What difference a month makes: the Bayern Munich that played against Ajax Amsterdam yesterday in a spectacular Champions League duel was very different from the team that hosted the young Dutchmen at the Allianz Arena in October. Beyond the different names in the starting lineup, it was the team’s general tactical approach that stood out most in this wild game against a very young but very fast opponent.
Could we have just seen a glimpse of the future into which Niko Kovac and the front office are leading the club?
Unbeknownst to Niko Kovac when he drew of the starting lineup against Ajax in October, Bayern was about to play its third consecutive game without a victory — following a 1-1 draw against Augsburg and a 0-2 away loss to Hertha Berlin — the third of its four-game “mini-crisis.” Kovac had rotated for those prior two disappointments and so he started virtually the same lineup that Jupp Heynckes had relied on for most of the 2017-2018 season:
Neuer — Kimmich, Boateng, Hummels, Alaba — Javi, Thiago — Ribery, Müller, Robben — Lewandowski
Bayern played its game, but the result was embarrassment. Bayern’s defense was on its heels for much of the match, conceding early but fortunately preventing further damage, while the offense was utterly ineffective, the lone goal being a Mats Hummels header off a set piece. The style of play was reminiscent of the most frustrating games of the Guardiola era: unrivaled in possession, but exposed and beaten on the counter. The overall stats tell the story:
Bayern enjoyed 60% possession to just 40% for Ajax, but failed to create more shots than their swift opponents and failed to make good any shots from open play. Ajax even put more of their shots on target — 7/15 versus just 4/15 for mighty Bayern. The team was outdribbled by the little Dutch boys and outperformed overall on their home turf.
For the rematch in Amsterdam, Niko Kovac switched the game plan on Ajax completely. Within the opening minutes of the game, the pattern was clear: Bayern gave Ajax the ball and let the youngsters come at them. That translated into a few dangerous crosses from Bayern’s left flank until David Alaba and Franck Ribery doubled down on defense. The upshot was a surprising new development: Bayern countered Ajax.
Serge Gnabry drove dangerously close to Ajax’s goal within the first two minutes of the game, firing a shot wide of the net. With his dribbling and pace, Gnabry was the key man in Bayern’s offense. He surged (Serged?) forward in the 9th minute on a genuine counter with a three vs two advantage — only to play the ball into the keeper’s arms rather than pass to Lewandowski! Gnabry redeemed himself minutes later with a fantastic assist to Lewandowski, and so Bayern enjoyed a 1-0 lead at halftime. It could have been more.
Even after the ensuing drama of two red cards and two penalties, the match stats from the game reflect the overall tenor of the match:
Bayern ended with only 46% possession. It was approximately 40% at halftime, when Kovac’s game plan was still intact.
A work in progress
Although Bayern executed dangerous counters that created legitimate chances, it was hardly a master-class in counter-attacking soccer. Ajax’s dominance in possession also translated into legitimate attacks on Bayern’s defense, which clearly is not yet disciplined enough to execute this — ahem — Eintracht-like game plan. Setting aside the chaos of the final half hour of play with its red cards and penalties, Bayern’s defense initially struggled to prevent crosses and was also vulnerable to attacks through the middle, as the midfield tandem of Leon Goretzka and Joshua Kimmich fell short of expectations. For all Goretzka’s tackles and Kimmich’s running, it was Ajax’s midfield that really controlled the game.
But Kovac and Bayern have something to build on. Since both Kingsley Coman and Thiago Alcantara were coming off of injuries (long-term injury in Coman’s case), neither was ready to start this match. But if Thiago returns as Bayern’s primary defensive midfielder, both Bayern’s midfield should gain stability, and Bayern’s defense should regain its world-class right-back. If Coman then also reclaims Ribery’s place in the starting lineup, this team could implement a more secure, even pacier form of Kovac’s counter-attacking plan — and not even necessarily be tied to it. It would be a viable option instead of the usual, possession soccer we all know and sometimes love.
The key question for Bayern is the same one that has dogged the team since that fateful draw against Augsburg: can Bayern’s central defense still rise to the challenge? Manuel Neuer is the captain of the team and already a club legend. Despite his ongoing struggles, benching him for Sven Ulreich is out of the question. A fundamental lack or loss of pace has pushed Mats Hummels out of the starting lineup. Jerome Boateng and new starter Niklas Süle meanwhile continue to make costly errors that no tactical game plan can fix.
Bayern has been constantly linked with center-backs in the press. Ajax’s own Matthijs de Ligt is hypothetically the club’s number-one target, while Stuttgart’s Benjamin Pavard is supposedly already on his way here this summer. Could a young, speedy center-back like De Ligt or Pavard and a healthy roster be the final ingredients in a new, more flexible system at Bayern? Despite the final disappointment of a chaotic 3-3 result that could have gone in Bayern’s favor, Kovac and his supporters in Bayern’s front office, may have given us a glimpse of the next phase in Bayern’s evolution, whether it emerges next season or even next year.