Bayern walked away from their DFB-Pokal clash against VfL Bochum with an uninspiring win, needing two late goals from Serge Gnabry and Thomas Müller to overcome an unlucky own-goal by Alphonso Davies in the first half to win 2:1.
Bayern in the 4-1-4-1
Sitting both Müller and Philippe Coutinho, Niko Kovac chose to line Bayern up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, deploying Leon Goretzka and Corentin Tolisso ahead of Thiago, who operated at the base of midfield. Unfortunately, it didn't really work. Goretzka and Tolisso were deployed quite high in build-up play, mimicking the positioning of 10s rather than 8s. This created too much space between defense and attack, and Bayern’s build-up players (Thiago, Boateng, Pavard) found it difficult to consistently open up play through the middle and play line-breaking passes.
But not only were Goretzka and Tolisso operating too high; they usually roamed too close to Bochum’s defenders to be considered passing options anyway. This resulted in a limited number of passing options for ball carriers and no real way for them to penetrate consistently and dangerously into the final third. Bayern often fell into their U shape, where the ball wanders around the back from side to side, with no pace or penetration. It makes it very hard to create chances and find ways to get in front of goal consistently.
Often this stagnant play resulted in dangerous passes being played and intercepted/cleared, or Bayern resorted to playing long balls in behind the defense, which is tough to do against opposition that leaves little space behind its back line. Bochum, who lined up in a 4-4-2, did well getting behind the ball, where they stood compact and covered Bayern’s passing options in the center. Consequently, this led to countering opportunities for Bochum, in which they could move upfield quickly with their two strikers and two wide-midfielders. With Bayerns high 10s and wingers, this gave Bochum a number of opportunities where they ran at Bayern’s defense in equal numbers.
Change in the second half
Niko Kovac changed Bayern’s system coming out of halftime, deploying Tolisso deeper in midfield next to Thiago and leaving Goretzka to operate as the lone 10 behind Robert Lewandowski, who came on for Ivan Perisic. This helped Thiago and the center-backs, as they had another option playing out from the back, and helped unclutter the front-line, which often saw as many as five Bayern players standing equally deep, and equally far away from the line of play. Build-up became easier, and outplaying Bochum’s front attacking line of two central attackers proved to be easier. Bayern finally found a way to get deeper into Bochum’s half from time to time.
Nonetheless, Bayern still looked poor and sloppy with the ball. Passes were misplaced, first touches were heavy, and the team showed a lack of cohesion and mental quickness when in possession to create spaces and openings. They still found it hard to advance play into dangerous areas consistently.
Individuals make the difference
Once Bayern brought on Lewandowski for Perisic and Coutinho for Goretzka, and Müller for Tolisso later on, things changed for the better for Bayern. Lewandowski brought life into the attack where Gnabry couldn’t, dropping deep on occasion to help in build-up as well, especially when facilitating play from one wing to the other. With the help of Coutinho and eventually Müller, Bayern had more success finding open spaces and breaking Bochum’s defensive lines.
Müller and Coutinho really couldn’t be more different technically as footballers, but mentally they both operate on a high level. Both have the ability to find and create space to allow play to move forward, and when they are on the ball, they’re quick decision-makers that upset defensive lines.
Their introduction changed the game clearly in Bayern’s favor for the first time in the game. They played faster and more directly, and what had been three or four touches before playing a ball in the first half, turned into one or two touches after the break. Eventually they got their two goals, one including where Lewandowski dropped in between the midfield and defensive line to get ball, and the other Müller Müller-ing it into net after a nice cross from Coutinho that Coman volley’d back into the middle to Müller.
Same old problems
While Bayern’s play in the final 20 minutes allowed them to squeak out a W in a must-win game against a 2nd Bundesliga opponent, this performance did nothing to silence the critics that have reared their heads again in recent weeks. Bayern’s ability to control games and outplay their opponents as they did in the past under different managers has seemingly diminished, and it has shown in the results since the 7-2 win over Tottenham. A total of nine Points from five games with a goal difference of +2 against Hoffenheim, Augsburg, Olympiacos, Union Berlin, and VfL Bochum is simply not good enough, and while you could argue that Bayern might have scored a goal or two more with better chance conversion, it’s the team’s overall play that’s more worrying than the results themselves.
In the end, these are the same problems that plagued the team for long stretches last year. Too often, the team relies on moments of brilliance from particular players (see: Lewandowski, Robert) to win games, and when those moments fail to appear, as they did for first 70 minutes today, Bayern has a hard time breaking opponents down. There is no clear tactical structure or plan, an idea of how the team is going to progress the ball from point A to point B and consistently put the opposition under pressure. Teams no longer fear Bayern, because Bayern doesn’t give them a reason to be afraid. As Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said, unless Bayern “turns a corner,” they will fall short of expectations this year. Bayern had better hope they find that corner fast, because they travel to Frankfurt on Saturday, and then play twice at home against Olympiacos and Dortmund in what could be a derby with job implications.