Just as it seemed that Bayern Munich had shaken off their malaise, a 1-1 draw with Freiburg at the Allianz Arena means Bayern have now failed to win at home on four consecutive occasions for the first time since 2001. Manuel Neuer now owns an alarming statistic: of the last eight shots on target that opposing teams have registered against Bayern, all eight of them have been goals.
The eight shots stretch back to the 1-1 draw with Ajax in the Champions League. In that stretch of matches (7) up until the draw with Freiburg, Bayern have alarmingly conceded a total of eight goals, which means that they’re giving up at least a goal per match at that rate, which simply isn’t good enough for Niko Kovac and company.
Although the statistics will tell you that Manuel Neuer has conceded eight goals from the last eight shots on frame, he’s hardly the one to blame for the majority of those goals. Rather, the concession rate seems to suggest that opposing teams are finding ways to get at Bayern when they’re at their most vulnerable and getting into the right areas to make Bayern pay for mistakes, complacency, and/or lapses in concentration.
Is there a basic blueprint for scoring on Bayern?
What’s been even more frustrating than Bayern’s concession rate is the nature in which many of the goals have been given up. In the seven-match span between Ajax and Freiburg, Bayern have out-shot their opponents by a total 133 to 57, but only have a goal differential of +3 (11 goals for, 8 against) to show for it.
Niklas Süle the weak link?
In the matches against Freiburg, SV Rödinghausen, Mainz, Wolfsburg, and Borussia Mönchengladbach, five of the seven goals Bayern conceded came directly from crosses and a complete failure to defend them. As a result of rotation to the starting lineup by Kovac, a few different combinations comprised Bayern’s back line in those matches, but the problem of defending crosses remained constant.
In part because of injuries, we’ve rarely seen the center-back pairing of Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummls this season — four times to be precise. From the four matches that Boateng and Hummels started, Bayern have only conceded 1 goal (against Ajax) and have boasted a goal difference of +6. When the starting lineup has consisted of Süle and either Hummels or Boateng (barring the match against SV Rödinghausen), Bayern have conceded 11 goals and have a goal difference of +5. That record raises an interesting question: should the go-to center-back pairing be Boateng and Hummels if they’re both fit?
Freiburg’s late equalizer was a perfect example of the way in which Bayern has been made to pay for failing to defend crosses. All it took for Lucas Höler to find the back of the net was the slightest hesitation by Niklas Süle. You can see that Süle stops running with Höler for a split second, anticipating that Jerome Boateng was there to close down the space.
Whether he and Boateng communicated verbally is unclear, but the center-backs were in deep discussion just after the goal was scored. Boateng appeared to be irate that Süle had stopped running with Höler. From such close range, there was absolutely nothing Neuer could do to save the goal.
Freiburg tie it!!!— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) November 3, 2018
Lucas Höler finds the back of the net in the 89' pic.twitter.com/viHB4LaHRi
Despite winning the match 2-1, Bayern fell victim to a similar scenario when Mainz equalized through Jean-Paul Boëtius right at the start of the second half. As the cross came in to Bayern’s box, Joshua Kimmich was a half-step too slow in closing Boëtius down, and the midfielder was able to fire home from close range, giving Neuer little to no chance of making a play on it, much to his clearly-visible frustration:
Mainz score their first goal since Matchday 3 and it comes against the record champions! It's 1-1 on FS2! pic.twitter.com/GGbosoPNku— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) October 27, 2018
Sit deep, absorb pressure, wait for the moment to strike
The expectation of winning virtually every match for Bayern also seems to have a cruel way of biting them where it hurts far too often. There seems to be a cycle that transpires every time they play an opponent that, on paper, they should 100% be beating. It’s almost as if it has a reverse psychological effect: the longer Bayern goes without scoring in games they should win, the more frustrated the players get. Opponents sniff it out, as Bayern tries to force the issue. Once they desperately commit numbers forward, they leave a lot of space behind the midfield and just in front of the back line, and that’s where teams hurt them.
Dieter Hecking and his Borussia Mönchengladbach side demonstrated perfectly how to set up to make Bayern pay for their mistakes when they left the Allianz Arena with a 3-0 victory. Their defensive block sat deep, was well-organized, and they picked their few moments to venture forward. Bayern out-possessed ‘Gladbach 72% to 28% and out-shot them 14-7 (via WhoScored), but ‘Gladbach scored with their 3 shots on target. The longer they were able to sit back and absorb pressure, the greater the risks Bayern took, leaving themselves vulnerable to counter-attacks.
What’s the answer for Bayern?
While there’s no panacea for Bayern’s frailties, Niko Kovac could address some of the issues in his training sessions. For one, Kovac could consider setting up more conservatively, utilizing more than one holding midifielder if appropriate and if the players are available. The injuries to Thiago and Corentin Tolisso, of course, limits his options, but perhaps a more defensively discipline midfield pivot could significantly reduce Bayern’s susceptibility to being caught out on the counter. Kovac has made a point of stressing to all of his midfielders and attackers that they need to work hard on both sides of the ball, so setting up with a protective midfield could help mitigate the risk.
Additionally, Kovac could also experiment with using two strikers right from the get-go, especially with the amount of injuries to the midfield. We’ve scarcely seen Sandro Wagner and Robert Lewandowski on the pitch at the same time, and he could also potentially pair Serge Gnabry up top with either of those two.
Starting with two strikers could force the opposition to stay far more defensively honest, making it a lot more difficult to spring counter attacks and try to catch Bayern on the break. With maximum numbers committed in defense, oppositions could have a harder time getting anything going in the attacking third, as they’d always have two strikers to keep track of in addition to the forward surge from Bayern’s midfielders and wing backs.