Well, that was painful. After a 23-game winning streak, and an undefeated run that stretched all the way back to last December, Bayern Munich have finally been stopped in their tracks by TSG Hoffenheim, who impressed pretty much everyone watching the Bundesliga by dismantling the defending German champions and European champions 4-1.
If you’ve been watching Bayern Munich for the past year or so, you’ll know that this team doesn’t really lose so easily. So if it does, there has to be a good reason, right? Well, be assured that there are a few. Let’s take a look.
Before we get started, no, I am not calling for Hansi Flick’s head, and I don’t think anyone should be. Over the past ten months, rarely has Flick gotten anything wrong tactically. Even in his two defeats last year, he was not tactically outsmarted. But today, he could have done a few things better.
Flick’s system is based on pressure and counter-pressure. When his team does not have the ball, the players move quickly to win the ball back as soon as possible. In doing so, it is not uncommon to see two or three players surrounding one opponent to get the ball. Once the team does get the ball back, they move quickly again, this time to disperse the other team’s defense and get behind their lines before they know it. This approach is intense, efficient, and ruthless. Bayern have scored countless goals in this way, as well as winning quite a handful of silverware.
But this system requires a heavy toll: strength and stamina. If you want your players to surround an opponent by the twos and threes, you’ll need them to run two or three times as much as the other team. This may have worked if the players had enough time to recharge their batteries, but Bayern Munich has had almost no time to rest on their laurels following their triumph in Lisbon. The team was given only a week off before training for the new season, and even had to push back their DFB-Pokal opener to October. What’s more, they had a midweek game against Sevilla in the UEFA Super Cup, which lasted a grueling 120 minutes. It was evident that the team would be tired prior to the Hoffenheim clash.
It is simply impossible for the players to implement Flick’s usual tactics after such an ordeal, and Flick knows that, of course. He should have taken things into account and perhaps changed his style to suit the current situation. Yes, we all know Hansi does not like to change things up, as we saw when he insisted on maintaining a high back line until the final whistle in the Champions League final, despite the fact that Bayern were only a goal up. But he had a fully charged squad at his ordeal then, and his opponents were in a similar situation. The same could not be said for today. The team that started out there was not a team that should be losing to Hoffenheim, or any team for that matter, by four goals to one.
What should he have done, then?
So, yes, what could he have done? Well, let’s wind the clocks back a bit, all the way to December 2019. Bayern were suffering from injuries and fatigue (as per usual) to the point that they could barely put out a starting eleven, let alone a fully fledged bench. Two tough games against Freiburg and Wolfsburg stood in the way of the winter break. Flick had his work cut out for him.
Flick decided to go for a simple, yet effective approach. No more hard pressing for his men before Christmas. Instead, he opted to flood his attack and defense, leaving only one anchorman between the two areas. Long balls forward and crosses were the main routes of attack. As for the defense, Flick found that the teams that faced him would flood the midfield, pressing high and disrupting Bayern’s buildup, and aim to gain control of the game from there. By effectively deleting his midfield, Flick stranded the opponents’ midfielders in no mans land, and instead allowed his team to sit deep and soak up the pressure, bending but not breaking. As his opponents got more and more frustrated, their own stamina would slowly be depleted, and Flick’s men would soon have a more even playing field. The result? Two dramatic late wins with two brilliant substitutions (enter Joshua Zirkzee).
Fast forward a bit to March 2020, the last game before lockdown. Bayern Munich faced Augsburg with their usual injury problems, with normally durable striker Robert Lewandowski leading the cast of injured characters. Coming off two tough away trips to Hoffenheim and Schalke, Bayern Munich took a more subtle approach again. In the first half, the Bavarians were not pressing as usual, instead inviting Augsburg forward and allowing them more time on the ball. The reason? Augsburg were also pressing high, and Flick’s Bayern would be facing a mountain to climb if they faced it head on. So they just sat back and allowed Augsburg to slowly run themselves out. In the second half, the approach didn’t change much, and a single long ball gave Bayern the lead. Simple, yet effective. Bayern Munich would go on to win 2-0 with a depleted squad.
Flick could have done something similar against Hoffenheim today. Allow his team to sit back and let Hoffenheim run forward, not using as much energy in the midfield but channeling it into the defense. Once Hoffenheim had used up their energy to a certain extent, the counters would start. It may not be the perfect approach, but in high pressure situations like these, it may not have been the worst approach, either. Of course, there is no guarantee that this would have worked any better than what was attempted today, but one thing is for sure: in the current situation, there was no way that Flick’s Plan A would have worked. It does make me wonder why Flick did not reach for his Plan B, one that had bailed him out quite a few times last season.
