When Bayern Munich sacked Niko Kovac and hired Hansi Flick as interim coach, no one expected much from him. Common consensus suggested that Kovac had been hard done by, and the players had to shoulder the blame. However, within a week, Bayern’s new interim coach flipped the narrative on its head, orchestrating dominant displays against Olympiacos and Borussia Dortmund.
Very soon, Bayern were back on track. In Flick, the Bavarians seemed to have found the solution to all their problems. The former World Cup-winning assistant coach brought free-flowing, possession-based football back to Munich and instituted a rigorous system of gegenpressing that rendered opposition offenses impotent. In Flick’s first four games in charge, Bayern scored 16 unanswered goals, conceding a mere two shots on target.
Everything looked good. The Bavarians were loving life. However, following the triumph against Red Star, things started to go sour. Bayer Leverkusen delivered the first sucker punch, scoring two easy goals past a defense that had previously seemed airtight. However, Bayern had created a plethora of chances, so the loss was dismissed. Then came Gladbach. Another 2-1 loss, this time far more damaging.
Despite dominating the entire first half, Bayern showed remarkable impotence in front of goal, and even though Ivan Perisic scored the opening goal, the team was unable to capitalize and quickly lost control of the match. Mönchengladbach roared back to life and staged a comeback — they won 2-1 despite scoring zero goals from open play.
Now the Bavarians find themselves 7th place in the table, behind even Borussia Dortmund, whom they thrashed 4-0 earlier in the month.
What’s gone wrong? The easy solution is to blame the players — after all, they are the same ones who got Niko Kovac fired a month ago. Of course, there are also those who may question Flick, ascribing his incredible start to the well-documented phenomenon of “new-manager bounce,” so clearly shown by the appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United last season.
So which one is it? Are the players not good enough, or is Flick another Ole? Let’s take a look at the issues in the team.
A floundering offense
Bayern’s latest slump has coincided with a devastatingly poor spell of finishing. Against Leverkusen and Gladbach, the club created 39 shots but scored only 2 goals. However, that hides the fact that, compared to previous games, Bayern Munich’s overall “expected goals” (xG) fell against both teams. Against Leverkusen, Bayern only had an expected goals total of 2.25, and against Gladbach it was 1.74.
This suggests that the Bavarians are running into some serious issues in offense. An xg/shot of 0.1 doesn’t really suggest that quality chances are being created. However, there have also been several huge misses — in the last two games, Bayern have failed to score from 5 shots with an xG of 0.3 or more. That’s five HUGE chances that have been missed.
So there’s an obvious problem with finishing. Robert Lewandowski’s scoring form has run dry as of late, putting a strain on the rest of the offense. Serge Gnabry had a nightmare against Bayer, and Kingsley Coman spent most of the Gladbach game dribbling instead of shooting. Only Thomas Müller seems to be able to produce anything in offense lately, but even his marksmanship leaves much to be desired.
There’s no obvious solution in sight. The players simply have to get their heads straight; there’s nothing any coach can really do. This one’s on them.
Overconfidence in defense
Now here’s an issue that’s partially on Flick, partially on the team. Ever since the BVB game, Bayern’s defensive line has been pushing higher and higher up the pitch, leading to more exploitable gaps behind the defenders. The Leverkusen game was the wake-up call — the team pushed up way too far, and left acres of space for a speed demon like Leon Bailey to run into.
Honestly, it’s no wonder they conceded goals. There’s also the huge issue of Leon Goretzka’s positioning. Goretzka started out in a Bastian Schweinsteiger-esque role under Flick, sitting next to Joshua Kimmich and helping protect the defense while progressing the ball. However, as games have gone by, Goretzka has been venturing further and further up the pitch. This change is starkly demonstrated using the passmaps available on betweentheposts.net (they’re awesome by the way, check them out if you haven’t already):
Compared to his more conservative role in the BVB game, Goretzka found himself as far up the pitch as Thomas Müller against Gladbach, leaving Thiago isolated in defense and a large hole in midfield that Gladbach could exploit.
