Munich, Germany – With all of his central defenders either injured or suspended, Hansi Flick had his work cut out for him when it came to Bayern Munich’s defensive approach against Paderborn.
That seems odd to say, considering that Paderborn is at the bottom of the Bundesliga table. But the newly promoted side has taken points from Dortmund and Schalke this season, and made things close late against Bayern in the reverse fixture – ultimately a 3-2 win for the Bavarians.
With Jerome Boateng and Benjamin Pavard and Niklas Süle and Javi Martinez, Flick really had to dig into his bag of tricks. But even with the thin selection, the Bayern coach had to do something to solve some of the issues Bayern experienced in Cologne the weekend before.
“We needed to change something, also tactically,” Manuel Neuer told reporters after the game. “You saw in that second half in Cologne, they had a lot of chances. We played with two left-footed players in defense, which didn’t work very well.”
After experimenting with both David Alaba and Lucas Hernandez in central defense against both Cologne and Leipzig, Flick elected to stay true to his defenders’ strengths.
Alaba, who admitted he felt uncomfortable playing on the right side, manned the middle. Hernandez, who was out of sorts as a right center-back against Cologne, played on the left.
Meanwhile, Alvaro Odriozola and Alphonso Davies, whose offensive virtues far outweigh their defensive ones, had the freedom to push forward as wingbacks. Joshua Kimmich, played as a right center-back of the back-three, filling a role he hadn’t done since Pep Guardiola was manning the touchline.
“Yeah it’s been a while,” Kimmich said when asked by BFW how it felt to play in central defense again. “But I need to have the desire to play different positions, and in that sense, it was okay.”
Though Flick’s experiment was defensible given his options, playing five full- and wing-backs at once was quite the gamble. The result was an incohesive unit that had trouble handling the worst team in the Bundesliga.
IT'S TIED AGAIN!— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) February 21, 2020
Last-place Paderborn are sniffing at a HUGE surprise in the @Bundesliga_EN pic.twitter.com/eh5GRUGjvA
Heroics from Robert Lewandowski and Serge Gnabry bailed out Bayern in the end, but the home side’s defensive performance left more questions than answers ahead of a critical Champions League tie against Chelsea in four days’ time.
A desperate situation
Missing nearly half of your defensive core is not an easy challenge to overcome. The three-man defense Flick deployed was probably a one-off, considering that at least Pavard and Boateng will return from their respective suspensions.
“We don’t need to talk too much about the formation or the tactics because this was an emergency situation,” Neuer said.
But Bayern’s defensive issues haven’t been about one specific game. The fact remains that, in recent weeks, the Bavarians have struggled against teams that catch them on the break.
Before his suspension of Friday, Boateng was subbed off against Leipzig and against Cologne because he couldn’t handle their speed. In fact, both sides targeted Boateng because they knew he has lost a step.
Because Kimmich has played in midfield and, consequently, Pavard has played at right-back, Flick’s only alternative to Boateng is Hernandez. The interim coach insisted that playing three left-footed defenders is not a problem, but a back-four with Alaba and Hernandez in the middle was far from effective.
That’s why switching to a back-three against Paderborn made a lot of sense. Bayern had much quicker players on the field, and the extra central defender allowed the wingbacks to take advantage of spaces out wide.
“I think [pace] is a big requirement for our style of play,” Alaba said. “It’s part of our philosophy that we have, and need, pace the back.”
When asked by BFW whether he was concerned about deficiencies in aerial duels, Alaba said, “I don’t think we did too badly in the air. We have a player in Lucas that does pretty well in the air. But for us, the second ball is also very important.”
The issue with Friday’s experiment was that, well, it was an experiment. Alaba was caught venturing too far forward early in the game. Odriozola was also often caught out of position, leaving Kimmich to clean up the mess.
The lack of cohesion, combined with Bayern’s high defensive line, forced Neuer to venture out of the penalty area three times in the first half.
“That’s part of the game,” Neuer said when asked by BFW about his excursions outside the box. “We were playing high. You see that not only at Bayern, but also in the German national team and other sides. I was just trying to help the team and prevent the big chances.”
But his third journey off his line, when Dennis Srbeny slipped in behind Bayern’s defense, wound up being one trip too many. The German No. 1 whiffed on a challenge and the former Norwich striker outmaneuvered Davies and Alaba before finishing on an empty net for the first-half equalizer
No slip-ups in London
After three weeks of experimenting, Flick can’t afford to get it wrong when Bayern travels to Stamford Bridge next week.
Like Bayern’s recent opponents, Chelsea has players with pace – Willian, Tammy Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi – that can give Bayern’s defense problems. But in contrast to sides like Paderborn and Cologne, their speedsters are much more clinical.
If Frank Lampard’s side comes at Bayern with pace, can Flick risk starting an aging Boateng? Will he start with the left-footed Alaba and Hernandez in the middle and hope they can figure it out? Does Flick dare go back to a three-man back-line that struggled to hold the worst side in the Bundesliga at arm’s length?
Alaba insisted that Friday’s 3-2 result was flattering to the visitors.
“I think the result looks a little worse than we played, especially in the first half,” Alaba said. “Paderborn was a very poisonous team. The used their pace with their counterattacks and their play going forward. It wasn’t always easy with our type of play. We were playing pretty high and they were playing balls forward into space, often blindly. Thus it wasn’t so easy.”
Asked by BFW if Flick needs to find a solution in defense sooner rather than later, Alaba said, “I think we always find solutions, regardless of what situations we face. We had injured players in recent months, and we still found solutions.”
This story was updated from an earlier version posted directly after the final whistle.