Bayern Munich’s 2020/2021 season has brought with it some intriguing talking points. Congested schedule, Leroy Sane’s deficits, David Alaba’s contract, newcomers’ integration and so on.
For quite some time now, the club has been going through a rocky stretch. We are still two points clear at the top of the Bundesliga table and currently the highest-scoring team in this season’s UEFA Champions League. However, the performances against perennial oppositions like RB Leipzig, Borussia Monchengladbach and Borussia Dortmund, and second division side Holstein Kiel have shown few signs of worry.
You know things are a bit sticky when the ever-calm Thomas Müller loses his cool in a post-match interview. Here is my explanation of the Bavarians’ recent struggles, how losing Thiago has affected us adversely and why the club will be decelerating their potential dynasty-building project by letting go of Alaba.
A co-occurrence of undesirable events
I fully understand if you are rolling your eyes and murmuring — “These Bayern fans always be whining about refereeing mistakes and being unlucky”. But anyone who has followed the club can acknowledge that it has been an unfortunate combination of a number of things. Bear with me as I describe the three factors:
- First off is fatigue, obviously. Despite head coach Hansi Flick declaring that there are no excuses, match exhaustion is still very much impacting our performance. This season’s squad and taxing schedule has posed a starting-XI predicament. Against Kiel, Müller and Joshua Kimmich looked mentally, if not physically, disoriented. Due to the absence of Kinglsey Coman and Robert Lewandowski, Die Roten struggled to hold the ball in the final-third and were frequently dispossessed. Sane doesn’t have the tank required for long stretches of possession and pressing. Alphonso Davies’ roadrunning role has visibly taken a toll on him. Someone or other is always tired. With Flick being unable to field a fully-energetic lineup, this has had repercussions on precise execution of his system.
- On to the second point about squad. The brass have received a lot of flak for new signings. But first, let’s talk about our established stars. Who could’ve predicted a player’s form at the start of the season? Serge Gnabry doesn’t look half the man who netted a hat-trick in the season inauguration game. Sergino Dest’s name wouldn’t have been mentioned as frequently had Benjamin Pavard retained his previous season’s form. Having two out-of-form players of Pavard and Gnabry’s stature had to have a dampening effect. Instead, our offense witnessed improvements, when it actually should’ve been difficult to maintain last season’s per 90 figures, all thanks to Flick’s tactics.
It’s not to say that the board or Flick are in the clear. The coach’s treatment of Marc Roca and Chris Richards has always irked me. But before we blame Flick, let’s understand his reasons:
- Loss of trained individuals and lack of training for newcomers. Questionable selection and being skeptical of trying out new player combinations: such is the life of a revolutionary gegenpress-ing advocate.
Pressing, in it’s any form, isn’t something that can be learnt overnight. It really is rocket science for footballers. One of the reasons Bayern were able to implement such a system so quickly was because players like Alaba, Müller, Jerome Boateng and Manuel Neuer had already learned one of its variants in Jupp Heynckes’ 2012/13 season. Along with this group, Lewandowski, Coman, Kimmich and Thiago had imbibed Pep Guardiola’s version from his tenure. Add Ivan Perišić and Philippe Coutinho into the mix, and we have a group of players all having a crucial common trait — a no-diva hustler.
Thiago, Perišić and Coutinho had become an integral part of the roster. Throughout the course of the match, the backups of last season helped Bayern run rampant without any drop in throughput.
In pressing, every action from top to bottom has to be calculated and synchronized. One wrong move and it triggers a chain reaction, resulting in magnified after-effects. All 11 (yes, including goalkeeper) players need to comply with the system. Such a coalescence can only be achieved through training and time.
Flick didn’t have the luxury to fine-tune his tactics and incorporate new ideas during pre-season. Thanks to Hinrunde’s time table, the training sessions have also been inadequate.
As is noticeable, this season’s newcomers still need time to inculcate Bayern’s rigmarole, a point Flick has brought up time after time. When the alternatives aren’t used, the load on starters increases, fatigue starts building-up and this circles us back to the first point.
Bayern feeling the effects of Thiago’s departure
Michael Owen wasn’t rodomontading when he claimed there’s nobody in the Premier League who plays like Liverpool’s Thiago Alcântara.
I was and still am one of the believers that his departure had come at the right time, only due to Kimmich and Goretzka’s rise to prominence. For me, the always-improving Goretzka has been the best central-midfielder of the season. Kimmich, on the other hand, is yet to fully usurp the #6 shirt.
