Changes halt Bayern Munich progress under Guardiola
Bayern Munich need to wait three-and-a-bit weeks to return to the Champions League stage
When the dust settles on Bayern Munich’s mini-crisis – two games from two where they’ve failed to win – the reality will shine through. With an eight-point lead over Wolfsburg, the Bavarians are essentially still on course to win the league title for the 25th time.
But with the Champions League established as the top priority this season, it’s unlikely that Pep Guardiola’s contribution at Bayern Munich will be weighed by the margin of their triumph in the Bundesliga, but by the outcome of Europe’s premier club tournament. A second season without a European Cup win is inconceivable to some.
Bayern Munich need to wait three-and-a-bit weeks to return to the Champions League stage, but in the meantime, the return to the Bundesliga has hitherto been met with trepidation.
After returning from their winter training camp in Doha – with a stop in Saudi Arabia to play Al-Hilal – FC Bayern, by their own hyper-inflated standards, have taken just a fortnight to nose-dive towards some kind of unsteadiness with continental football almost on the horizon.
Nobody will be holding back opinions behind the walls of Sabener Strasse, the club’s training ground in a plush Munich suburb. Sporting director Matthias Sammer and Pep Guardiola can often be seen and heard exchanging pleasantries, and maybe expletives, across the technical area at the Allianz Arena.
Guardiola’s men were trounced 4-1 on their return to league action at Wolfsburg last Friday - the German champions conceding more goals over 90 minutes in the second half of the season as they did in the entirety of the first.
Yet, as much as Wolfsburg showed an outstanding capacity to break with speed from deep positions and all the while remain well-organized and rigid at the back, Bayern’s lapses in defence were grim viewing for Guardiola and the club’s supporters.
As broken down by Jonathan Harding of Deutsche Welle, Bayern’s over-aggressive defensive line stepped towards being reckless and rash when players in red-and-blue attempted to play offside in the opposition half.
Kevin de Bruyne took full advantage of those spaces in behind, scoring two of the goals.
To take on Schalke on Tuesday, a back-four became a back-three – David Alaba, Mehdi Benatia and Jerome Boateng – while Guardiola left Robert Lewandowski on the bench with Mario Götze acting as the main central forward, flanked by Arjen Robben to his right and Thomas Muller to his left. Youngster Mitchell Weiser even featured from the start.
Changes at the back
Nevertheless, it begs the question of whether Guardiola is certain of what his strongest team is for the final months of the campaign. From the end of 2014, through the winter break and into January, Bayern seem to have lost their unwavering strategy to create numerical superiority on the park; the team has been reshaped at will with 3-4-3, 4-3-3 and other variations deployed.
The defensive shape has been most open to modification: Spaniard Juan Bernat and Balon D’Or nominee Manuel Neuer have stood as the two impressively consistent features over the season - the numbers, structure and personnel, meanwhile, are have been open to a reworking every so often.
An unsuccessful attempt at Borussia Dortmund in the Super Cup seemed to spell the end of the Alaba-influenced back-three, with a back-four featuring Benatia and Boateng forming a considerably resolute and obdurate partnership for long parts of the first half of the season. Additionally, the aggression of Neuer – a role now dubbed ‘sweeper-keeper’ - proved to be an excellent complement to Bayern’s high-line.
But for various reasons – the return of formerly established players, injuries to others and a toothless attack – Guardiola has focused on tinkering with his backline to try and affect events at the other end of the pitch.
Bayern’s high defensive line at Wolfsburg was completely misjudged and the use of both Sebastian Rode and Weiser at full-back still yet to come to fruition.
Meanwhile in the pivot, Bastian Schweinsteiger has regained a foothold in the team, in spite of his bruised and battle-hardened condition, partnering midfield metronome Xabi Alonso in what has shown to be a fairly one-dimensional combination in recent games.
Alonso, specifically, has been miles off the pace since the autumn and as the fawning over his touches and pass statistics continues, there’s little doubt that the verticality provided by Toni Kroos – or even Thiago Alcantara who is injured – is sorely lacking with the former Liverpool ace in the middle.
More so, it’s concerning that Alaba doesn’t appear to have a set role in the team. The Austrian’s positional flexibility, his all-encompassing traits, have been basically counterproductive with other options at Guardiola’s disposal.
Alaba, 22, is no longer the first-choice at left full-back because of the powerful, and consistent, performances of Bernat. The Austrian Footballer of the Year for the past four years now needs his coach to make some unpopular decisions if he wants to rediscover his role in the centre of the park, while his left-midfield berth is undoubtedly better filled by one of Bayern’s attacking stars.
Blunt at the front
Then there are issues at the top of the attack: Robert Lewandowski has spent more time trying to create space in the half-spaces rather than finding room himself in the box where he excelled at Borussia Dortmund.
Lewandowski, the successor to Mario Mandzukic in this function of the team, has struggled to match the strength and efficiency of the Croat who now plays for Atletico Madrid in Spain after leaving the club in the summer.
Neither Thomas Muller, who at times resembles an antiquated player of years gone by, nor World Cup-winner Mario Götze have set the heather on fire this season in any of the multi-functional roles in the final-third. Only the ingenuity of Dutchman Arjen Robben, the winger who has been impressively improving physically by age, has been on the continued rise at Bayern this season.
There has been a genuine arrest over several months in the quest to master the balance of collective group, which looks to be uneasy in a squad of many outstanding individuals. But only when the minds turn towards the Champions League Last 16 will we see whether Guardiola has found the Midas touch – and whether anybody has learned from the tribulations of last season.
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