Every team needs a leader on defense, someone who will bark out orders to his or her teammates and hold the defensive line together. Add a touch of playmaking to that, and you have yourself a great center back.
But Hansi Flick recently told Sport1 that Bayern Munich does not have a set defensive leader, saying “both central defenders who play have to do their thing.” It always depends on who is playing, according to Flick, even if one center-back takes a bit more responsibility than the other.
Now the reason for this is pretty obvious — because of the truncated schedule, Bayern’s defense was forced into some heavy rotation over the past few months. Jerome Boateng, Niklas Süle, David Alaba, and Lucas Hernandez have all seen substantial minutes, with every player making at least 13 competitive appearances in the season. Alaba, who has made the most appearances, has played 15 games, meaning that the gap between him and Sule, who has played the least games (13), is not that big.
Likewise, Bayern’s defense is ever-switching nowadays, in contrast to the constant Boateng-Alaba pairing that won the treble last season. It would therefore be hard to pinpoint just one leader in defense when it keeps changing.
Plus, all of Bayern’s central defenders have had at least one issue that inhibits them from becoming the true leader in defense.
David Alaba: He was the original defensive leader in the treble-winning season, and he did a fine job as Bayern cruised to the top of Europe. However, Alaba’s status at the club is now in question, with contract talks having reportedly ground to a halt and him looking set to leave sooner or later. Sport1 predicts that this is the main reason why Flick is hesitant to name him his current defensive leader — you can’t make someone a leader when you know he’ll be gone soon.
Lucas Hernandez: Bayern’s best defender of the season so far, Lucas is a prime candidate for leader of the defense. However, he is relatively less outspoken and vocal on the pitch, whereas defensive leaders need to be loud and commanding. There’s no questioning Hernandez’ passion while playing, as he’s proven many times, but playing passionately and commandingly are two different things. What’s more, Lucas has alternated between center-back and left-back, playing in the latter position more and not always being in the best position to lead the defensive line.
Jerome Boateng: The oldest and most experienced CB of the crop, Boateng is also another good candidate. Loud and demanding, he constantly shouts orders to his teammates as he sees fit — the Moscow game was apparently a prime example. His ball playing abilities are also something that makes him a good defensive playmaker. But Boateng’s remaining time at the club is also undetermined, as his contract expires next summer, and the board is still debating whether to offer him a new one.
Niklas Süle: Süle has had a few issues regarding his fitness, with some media outlets (ahem Bild) reporting that his weight gain and body fat were the reason behind his exclusion from the matchday squad on a couple of occasions. Although Flick has denied this, putting the blame on his lack of fitness due to a false positive COVID-19 test, it does seem that Süle needs to take up more consistent performances, like the one he delivered against Moscow, when he scored the winner as well as putting in a defensive masterclass.
Likewise, because of one reason or another, it is hard to name a defensive leader, and the lack of organization on the pitch is showing. The Lokomotiv Moscow game was the first clean sheet that Bayern had recorded in a month-and-a-half, with their last clean sheet before that dating all the way back to late October against Eintracht Frankfurt. Since then, Bayern has conceded thirteen goals in nine games, not exactly the return you’d expect from a treble-winning team. Like it or not, Bayern needs a new defensive leader, and they need one now. So, who can step up and get this band of misfits under control?
The answer is simple — Manuel Neuer.
Neuer is already an established leader in the squad, wearing the captain’s armband every game. His leadership qualities are indisputable, to say the least. The team has voiced their support for their captain multiple times throughout the past few seasons, most notably coach Flick and vice-captain Thomas Müller. Flick has always been a fan of Neuer’s play, and has showered nothing but praise on his captain, even going so far as to say Neuer is currently in the form of his life. Müller, meanwhile, has said that he would be happy to see Neuer wear the armband until he retires. For someone who has admitted that he would love to captain FC Bayern, that is praise of the highest level.
