Introduction – Battle of the Lame Ducks
The last two weeks have been the low point of Bayern season, and one of the worst in recent memory. Bayern had not lost 3 consecutive matches in over 10 years and the media fiasco surrounding Van Gaal’s summer exit and replacement as a result was inspiring anything but stability to a team that needed it in every sense. With a European spot seemingly slipping away in the league and an important match midweek in the Champions League, it was imperative that the team had a good response to a tumultuous couple of days. Before this game, the players said they stood by their coach and vowed not to disappoint him in his final couple of matches in charge. Today, Van Gaal kept his line up the same but started Gustavo alongside Van Buyten in defense with Kroos partnering Schweinsteiger in the middle.
Hamburg on the other hand are facing a crisis of their own. Coach Armin Veh recently announced his departure at season’s end and publicly voiced the internal affairs of the club. They too are chasing a European spot and are trying to keep up with in form teams like Mainz and Nürnberg. History favors Hamburg however as Bayern beat Hamburg only once in Munich in the last five seasons and the “Red Shorts” have been their bogey team this past decade. Veh stuck to his preferred 4-4-2 with a makeshift right back and center back in Rincon and Kacar and two more traditional wingers in Ben-Hatira and Elia.
The game started out more evenly than it ended with both sides taking turns pushing up. Bayern had two chances to go up, one through Gomez after rounding goalkeeper Rost but shooting wide and Van Buyten, whose header hit the post two minutes later. The breakthrough came after 40 minutes when Bayern’s relentless pressure put Ribery in an ideal position to set up Robben from 10 meters out. The goal before half time was deserved and important in setting the tone for then next 45 minutes. Shortly after kick off Bayern won a free kick out side the box, which allowed Robben to curl the ball over a horde of players and into the net. Bayern were helped when Gomez, who tried to get a head onto Robben’s ball, deceived Rost. There was no looking back for Hamburg from this point forward.
Ribery and Robben were again involved for the third goal when the pair combined well down the left. Ribery was played through and cut the ball back to an unmarked Robben. Less than 10 minutes later it was Ribery’s turn as the Frenchmen caught Hamburg on the break after a through ball from Robben, which set him up one-on-one with a helpless Rost. Robben was taken off with the Inter Milan game in mind and his replacement, Altintop, created Bayern’s 5th goal. The German born Turk picked up the ball outside the box and played Müller through on the left hand side, which the German international slotted into the bottom corner with ease. Bayern now needed one more goal to match their record win against Hamburg, achieved in the 1987/88 season. They got that goal 5 minutes from time after a brilliant individual run from Ribery down the left beat Kacar and the shot subsequently deflected off Westermann into the net.
Weakness of the 4-4-2 exposed
Most Bundesliga sides have turned away from the 4-4-2 for good reason. The trendy and modern 4-2-3-1 is more flexible, fluid and emphasizes the most important part of the pitch, the central midfield. Hamburg did themselves no favors by playing with a “Doppelsechs” or “double six” as they were not only outnumbered but also outplayed at every turn in that area of the pitch. Ze Roberto and Jarolim are experienced veterans who are still incredibly fit despite their age but today they were up against a more youthful and energetic Kroos and Schweinsteiger. Uncharacteristic of him, Ze Roberto lost the ball 10 times and both he and Jarolim failed to turn the game in Hamburg’s favor. The pair played closer to each other than is usually the case this season because they were pressed by Schweinsteiger and Kroos in front of them and Robben, Müller and Ribery from behind.
In addition to the squeezed midfield, Hamburg isolated their strikers from the rest of the team. Guerrero and Petric ran back occasionally but for the most part were stranded up front waiting for service. Elia, a traditional winger, drifted into the center more than he should have to help Jarolim and Ze Roberto but that in turn allowed Lahm a lot of space down that flank. Lahm was involved in more plays than every Hamburg player and gave Robben the freedom to cut inside and play more centrally. Hamburg’s other wide player, Ben-Hatira, on the other hand stayed too wide and at times played further up than both their strikers. As a result, Hamburg’s formation was rather lopped sided and easy to dissect.
In other words, there was nothing connecting Hamburg’s defense, midfield and attack and Bayern’s players exploited the channels and space in between. Instead of bringing on another midfielder to help Ze Roberto and Jarolim or moving Rincon to his natural position Veh brought on the attack minded Jansen and Tesche, neither of which did much to fill the massive vacuum in Hamburg’s midfield.
Robben and Ribery key
The pair was involved in 5 of Bayern’s 6 goals and they personally combined for 3 of the 6. Today’s performance was the most emphatic and effective example of their capabilities. One of the biggest reasons for that was the freedom given and created for them. Against Dortmund, Schalke and Hannover the pair were double teamed, isolated and too far from the rest of the team. A look at the average positioning of each player against Hamburg reveals that the pair played a lot closer to each than normally. It explains why they were able to combine so often.
It also played part in overwhelming Hamburg’s central midfield and defense. Robben and Ribery’s movement dragged players like Kacar and Westermann out of position and put Hamburg on the back foot throughout the match. What it boiled down to was the preoccupation of Robben and Ribery with which Hamburg approached the game from the beginning. It prevented them from playing their natural game and put Bayern in the driving seat until the final minute.
Aside from taking that initiative, Robben and Ribery were also encouraged by Hamburg’s ineffective fullbacks. Rincon, naturally a midfielder, and Aogo were very conservative in their approach. Neither attempted to get forward much, most likely because they were instructed to stay put and defend Bayern’s dangerous wingers. Instead of providing defensive stability, they essentially encouraged Ribery and Robben to play with more freedom without worrying about their defensive duties.
Conclusion – Van Gaal vindicated and Hamburg remain in limbo
Robben admitted after the game that the players have to pull together and ensure they reach a Champions League spot, both an admission of their diminished performances in the last couple of weeks as well as voicing support for their outgoing coach.
Bayern have complicated things recently, forcing plays, rushing attacks, forgetting basic defensive duties, all reasons for their inconsistent form. Even worse, there was a sense of complacency about the team that deterred their overall play. Against Hamburg, Bayern did what they are best at. They went back to basics and played a proactive game that allowed all their players to excel. The win was an example of how one game can seemingly resurrected their season.
Veh commented that his team let themselves be too easily exposed on the counter attack and they were not mentally prepared for it. There is a lot of truth to that of course but Veh did little to try and help his side while they were getting pummeled into submission. There is now a great sense at Hamburg that the white flag has been waved and they are counting down the days until the end of the season. That would be a shame because Hamburg started 2011 better than most other sides but the internal problems are becoming more and more apparent with every week.
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