Early Defensive Miscues doomed Bayern Munich
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Bayern Munich are a talented team with a great defense. Unfortunately, sometimes defenses have rough days. As far as this match is concerned, Mats Hummels, Niklas Sule, and Manuel Neuer had a rough first 20 minutes, and full credit goes to Borussia Mönchengladbach. Die Fohlen capitalized perfectly on the openings they had — and they were big openings — and Bayern Munich never recovered.
I don’t think there is anything anyone can ever plan for when Manuel Neuer plays the risky passes he’s always played, midfielders take heavy touches, and ‘Gladbach presses intensely and wins easy attacks that result in goals. After that ‘Gladbach did what that they have always done best against Bayern over the last 5+ years; staunchly defend and eviscerate them on the counterattack. It really hurts that this time it was at the Allianz Arena.
Putting Bayern Munich’s current form into context over the last decade
Bayern Munich are in 5th place in the Bundesliga. The last time Bayern Munich were in 5th place or lower in the league after seven matches was in 2010-2011 under Louis Van Gaal. They have spent the intervening 8 years since that time in the Champions League spots.
Midfield Design in the 4-1-4-1 and why Thiago as a lone pivot is not working
At the theoretical level, the 4-1-4-1 is a very intriguing formation. It sacrifices so much defensive presence and re-structures your team around the lone pivot. It’s a great formation when you have Toni Kroos who can do anything in midfield. Unfortunately, there is only one Toni Kroos and he doesn’t play for Bayern Munich, as much as Niko Kovac likes to pretend that Thiago is somehow equivalent.
For Thiago, he’s not a player who thrives in a regimented, structured role. He is always at his best at Bayern when supported by the likes of Arturo Vidal or Javi Martinez. Those players are capable of structured, disciplined play that allows Thiago to flourish with improvisation, quick movements, and freedom of play.
When you paste Thiago into a role and force discipline on him, he’s ultimately just a simple regista with limited defensive upside, isolated from his teammates and forced to rely solely on his passing acumen. Niko Kovac made a significant change early in the second half when he brought on Renato Sanches. From that moment on, Thiago’s play was unpredictable and he excelled in driving Bayern forward.
Niko Kovac’s curious choices and why Serge Gnabry needs to be on the pitch more
Bayern Munich’s first half was abysmal. They were systemically unable to generate any offensive impetus leading to a half of unwatchable soccer. This was a problem for Bayern that came from two main factors:
- Separating James and Thomas Mueller — What worked so well against Schalke 04 was the way in which James and Mueller played off each other, exchanging and alternating runs and crossing. This gave Schalke fits. And in this match Kovac stuck Mueller and James as far as possible away from each other and then paired Mueller with the corpse of Arjen Robben.
- Arjen Robben — Arjen Robben’s real age has always threatened to match his hair game’s age and the Dutchmen has been able to keep that collision of factors at bay. Unfortunately, time has run out.
Those two factors, in conjunction with Kovac’s utilization of Thiago, underline serious problems for Bayern Munich. A real solution to this problem is for Serge Gnabry to be one of the first names on Kovac’s team sheet each week. Gnabry is one of the direct wide attacking threats this team can count on right now — Ribery is Ribery, Coman is injured — and he needs to be on the field.
Arjen Robben still has things to offer this team, but he can’t do that if systemic issues elsewhere undermine the team’s core attack. James and Mueller are a potent threat, but they need to be deployed together and alternate combinations are ineffective. Robert Lewandowski can’t make magic happen every game on his own. And Leon Goretzka has to play because someone besides the center-backs has to play defense on this team. All of those factors together means Kovac needs to make tough choices and play a young kid, because it’s the only way to make the rest of the team work in tactical harmony.
Reconciling the last 20 minutes of this match and where Bayern Munich goes from here
It’s hard for me to be too critical of this team. As we saw in the final 20+ minutes of this game, Bayern were a force to be reckoned with. They had ‘Gladbach under constant pressure and only the offside flag prevented Bayern from getting on the scoresheet. They were dynamic, explosive and hungry. Contrasted with the ugly performance they displayed in the previous 60+ minutes and myriad tactical issues, it’s not hard to see where Bayern needs to go from here: the pieces are all in place; the players they need are there.
For some reason, Kovac can’t get out of his own way to solve the tactical puzzle. For some reason, there is a player mutiny going on against the coach over playing time. All this, from opening up the Champions League with a 1-1 drawing against Ajax and dropping eight points in the league in two weeks, is something that happens to all teams. But it is crucial to understand here that this is something that Bayern hasn’t experienced in almost a decade. It’s takes patience and understanding. And right now the players — and most assuredly the fans — don’t seem particularly keen on fact.
Also David Alaba got injured and Bayern Munich sold it’s only backup leftback to PSG in August. So that’s fun.