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Three observations from Bayern Munich’s 2-0 victory over Benfica

It was a magical day for Renato Sanches, but he has Niko Kovac to thank for creating the magic in Bayern’s midfield.

SL Benfica v FC Bayern Muenchen - UEFA Champions League Group E Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images

Robben and Ribery are not (quite) enough

Bayern Munich was fairly disappointing on the wings today, but it did not really hurt the team. Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben were not able to beat Benfica’s defense single-handed. While Ribery received the ball fairly often in the first half, he was not able to convert that possession into dangerous chances. Robben had somewhat better luck with his passing game, but he too was unable to create individually. Where Bayern — and Kovac’s planning — succeeded, however, was that their slowness on the wings was compensated by speed in the midfield, as James Rodriguez and especially Renato Sanches roamed at will to drive the offense forward from the center.

Renato Sanches finds himself in Lisbon

Sometimes a soccer match plays out as if scripted. A year ago Bayern’s troubled golden boy Renato Sanches looked like a bad investment, not evening making the squad to witness Swansea City’s relegation in person. Yet despite rumors of a sale or loan, Niko Kovac resolved to make the youngster his personal project, and that confidence is already paying dividends. An untimely, yet opportune injury to Thiago Alcantara all but opened the door for Sanches to start against his home club, Benfica, in Bayern’s opening Champions League game. After some hiccups in the first half, Sanches found his place as an aggressive, box-to-box midfielder, literally charging from box to box as he launched the fast-paced attack that resulted in a goal that saw the fans of Benfica themselves rise up to applaud him. The performance was not perfect, but Niko Kovac has transformed a lost cause into a valuable player in just his few short months with the club.

Niko Kovac nailed it

Bayern Munich’s head coach has done everything right. As the season progresses, Kovac looks more and more like an even better choice than the most optimistic of us anticipated. He has introduced and stuck to a consistent rotation policy in every area of the lineup, defense, midfield, and offense. Today Niklas Süle sat out for Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng; Thomas Müller made way for James Rodriguez, who at last started; and Serge Gnabry waited until the hour mark when he replaced Franck Ribery to run at Benfica’s defense.

Kovac has also made Bayern noticeably more fluid in the midfield — almost too fluid, as he seems to have reined Sanches in somewhat after the first half — allowing the team to threaten from the middle of the pitch instead of relying entirely on crosses from the wings. The team has also proven more resilient to counters, although having Manuel Neuer on hand to swat away real threats is never a bad thing. Barring a few missteps, today was a very solid, satisfying performance, especially in the second half.

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