With the Champions League looming, a 2-0 loss against Hertha Berlin on Friday has put Bayern Munich in a state of mini-crisis. Because of the draw against Augsburg a few days before, Niko Kovac, who was recently being hailed as a genius and innovator, is already in the fan-perception doghouse, so to speak.
There are even suggestions that Bayern may not even make it through Ajax Amsterdam on Tuesday. While it's nothing new for a coach of this club to meet with such criticism no matter what, there is no doubt that certain mistakes were made in Berlin that cannot be allowed to repeat themselves.
Personally, I'm sure that Kovac already knows what changes he has to make, and anything I write in this article won't be news to him. However, by examining and understanding why some changes are needed we can better understand the state of Bayern Munich today. To that end, here are three crucial changes Niko Kovac needs to make for Bayern Munich to beat Ajax:
#1: Give Serge Gnabry 90 minutes on the left
I'll be charitable and say that Arjen Robben does an acceptable job on the right wing. Despite the fact the he's as selfish as ever and lacks the pace he had in his youth, the Dutchman's left foot is like a WMD and can bust open even the most resolute defense. He should drop to the bench when Kingsley Coman comes back from injury, but that's a conversation for a later date. For now, let's talk Franck Ribery and Serge Gnabry.
Franck Ribery was simultaneously our most effective and least effective attacker against Berlin. He kept getting into space behind the defense because of his overlapping runs with David Alaba, but the final ball was missing at every turn. Bayern had 14 corners on the night, and most of them came from the left, where Franck Ribery either failed to beat his man or deliver a cross.
Instead of Ribery, Kovac has to try Serge Gnabry on the left. The young German is well-rested and absolutely ready to go. Since Bayern Munich relies on wing-play, we could use his speed and scoring ability against Ajax’s fullbacks, who will doubtless be ready for a 35-year old Frenchman with no pace. A lot of Bayern’s scoring issues would disappear if Gnabry were allowed to play a full 90 on the left.
#2: Put Thomas Muller in behind Robert Lewandowski
During the Berlin game, did you ever wonder how Hertha always seemed to have three men marking Lewandowski at all times? That’s what happens when you rely on a lone target man with no support inside the box. Robert Lewandowski needs someone to direct attention away from him to be at his most effective, otherwise an organized defense can shut him down easily.
That someone is Thomas Muller. Even when he isn’t directly scoring or assisting, Thomas Muller creates space for his teammates to operate. His spatial awareness means that the little dummies and flicks he does often set up teammates for good chances. He is also a 6ft tall German striker with and eye for goal and the lungs of a horse — his mere presence divides the attention of opposition defenders and creates scoring opportunities.
And finally, before people break into an uproar, this doesn’t mean James Rodriguez has to be benched. James and Muller perform best when paired together, which is why Jupp Heynckes chose to start BOTH of them in a semifinal against Real Madrid. Both Muller and James didn’t play the full-90 against Berlin, so it’s likely that they will do so in midweek.
#3: Bench Jerome Boateng for Mats Hummels
Now, this one is self-explanatory. Jerome Boateng has been shaky as of late, and I’m not just talking about the Berlin game. When compared to Mats Hummels, Boateng just isn’t performing the way a Bayern Munich player should. He still passes well, but his defensive consistency within a game is lacking. One moment, he may be bossing the defense like it’s 2015, while the next he may commit some catastrophic error.
I’m not saying that Boateng has been bad, but neither Hummels nor Sule have made the kind of critical errors that Boateng has made recently. Meanwhile, his saving grace — the famed long-passing ability — has been off the mark this season. Boateng was wasteful with his long balls against Hertha berlin. He attempted 21, and only seven found a target. Perhaps, in the interests of a little bit more defensive solidity against Ajax, Jerome Boateng should sit this one out.