James Rodriguez had one of his best games ever in a Bayern Munich shirt
Reprising his role from the Hertha Berlin game in midweek, James Rodriguez put in a tremendous performance in central midfield. Yes, central midfield. Instead of being locked into an attacking midfield position, the Colombian was made to stay deeper and control the game, which paradoxically had a positive impact on his offensive presence.
The thing is, Bayern Munich have very stringent requirements for an attacking midfielder, borne out of playing Thomas Muller there for almost a decade. The way the team plays, the #10 usually stays out of possession and is responsible for linkups, assists, and goals. This plays to Muller’s strengths — his positioning, his tactical awareness, and his keen nose for goal.
For a player like James, who is much more technically gifted than Muller but less effective at raumdeutering, such a specialized role becomes a hindrance. Jupp Heynckes recognized this and deployed James in a central midfield role, and now it seems Kovac is finally doing it too. The vast majority of James’ touches came in the transition area between the middle and final third, and he often dropped back deep along to help Thiago orchestrate the midfield.
These measures allowed Bayern to strangle Schalke’s possession and stamp their authority on the game. The Bavarians had 69.6% possession, with Thiago and James responsible for a significant chunk of it. Their dominance in midfield is reflected by their heatmaps — below you can see James’ heatmap — note the significant time spent in the middle third. When combined with Thiago, the resulting heatmap becomes a vast yawning maw that swallows the rest of the midfield.
Schalke’s counterattacks exposed Bayern’s weak defense
On the occasions that Schalke managed to bypass Bayern’s midfield, very bad things happened. For the first time since November, Niko Kovac opted to rest Niklas Sule and start a pairing of Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng instead. These two have have a world cup together — what could go wrong? A lot of things, as it turns out.
With Hummels and Boateng, Bayern enjoyed unparalleled dominance of the ball and incredible buildup play from the back. However, both center backs repeatedly made the mistake of pushing up far too high, allowing Schalke the chance to counter. For Kutucu’s goal for example, Hummels was 25-30 yards further up the pitch than he should’ve been, leaving a huge space at the back that Kutucu easily ran into.
This is an issue reminiscent of the Pep Guardiola era, when Bayern Munich used to enjoy the lion’s share of the possession but regularly got burned on the counter. Trying to play a high defensive line is extremely risky without an organized and aggressive counterpress, which is where Bayern fell short against Schalke.
With Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool known for being masters of the counterattack, a more conservative approach might be in order going forward. The offensive pressure created by the high line isn’t worth the defensive risk that it brings. When Niklas Sule comes back into the side, Kovac will hopefully make sure that his players are a little less zealous when going forward.
Bayern’s offense continue to waste chances
Uli Hoeneß on Robert Lewandowski today: "If he had showed a great performance, he would have scored 4 goals today.." [Bild]— Bayern & Germany (@iMiaSanMia) February 9, 2019
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before — Bayern Munich create a plethora of chances, fail to score any of them. Once again, an incredibly productive Bavarian offensive was let down by its finishing, most notably from Robert Lewandowski. The striker missed at least three extremely good chances, and he’s the only reason that James is credited with 4 key passes from open play (6 overall) instead of 4 assists.
Serge Gnabry was wasteful too — although he scored a goal, there were times when he could have done much better with his final ball. Even James was affected, there were moments where he was perfectly positioned but too slow to react to cutbacks coming in from David Alaba or Kingsley Coman.
This poor conversion rate doesn’t harm Bayern in most cases, but it’s something that has to be worked on. In practically every post-game interview, Niko Kovac says that we should have scored more. Against weaker teams like Schalke, you can get away with poor finishing, but a team like Liverpool will punish these mistakes.
This current edition of Bayern Munich has a wasteful attack and a shaky defense, and that’s never a good combination.