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Running out of steam? The deeper reasons why Bayern Munich failed to beat Werder Bremen

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Bayern Munich have started to slow down recently — and it’s something that the fans should’ve seen coming.

FC Bayern Muenchen v SV Werder Bremen - Bundesliga Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

It’s that time of year again, where we look at what’s going wrong at Bayern Munich. Since Pep Guardiola left, it’s become a tradition for the Bavarians to end up in a sort of mini-crisis at some point during the last three months of the year.

Now, before I get mocked relentlessly by rival fans, a single draw is not a mini-crisis. It’s barely a micro-crisis. But if you’re a fan of the team, and you’ve been paying attention during games, then you’ve doubtless noticed the cracks beginning to show in Bayern’s indomitable facade. Some people have tried to rationalize the draw against Werder Bremen by pointing out extenuating circumstances (the international break, the strange lineup), but the truth is there’s a lot more going on than casual observers realize.

That’s arguably why there’s a lot of unease in the fanbase right now. Don’t get me wrong, the team’s results are still great, but those who watch the games see a noticeable decline in performance. Some very deep-rooted issues are surfacing at the moment, and it threatens the club’s entire campaign.

Let’s take a look at them, one by one.

Hansi Flick vs the schedule

2020 is the hardest year for a football coach. The coronavirus pandemic has created a truncated football fixture list, turning practically every week into an English week. This affects Bayern Munich especially hard, as we won the treble last year and were therefore forced to take part in several extra games (two Supercups, plus several Champions League knockouts). Add to this the return of pointless international breaks, each with 3 fixtures, and most of Bayern’s squad getting called up each time.

This means Bayern Munich has more minutes played than any other team in Germany. There’s barely any time between games to rest and rejuvenate. Even with a big squad and five substitutions, certain players like Joshua Kimmich end up playing a tremendous amount.

Putting on the brakes

For Hansi Flick, the fixture congestion is the death knell for his tactics. His playstyle is built on a strong tactical base and requires a high work-rate from the players. Having no rest between games destroys both those foundational aspects of the team. The obvious fact is that a high-pressing, high-intensity style isn’t going to sustain itself over 90 minutes when you’re playing three times a week every month.

This is a problem that already reared its head last year when Bayern saw a downturn in performance somewhere around early December. Back then, Hansi did whatever he could to give his players an extra bit of rest, such as canceling training sessions and giving extra days off when there were no midweek games.

However, in 2020 there’s a midweek game every week, so there are zero scopes to cancel anything. As a result, Hansi’s had to implement an aggressive rotation policy and tone down the pressing a little. The coach effectively had to hit the brakes to save fuel.

This has been catastrophic for the defense — after being a brick wall for much of last season, Bayern is now conceding goals at an alarming rate. The tactics that protected Manuel Neuer’s goal last season are just not compatible with this fixture list. Without max-intensity pressing, Bayern’s midfield gets bypassed too easily, and the defense is exposed more often. RB Salzburg, Borussia Dortmund, and even Werder Bremen demonstrated this repeatedly.

At least the offense is still carried by players like Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski, so Bayern is still top of the table in the league and Europe. However, things are starting to fall apart there as well. Bayern were bereft of ideas versus Bremen, and that’s another consequence of the fixture list.

Flick had once said that certain important training sessions were missing entirely because the coach just doesn’t have enough time to do them. This is a problem that’s gone unnoticed so far, but if Bremen is any indication, the offense could start to get stale as previous tactical drilling wears off. The lack of drilling probably doesn’t help the defense either, as pressing needs to be tactical as well as intense.

Individual brilliance could still carry the day, but Hansi Flick needs time to make Bayern Munich a well-oiled machine again. Time he does not have.

Too many “half-fit” players

FC Bayern Muenchen v RB Leipzig - Bundesliga
How fit is Robert Lewandowski? Is he at 100%?
Photo by Boris Streubel/Getty Images

Bayern fans are well aware of the team’s fitness issues, so there’s no need to dwell on this one. Losing Alphonso Davies and Joshua Kimmich to injury was a huge blow, and now Lucas Hernandez seems to have joined the list.

Meanwhile, the list of “half-fit” keeps growing. Robert Lewandowski allegedly had muscular problems during the international break, playing only 45 minutes in Poland’s last game. David Alaba has had on and off muscular problems all year. Nikas Sule had had niggling knee injuries keeping him sidelined. Corentin Tolisso has also been a victim of minor, but annoying injuries. Benjamin Pavard and Leroy Sane look far from their top-level selves, as they keep having games where they seem off the pace.

You have to wonder how many of these guys are operating at 60-70% capacity. In a system that demands 110% from every player, those who are in sub-optimal physical condition will drag the whole collective down. And looking at Bayern at the moment, a lot of players seem to be struggling with invisible issues, even if they’re fit enough to make the starting XI.

Under-performing summer signings

FC Bayern Muenchen v SV Werder Bremen - Bundesliga
Has Leroy Sane lived up to the transfer fee?
Photo by Lukas Barth-Tuttas - Pool/Getty Images

Having depth would help Hansi manage all these issues, but you can’t help but feel that the board has let him down somewhat. Bayern’s deadline day signings — Buona Sarr, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, Marc Roca, and Douglas Costa — were all praised at the time for adding depth to a squad that sorely needed it.

Two months on, however, it feels like nothing’s changed. Sarr hasn’t proven a capable Pavard backup yet. Choupo is okay at best — he did well enough against Duren, but he offers little off the bench. Roca has yet to make an appearance, leading to fears that he’s not good enough. Meanwhile, Costa, the most promising of the deadline day transfers, has lacked any sort of impact. He was one of the worst players on the pitch against Bremen, with the 17-year-old Jamal Musiala showing more incisiveness and skill.

The other summer signings — Leroy Sane and Tanguy Nianzou — have struggled with fitness all season. We know nothing about Nianzou, so let’s leave him out of this discussion. But Sane has been off the pace in most of the games he’s played and shown himself as being far from starter quality. He needs more time, but that puts pressure on his teammates and the coach. It compounds the issues of truncated schedules and half-fit players even further.

Conclusion

No issue’s holding Bayern back right now. Having Joshua Kimmich back or keeping Thiago Alcantara in the summer wouldn’t prevent this from happening. It’s a perfect storm of issues, with each problem having a multiplying effect on the other one, creating positive feedback loops. The team is essentially trying to run a marathon while carrying a bunch of boulders on its back. We need a break so that we can stop and get rid of the boulders, but that’s not happening right now.

At the moment, the only hope for salvation is the winter break. Even a couple of weeks of rest will do the players a lot of good, and the fixture list should normalize in the second half of the season. If a vaccine becomes widely available, maybe we could even see fans return to the stadium, giving a mental boost to the team during home games.

Bayern Munich is in a difficult spot right now, but things WILL get better. The question is, how bad will it get first?