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Mats Hummels and Arjen Robben benched for the season opener

Niko Kovac has made the first of many hard decisions as he shakes up the hierarchies of both Bayern’s offense and defense.

MUNICH, GERMANY - OCTOBER 18: Mats Hummels (C) of FC Bayern Muenchen celebrates his first goal with teammate Arjen Robben during the UEFA Champions League group B match between Bayern Muenchen and Celtic FC at Allianz Arena on October 18, 2017 in Munich, Germany.
“At least we have each other, Arjen.”
Photo by A. Beier/Getty Images for FC Bayern

If you have not already seen the starting lineup of Bayern Munich’s season opener against TSG Hoffenheim, it featured two major moves. First, as some anticipated — or perhaps hoped — iconic right winger Arjen Robben is not in the starting lineup. Instead, his place has been taken by Frenchman Kingsley Coman. The second, even greater surprise: Mats Hummels has made way for Niklas Süle, who will play alongside Jerome Boateng at center-back.

Robben makes way before Ribery

The decision regarding Robben is relatively easy to understand: Coman was far and away Bayern’s most dangerous offensive player on the wings last season prior to his season-ending injury in late 2017. It is not surprising that he should push someone out of the starting lineup. What is surprising is that it is Robben rather than Ribery. Coman’s countryman already seemed on his way out of Munich last season, yet a late-season surge in Coman’s absence and gritty training and spirited play in Bayern’s summer friendlies have secured his place for now.

Since Coman can play on the right as well, as the left, he gives Kovac the perfect opportunity to make two changes with just one substitution: we should perhaps expect Robben to come on in the second half as a supersub, not for Coman, but for Ribery. Coman can then shift to the left and continue to run at Hoffenheim’s defense.

The curious case of Mats Hummels

As for Hummels, Kovac’s selection of Süle and Boateng ahead of him is very interesting indeed. Word has spread that Kovac and Bayern’s management intend to make Süle the captain of Bayern’s defense. In other words, he will be the first choice player every game, while Süle and Hummels contend for the other spot. That is a reversal of last season’s situation, when Hummels seemed guaranteed to start and Süle and Boateng split time at the other position.

There could be other reasons for favoring Süle and Boateng in this match. Hummels has been spectacularly awful at converting clear chances for months — stretching back to the World Cup in Russia and beyond. He moreover was guilty of a red-card worthy foul on Mijat Gacinovic in the DFL-Supercup that went unpunished but not unnoticed. Kovac may be wary of the center-back’s current form.

Kovac has also, however, consistently touted Boateng’s excellence despite ongoing efforts by the club — especially CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge — to offload their former first defender this summer. While the stars, and PSG’s accounting books, have so far failed to align to make Boateng a viable option for them, Kovac may see these initial games as an opportunity to make Boateng a crucial part of his own defense and thus less likely to be sold.

We will see the results of these lineup choices play out imminently. Stay tuned.

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