It goes without saying that 2018 was unkind to Mats Hummels. A disastrous World Cup and poor form with Bayern Munich brought criticism from the German media as his confidence on the ball wavered and his usually cool demeanor in defense turned to indecision.
A difficult year does not make a career, however. Bayern’s number 5 had cemented his place as one of the World’s best center backs from 2014-2017, as he often looked like the second coming of Franz Beckenbauer. As the New Year began, the German-international re-established himself as a part of Kovac’s preferred XI at the expense of Jerome Boateng and seemed to be recovering his form.
At first glance, Hummels’ performance against Leverkusen looked like just that, a world-class performance worthy of a world-class defender. His confidence on the ball, range of passing and tackling jumped off the screen, even causing some to name him man of the match. Unfortunately, his performance mirrored the classic story of Jekyll and Hyde.
Let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Let’s start simple. In the 59th minute, Leon Bailey received the ball on the counter and proceeded to charge at Niklas Sule, who masterfully contained Bailey with pace and agility. As Sule angled at Bailey, Kevin Volland made a run behind, where Hummels was the last line of defense. Without hesitation Hummels cuts out the pass, poking the ball out of bounds. Although it seemed harmless, Volland would have had a clear run at the goal. This served as a small representation of the Hummels of old.
The real highlights of the night came with the ball at his feet. In the 25th minute, Hummels weaved through the Leverkuen press that had caused Bayern fits during the opening stages of the game. Dribbling through Die Werkself pressers and passing through another was exactly what was needed to break down the press and cause the opposition to resort to a more conservative approach. Not to mention, the vision to play a pinpoint through ball to James Rodriguez creating one of the best goal-scoring opportunities of the first half. Leon Goretzka finishes this off nine times out of 10.
The former World Cup-winner created another chance out of nothing in the infancy of the second half. Leverkusen send an attacker to press Hummels who has possession at the mid-line. The German then calmly shifts the ball to his left and plays a perfectly weighted lob to Kingsley Coman, The Frenchman’s poor left-footed cross—a theme of the match—fell yards behind Robert Lewandowski. The vision and accuracy was once again shutting down an opposition press.
The play of the match, even above the Leon Bailey free-kick, came right before the half. The towering center back played a quick one-two with Joshua Kimmich to divert a sticky situation. Hummels then dribbles down the touch-line before playing an audacious outside-of-the-foot pass, which tight-roped the sideline finding the French-international in stride. The French-international’s end product let him down again, though he is still returning to full form. This clip really speaks for itself.
In contrast to elite passing, Hummels served as the biggest perpetrator of ignoring Kovac’s call for a compact defense to absorb pressure from a rampant Leverkusen-attack. The German defender’s failure to operate with positional discipline contributed to a disorganized and over-stretched Bayern-side that couldn’t defend a counter-attack.
In just the second minute of the match, the Bavarian defender was put into a difficult situation and responded poorly. A rushed clearance failed to clear the danger zone forcing Hummels to step in for a block. The shot connects with his hand and the record-champions are lucky to avoid a penalty. This sequence was clearly a mistake, although he found himself in a precarious situation through no fault of his own.
In the 60th-minute another poor clearance from the Bayern-youth product—from over-confidence one might claim—led to a goal-scoring opportunity that he duly blocked. Another moment of poor judgement passed without consequence, but it was not the last.
Leverkusen’s second goal came three minutes later as a result of over-extending for a winning goal. Hummels (left of the screen to start) jogs back as Die Werkself counter, which eventually leaves him 10-yards higher than Sule and exposes space behind David Alaba. The German defender fails to stop the ball and a well-weighted through pass finds Bellarabi who plays a simple pass to Volland for the finish. It initially looks as though Sule loses Volland, but Sule is actually forced to leave Volland to stop Bellarabi because of space left by Hummels.
The third goal is even more shocking from the Bavarian. Although Hummels first looks to help Alaba win the ball, his decision to attempt an overlapping move with the Austrian left back was inexplicable. The former-Dortmund star assumed Alaba would win possession and felt the need to push forward for an equalizer. A simple pass in to Brandt was all that was required to leave Sule on an island and finish off the Bavarian giants.
Poor decision-making and over-extension in the attack abandoned the principles outline by Kovac and exposed the back line. Despite the quality of Hummels, his inconsistency raises questions about his future, despite exemplary service while in the Bavarian capital.
Should Die Roten move on from Hummels in the Summer?