There are many reasons for playing the German in midfield; some of them being his advantageous use of in-game intelligence and offensive strengths. But Thiago, the maestro around whom the knockout stages of Bayern’s Champions League winning-term revolved, is truly an inimitable footballer.
His ability to beat the press is sorely missed, especially now that every team is coming up with creative ways of giving Bayern a taste of their own medicine. Last season, the Spaniard completed a squad-high 17 passes under pressure from the opponent. Kimmich, this season, has averaged no more than 10 (per FBref).
But passing was merely one of Thiago’s indecipherable tricks. He had the poise to dribble out of sticky situations, use his signature turn to beat his marker and processed the field around him as swiftly as an eagle.
To describe what kind of wizardry he was pulling off, Thiago completed a minimum of 3 dribbles per 90 minutes in 2019/2020, a figure well clear of those registered by his current teammates Mohamed Salah (2) and Sadio Mané (2.5) and rival Kevin De Bruyne (2) in the same season. Moreover, the Spain international dribbled past at least 3 players per game. To put this into context, Kimmich has numerically needed two games to dribble past a player this season.
Goals and assists often fail to give due credit to certain players. It will come as little surprise to find that the two players at the top of xG buildup charts last season were Thiago and Kimmich. Their xG buildup per 90 was more-or-less equal (0.89 vs 0.86, per Understat), indicating that both were equally involved in the passing sequences leading up to the goal. But even if Kimmich had 8 assists as opposed to Thiago’s null, their offensive contributions in the form of xG chain per 90 was also found to be equal (0.98 vs 1.00).
Can you expect more from a midfielder? Well, yes. Thiago also won 4 tackles+interceptions, a figure only matched by wonderkid Davies.
Take a Spaniard’s game-dictating abilities, German’s pressing, an Italian’s defending, a Brazilian’s magical flair and merge them into one and you get Thiago. To repeat what I’ve already stated, he truly is a one-of-a-kind midfielder and it has become abundantly clear that the loss of a team council member like him has hurt us in many ways. There’s another such leader who is inching closer to a summer exit. Speaking of which...
Letting go of Alaba will be a big mistake
How to win a treble? A crude answer would be to get a revolutionary manager, build a top-notch squad with proper balance between experience and youth and instill an attacking instinct in it.
As if achieving it was easy, here comes the harder part. How to defend that treble? Evolve with the ever-changing footballing world and retain your best players.
I’m going to sound like a broken record given how many times I’ve emphasized on Alaba’s importance. Just as Thiago in midfield, the Austrian brings a set of distinct qualities to the central-defense. Only a handful of top clubs are blessed to have a left-footed left center-back of Alaba’s calibre. The importance of Bayern’s decade-old servant extends beyond ball-playing abilities; be it his use of in-game intelligence like Kimmich, the channels he opens through angled passing or his firm grasp on gegenpress.
If I were to demonstrate this with an example: we often nitpick instances when Alaba was poorly positioned but what we often miss is the hundreds of times his counter-pressing helped us win possession. Like this:
Against Kiel, Bayern deployed Niklas Sule and Lucas Hernandez as center-halves, the so-called best possible pairing. The same duo was also present in DFB Supercup. Did it stop Bayern from conceding in both of the games? No. Moral of the story: Before we single out players like Pavard or Alaba, remember that they are doing a ton of important stuff and they are not solely responsible for the ongoing issues.
German reporters like Raimund Hinko are applauding the club for “setting an example” for other players with their handling of Alaba’s contractual negotiations. I’m not implying we should cave in to his agent’s alleged demands. But I respectfully disagree that it has been an exemplary act. Goretzka, Sule and Gnabry aren’t even halfway through to achieving the kind of legacy Alaba has built at Bayern. If anything, the German trio’s contract situation can be considered akin to the series of extensions we had back in 2015. If Alaba is demanding to be in the top bracket, that is partly because he has contributed no less than then the rest in the past decade.
As for potential replacements, they aren’t going to be cheap, either. Take Dayot Upamecano, a player with a reported release clause of €42m. Considering competition from English clubs and paying in line with the market, we’re talking about an overall transfer costing upwards of €60 million (including wages). If your aim is to decrease average squad age, offload Boateng. It’s not like he is on an inexpensive payroll.
We are witnessing how losing a core player like Thiago is affecting us. Is it really worth disturbing the Alaba-Flick equilibrium? Bayern Munich should aim for success by capitalizing on Mullewandowski’s prime, not create mini-transition phases in the squad by offloading the coach’s defensive-chief.
In the end, I’ll answer the initial questions once again:
You aim to win a treble? Get a manager like Flick.
If you plan to build a dynasty with that coach? Let him work with his protégés.