One of the hot button issues among the Bayern Munich faithful is the team’s personnel out wide. There are many fans steadfastly in agreement that Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery should have ridden off into the sunset together after last season. But in reality, an exit was never really in the plans and the duo likely also knows it is probably no longer the primary option for Niko Kovač on the wing.
Despite that assertion, it does not mean the legendary twosome is dead weight on the roster and they could play a key role in ensuring that Kinglsey Coman and Serge Gnabry develop into Bayern’s “Next Generation” offering on the wing.
Beginning of the end
The International Champions Cup is the start of a retirement tour of sorts for the dynamic duo dubbed as “Robbery” - at least in terms of their respective careers in Munich. While the tour is touted as top competition among European heavyweights, it is really a promotional, brand-building tour for teams to market themselves in the United States, among other global destinations. How coaches use players and how much they play - and even how they perform - is largely inconsequential.
Frankly, this is the one chance many people abroad have to see greats like Robben and Ribery in person, so why deprive the masses? Anyone expecting the duo to be the wingers of choice once the Bundesliga and Champions League kick off, however, may be disappointed. While the twosome, at least in my estimation, still has some gas in the tank for this season, Coman and Gnabry are in the process of establishing themselves to be in the starting XI for important games.
Changing of the guard
Coman and Gnabry are both poised to be first-rate wingers, who can apply pressure and help create havoc with their pace. Coman was on his way breakthrough last season in 2017-2018 before succumbing to injury and Gnabry turned in an excellent season for Hoffenheim on a loan assignment.
Gnabry, will be surrounded by far more talent than he was at Hoffenheim, while Coman will hopefully continue the maturation process that he began under Pep Guardiola. While the numbers for each are a bit modest from last season, the potential for both in Munich is far greater:
- Coman stats: 7 goals and 8 assists across 33 games in all competitions
- Gnabry stats: 10 goals and 8 assists across 27 games in all competitions
If you could criticize either player for anything, it is that both could be considered a bit injury prone. That is where having the veteran presence of “Robbery” will pay dividends for Die Roten. If the Bayern faithful has learned anything over the years, it is that a good squad rotation can be the determining factor in helping stay competitive (and healthy) over the course of a grueling season. Perhaps the mix of youthful exuberance and veteran guile will allow Kovač to keep all four healthy for the majority of the season.
The depth can extend when needed
Thomas Müller is best when centrally based; in fact, when consistently receiving time in the middle of the field where he can roam to both find and create space, he is among the best at sparking an offense. Too many times over the past two years, however, Müller has found himself pushed out to the right wing where he is capable, but not nearly as effective as he is centrally.
Should three of the four aforementioned wingers go out with an injury, Müller can provide a different look from the wing position on a short-term basis, even if his talents are not maximized there. Also, with Bayern’s recent acquisition of Alphonso Davies, Die Roten could have multiple options available should Kovač decide to use the youngster on the first team.
There will be a time this season when vintage Robbery is needed and they’ll rise to the occasion
This may not be a popular stance, but the two veterans still have that capability to use their skill and experience to capitalize on a moment. Will it happen as frequently as it did in 2013? No, but that is what Coman and Gnabry are for.
Expectations around the wing position must change. The weight of production is going to be put on Coman and Gnabry unless they prove incapable of handling it; and you could do far worse than having “Robbery” as your backup winger tandem.
Assessing the risk
Injuries. If there has been anything that has hindered Bayern over recent seasons, it is the crippling effect of injuries. Admittedly, if the current set of wings has any kryptonite, it is the injury bug.
Last season alone, the wingers missed the following amount of games due to a variety of ailments:
- Robben: Missed 15 games due to injury across all competitions*
- Ribery: Missed 11 games due to injury across all competitions*
- Coman: Missed 20 games due to injury across all competitions*
- Gnabry: Missed 18 games due to injury across all competitions*
*Note this does not count games missed due to illnesses or “rest” days
With Davies arriving in January, Müller as a quick-service replacement, and the likes of the impressive Frank Evina on the Bayern campus, wholesale injuries may not be as major a deal as the past. As always, however, once the squad reaches the Champions League, Kovač will want to have his top choices available on the wing and those should be Coman and Gnabry - if healthy.
With rumors of Bayern’s interest in both Anthony Martial and Ante Rebić, the club may already be eyeing its 2019-2020 wing rotation plans, but until then, the foursome of Robben, Ribery, Coman, and Gnabry appears to be the unit Kovač will go to battle with.
Many factors will be at play this season and not the least of which is going to be Kovač’s ability to manage the egos in his locker room. With Robbery beginning their respective glide path to an exit and Coman and Gnabry (Cobry? Gnamon?) evolving into regulars, the new skipper will have to be careful and delicate to keep everyone happy and healthy.
With an explosive situation already brewing in the central midfield due to an excess of roster talent, Kovač’s tactics off-the-field may be just as important those on it. So far, it appears that Kovač has rolled out his plans to both Ribery and Robben and they were met without complaint, but the coach will be wise to find a way to ensure his players rotate enough to exploit their talent, while also keeping them out of the trainer’s room on a consistent basis.