Bosz and Rose exploited this cession of control in the midfield to pressure Bayern’s midfielders with a high press, forcing turnovers that turned into quick counterattacks. With Niklas Süle and Lucas Hernandez both injured, Hansi Flick is forced to play with Javi Martinez — and fast counters vs. Javi is a recipe for disaster.
Bayern’s defensive problems are both a player issue and a defensive issue. While having more defenders available would certainly make things easier, the coach needs to take responsibly and rein in his players — most notably Goretzka and Kimmich — who have been pushing far too high up lately.
Tactical changes, such as moving Benjamin Pavard to center-back and Javi Martinez to defensive midfield, might also help. Leaving Thiago Alcantara alone to fend for himself is certainly not the answer, as we saw in the Gladbach game. The pieces of a good defense are available — it’s the coach’s job to put them together.
Fatigue gripping the team?
Of course, tactical and mental deficiencies can only explain so much. In reality, the most important reason for Bayern’s catastrophic turn of form has been the fact that the players may be suffering from fatigue.
The evidence is there:
- Hansi Flick’s unusually aggressive rotation policy since the international break.
- An extra day off for the players just a few days before they faced Gladbach, despite the absence of midweek fixtures.
- Both Joshua Kimmich and Thomas Müller looking like they’re running on empty, despite the fact that they are two of the highest-endurance players on the squad. For comparison, Kimmich played 4,200 minutes last season.
- Flick’s inexplicable refusal to sub on either Serge Gnabry on Benjamin Pavard vs. Gladbach, even though they were sorely needed.
- Both Jerome Boateng and Corentin Tolisso going down with muscle injuries — usually a hallmark of fatigue.
It’s probably not a coincidence that Bayern’s general form has plummeted as of late. The aggressive pressing style that Flick has implemented was always going to be unsustainable. While teams like Manchester City and Liverpool take breaks in between periods of intense pressing, Bayern has tried to play at full intensity at all times. This has come back to bite the team, as the physically demanding nature of Hansi’s tactics takes its toll.
The timing chart from Gladbach-Bayern perfectly illustrates this. You can virtually see the exact moment where the team’s collective stamina gave out, and Gladbach were allowed back into the game. From minute 1-55’, Bayern kept pressing and attacking. They had an xG of 1.63 to BMG’s 0.03. From minute 55’ to 90’, that figure is flipped on its head — Bayern floundered with an xG of 0.11 to Gladbach’s 1.30.
Fatigue would explain a lot of things — the poor finishing, the mental lapses, the strange lineups. However, it’s a problem that doesn’t need to exist. Hansi Flick just needs to dial back the intensity a little.
Instead of pressing for 90 mins, Bayern should do it for 60 — perhaps 15 minutes at the beginning and end of each half, for instance. In the meantime, pass the ball sideways, recycle possession, tire out the opponent — tiki-taka, in other words.
Under Pep Guardiola, people used to bemoan the periods of boring sideways passing, where it seemed like Bayern maintained possession for its own sake. But those periods were a crucial tactical necessity, designed to slow the game down and let the players “rest” while on the pitch. Under Flick, those periods of rest are absent, it’s 100% gegenpress and direct attacking, 100% of the time.
At the moment, Hansi Flick and Bayern Munich aren’t quite in the same category as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United. The team has quality players, and the coach has tactics that actually work. However, adjustments are needed. José Mourinho has already decided to treat the Champions League game at the Allianz Arena as a training session for his younger players — that gives Flick some breathing room to rest and rotate.
Against Christian Streich’s Freiburg however, changes must be made. Bayern must be more cynical. The attackers must score. The midfielders must do their jobs. The football must be a bit more boring. Because otherwise the team will burn itself out, and then nothing good will come until the winter break.