Neuer’s praise is quite deserved at the moment, as he is indeed playing at the highest level possible. After recovering from his foot injury in 2018/2019, he got his form back the following season and led his team to the treble with a myriad of superb saves, most notably in the Champions League final against Paris Saint-Germain. For someone who was declared ‘finished’ as recently as 2018, that’s one immense resurgence. Even now, Neuer is carrying on his immense performances, which come in handy due to Bayern’s shaky defense in recent weeks.
Moreover, Neuer has grown into his captaincy well, always bumping chests with his teammates before kickoff to give them a morale boost, and keeping his side safe and sound in every situation. A prime example was in the Champions League quarterfinal against Barcelona, when, after conceding David Alaba’s own goal, he just grinned and encouraged his defender, keeping the mental state of him and his team cool and collected. As a result, Bayern, who potentially could have collapsed after such a cheap goal, got their groove back together and sent Barcelona back to the Stone Age.
So where does all this fit into defensive leadership? Well, it has to do with Neuer’s sweeper-keeper status. Because of Bayern’s high line, Neuer often acts as an auxiliary center-back as well as a goalkeeper, sweeping up any loose balls that find their way through. Not only that, but he is also a very talented playmaker. Neuer has the ability to put forth great passes with both feet as well as his hands, and can hold his own under pressure from other attackers. Take the most recent game against RB Leipzig, for instance. Although he could have done better with their first goal, Neuer grew into the game after that and ended up performing very well under Leipzig’s hard forward press, even as he was being closed down by attackers left and right. His positioning also helps the team build up from higher up the pitch, rather than having to go all the way down to their own penalty area, allowing for swift, efficient attacks. As a result, Neuer has played a big role in Bayern’s whopping 55 goals scored so far this season.
Vocal leadership is not an issue either. Neuer has been shown to shout, scream, and even swear actively on the pitch, something even more noticeable due to the lack of fans in the stands. Whenever his defenders concede a cheap shot, you’ll be bound to see Neuer bellowing in anger at them with a manic glint in his eye, regardless of whether it led to a goal or not. Wildly gesturing with his gloved hands, Neuer always makes himself heard in the heart of the defense, just like his predecessor Oliver Kahn did many years ago.
What puts Neuer above his defenders in the leadership hierarchy, however, isn’t his vocal style or his skills. It’s the fact that he is always the first name on the team sheet. Neuer has started all but two games this season, missing one because of international duty and one because it was a dead rubber game. This was the case last season as well, with Neuer starting every single game and playing every single second, barring Sven Ulreich’s lone appearance against SC Freiburg, after the Bundesliga was already won. Since the biggest reason that no one is being named the one sole defensive chief right now is the heavy rotation and lack of consistent lineups, this is an immense advantage Neuer has above the other defenders. Even in the midst of the rotation, Neuer’s status as starting goalkeeper and captain remains unchallenged, and is one of the few consistent parts of Bayern’s starting eleven nowadays, along with Thomas Müller and Robert Lewandowski in attack.
What’s more, having nailed down a contract for the next three years, Neuer is not going anywhere any time soon. This is enough time for the relatively less experienced defenders like Süle and Hernandez to further cement their positions in the team, so that when Neuer hangs up his gloves, they can take the mantle of defensive leadership. Plus, this will give youngsters like Chris Richards and Tanguy Nianzou time to develop as well, and who knows, they might rise up to the challenge and win that leader position themselves, unlikely as it may seem at present time.
Likewise, making Neuer the defensive boss could be a gamble, but it could also be the answer to Bayern’s current defensive dilemma. He certainly has all the credentials for it, and has proven to be an outstanding goalkeeper, an excellent defender, and a maybe-could-use-some-fine-tuning midfielder (just ask South Korea). Plus, having Neuer as defensive boss would give Bayern the unique designation of having a goalkeeper as the team’s leading central defender. Who wouldn’t want a title like that?