal to the task, making three spectacular saves to keep Leverkusen off the scoreboard before allowing a rocket of a shot by Admir Mehmedi in the second half.
Alaba in particular was missed on defense, as he tended to drop back late, leaving Mats Hummels exposed. Süle enjoyed better coverage from Kimmich, but even Bayern’s right wavered once Julian Brandt entered the game. Leverkusen capitalized almost immediately on the departure of Mats Hummels, who made way for Rafinha after suffering an injury. If Hummels has injured himself seriously before Süle acclimatizes to his role, Bayern's defense may get worse before it gets better.