What year is it again? Robbery dazzle
I expected only one half of Robbery to start today, Franck Ribery, and largely because he is Bayern’s only healthy player who can play on the left wing. But Jupp Heynckes certainly proved me—and others—wrong by starting both. Even despite the fact that Bayer Leverkusen is one of the most aggressive, in-form teams in the Bundesliga right now, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery had their number practically all evening.
Ribery was rewarded with an assist and two key passes, and his dribbles into Leverkusen’s penalty area triggered multiple chances and two goals. Robben was even better: he likewise took three shots of his own, recorded two assists, and three made key passes—and one of those assists should have been his own goal. Jupp Heynckes has gotten these two veterans in this form; now he has to keep them there for two more months.
Boateng is a big part of Bayern’s offense
Did you notice how Jerome Boateng set up Bayern’s opening goal in just the 3rd minute of the game? Today, of Bayern’s two central defenders, it was clearly Boateng’s job to push forward, drive Bayern’s offense, and be the first line of defense, while Mats Hummels lingered behind to safeguard Sven Ulreich. Boateng was everywhere, especially in the first half of the match. His long balls into the box are an integral part of Bayern’s attacking strategy, often catching opposing defenses off guard. This division of labor seems to work similarly to Heynckes’s approach to Bayern’s central midfield, where he often splits duties between an offensive partner (Vidal, when healthy—today Thiago) and a defensive partner (Javi Martinez).
Sven Ulreich really deserves a chance at the World Cup
To be frank: I agreed with Ulreich’s own response months ago, when he dismissed speculation over whether Jogi Löw might call up Bayern’s second keeper to represent Germany at the World Cup. After watching him all season, and especially after today, I have changed my mind: Ulreich deserves a call-up. Manuel Neuer is rehabilitating and will be fit to play, while Marc-André Ter Stegen is undoubtedly Löw's no. 2. But that third spot—if I had to choose between Bernd Leno, who has consistently underperformed his opponents' xG, and Kevin Trapp, who has been completely out of form after warming the bench for PSG, and Ulreich—if I had to choose, I would take Sven. He is truly playing like a world class keeper, and it is not an optical illusion as if he’s hiding behind an elite defense. Ulreich made spectacular saves today, as he has all season. It is truly incredible that he is and will remain Bayern’s second keeper (he recently extended his contract three years through 2021).
Thiago shows up, when his teammates show up
Thiago actually had a fairly quiet first half today while Leverkusen defended relatively well. Although Thiago was virtually guaranteed to play today, I had expected James Rodriguez to assume the play-making role alongside Thomas Müller, but James stayed on the bench. Thiago meanwhile hit his stride in the second half. Perhaps it was Leverkusen coach Heiko Herrlich’s decision to sacrifice a defender and switch to a 3-4-3 system with Leon Bailey that opened up the space for Thiago. Whatever it was, the results were almost instantaneous. The massacre began with a pinpoint pass to Thomas Müller, who had gained just the inch of space he needed from Jonathan Tah: 3-1 Bayern the result. Minutes later, Thiago himself scored, as he rushed forward to provide an outlet in Leverkusen's box for Robben. 4-1 Bayern. Thiago found Müller yet again off a free kick in the 78th minute, producing the final score of 6-2 minutes before both he and Müller were substituted off. Thiago's ability to contribute seems contingent on that of his teammates to find space in the opponents' half. If Bayern's offense can find space, Thiago can find them. Against more compact defenses, however, Thiago often seems frustrated and ineffective, although his defensive contributes are also nothing to scoff at.
Just last season, many speculated that Thomas Müller might be done. His confidence seemed shattered; he was missing open chances; coach Carlo Ancelotti seemed to have given up on him—or was at a loss how to use Müller. All of us are thankful those days are behind us. Thomas Müller is himself again, and it is wonderful. Since Louis Van Gaal promoted him to the first team (Müller was still playing in the 3. Liga in the 2008/09 season), Müller typically averages double digits in goals and assists. He enjoyed a career year under Pep Guardiola in 2015/16 with 32 goals and 12 assists across competitions, before falling off a cliff under Carlo Ancelotti—scoring only 9 times, although still registering 17 assists. This year, he is well on track to his spectacular norm.
Today was a case in point: two indisputable goals, and a hat-trick on a technicality—unwillingly poaching a goal from Arjen Robben. Müller has confidence and is doing what he does best: finding space. If his teammates can capitalize on Müller's unorthodox gifts, goals happen. If this team can harness the same momentum against Real Madrid, the Galacticos should beware.