Fatigue and squad depth
But of course, I know nothing about what goes on in Bayern Munich’s dressing room, or on the training ground. Which brings me to my next point: was there a bigger reason why Flick didn’t utilize Plan B? The answer may again lie in the team’s failing stamina.
If you look closely at Bayern’s current situation, you’ll see that ever since August, they’ve had barely any time to rest. Flick’s men were playing as early as the 9th, having to finish their half-done round of 16 tie against Chelsea. Not even a week later, they were playing Barcelona in a do-or-die match, and a mere five days separated that game from their semifinal against Lyon. Three days later, they were running their hearts out in the Champions League final. The team was given a short time off before almost immediately being thrown into the mix again. Thankfully, Schalke did not provide much of a challenge, but again, barely a week later, Bayern Munich had a date with Sevilla in the Super Cup.
So the team then had to fly all the way to Hungary, completely drain their energy in the memorable 120 minutes against the Spaniards, and retire to the hotel well past midnight. A few hours later, they flew home to Munich, and reported to training the next day. The very next day, they were on the road again, this time en route to Sinsheim, where they had to play a strong Hoffenheim team led by a coach who knew all about his tired opponents. I don’t care if you’re an athlete, you’re not going to outlast a schedule like that.
This schedule may have depleted the team’s strength to the point that not even an effective Plan B was possible. Even Flick’s backup plan still requires a certain amount of stamina to hold firm while his team soaks up pressure. Having gone through game after game with little to no break in between for the past two months, not to mention losing a couple of key players in the process, the team would have needed a miracle to even try to imitate Flick’s demanding style of play. As dire as the aforementioned examples may have seemed, none of them came close to the grueling schedule that the team has gone through in recent weeks.
It is here that squad depth comes into play. Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic has had serious economic repercussions on almost every football club in the world, but it is hard to understand how a club of Bayern’s stature, coming off a treble, no less, is struggling to buy players. Not superstars, but adequate depth players to bolster the squad and hold it together in the coming season. Seven out of the eleven players who started the Super Cup found themselves back in the starting eleven for Hoffenheim, and six of those seven played the full 120 minutes on Thursday. Last season, Bayern had the likes of Ivan Perisic and Philippe Coutinho to call upon should Serge Gnabry or Kingsley Coman need a break. Thiago could easily slot in for Joshua Kimmich or Leon Goretzka. Now, Bayern Munich has to rely on Jamal Musiala to stir up a miracle when he should be developed slowly.
I give credit to how Flick and Manuel Neuer have refused to put blame on fatigue, taking responsibility for their own mistakes. But fatigue is something that cannot be ignored. We’re only two weeks into the new season, and personnel troubles do not bode well for the team’s chances in the next eight months. Bayern Munich’s roster currently features 19 outfield players and three goalkeepers, not counting youth players. Take an almost certainly departing Javi Martinez and Michaël Cuisance out of the equation and the team is left with 21 senior players in total. Three players less than last season’s squad, a squad that was almost depleted one too many times even then.
The board needs to make some signings, that much is clear. With the transfer window open for another week, it remains to be seen whether any will be made. However, if none are, Flick will be doomed to think up tactics and formations to fit a paper-thin squad for the next eight months. Now, the treble-winning coach has done plenty to warrant trust, but even he would be at a loss to defend his achievements with a squad that does not live up to his needs. The last time Bayern had a squad this thin was back in 2011/12. We all know how that season ended.
This defeat will have been a learning experience for the players, the coaching staff, and the board. It is better to make changes while you can still afford to. But the upcoming schedule is not so promising. On Wednesday, Bayern Munich takes on Borussia Dortmund in the DFL-Super Cup, and then faces Hertha Berlin the following Sunday. After the international break, Bayern’s first game is their postponed Pokal opener against 1. FC Duren, which is a mere 44 hours(!) before their away trip to Arminia Bielefeld. It will be fascinating to see how the team will manage that. At this rate, I would not be surprised if Flick is forced to sacrifice one competition to focus on another.
As we have seen so far, this team is capable of achieving great things, and has made us very proud in the last few months. Whatever happens this season, their achievements should not be forgotten. There are some things, like tactical changes, that Flick and his players have under their control. Some, like new players and tight schedules, are beyond that. Trophies and success can only come when the club is working in harmony, from top to bottom. That is how the treble came to be last season.
As fans can only hope that the team gives it their all every game as much as they can, and is honest with their performances, like Flick and Neuer have been about today. But it would be a shame if we had to give up our successes because of wrong decisions. Today’s defeat is a sign that some changes need to be made to a certain extent. It is now up to the people responsible to act on them.