Rather than indulge in an attempt to strip down the tactical nature of this match or run down a minute to minute summary I am going to take the editorial route. Summer is still months away and already a retrospective of Bayern’s season can be drawn up, albeit one that most Bayern supporters would not be too happy about. No doubt that most season reviews will include the failures of Van Gaal and his sophomore slump. In order to avoid heading down that path I am going to focus on on the crux of a couple of Bayern’s issues from a macro perspective.
In November Bayern took a 2 goal lead in Rome in their second to last group stage match. They became complacent, failed to react to Roma’s half-time changes and ended up losing the game 3-2. Two weeks earlier Bayern barely escaped with a point when they drew 3-3 against a floundering Gladbach side. A late goal from Philip Lahm saved face in what would have been an unnecessary loss as Bayern thew away a solid lead only to allow Gladbach back in the match. A month after the Roma match Bayern took on Stuttgart in the DFB Cup. They took a lead 3 different times and on three different occasions they allowed their opponent back into the game. A 3 goal burst in the last 10 minutes ensured they would go through but Bayern were close to throwing another game away. In February Bayern took a 2 goal lead against Köln only to lose 3-2 at the end. Once again, the team became complacent and made unnecessary defensive errors and instead of building on their lead, took it for granted.
These errors and lapses have become all too common for Bayern in the last couple of years and have been even more heavily emphasized in this tumultuous season, one that has already cost Louis van Gaal his job and is threatening Bayern’s place in the Champions League next year. The latest case of this tendency to collapse is the home loss to Inter after going up 2-1 by half-time and carrying over a 1-0 aggregate lead. Rather than taking the initiative and maintaining their momentum Bayern again capitulated and paid the price at the end. Inter now become only the second side to go through after losing their first leg at home, not a record you want to help your opponent set. Their Champions League exit is a microcosm of a larger symptom at work, namely the dual epidemic of mental frailty and defensive instability.
Bayern started the game a bit frantically but slowly got into the match as the first half progressed. They remained patient despite Eto’o’s opener and started creating more clear cut chances for themselves. A trade mark Robben shot and Gomez pounce after a rebound gave them the equalizer. Not too long after their pressure paid off again as Müller jumped on an accidental deflection to chip the ball over Julio Cesar. Bayern were now in the driver’s seat and had their fate firmly in their own hands.
To their credit, Bayern continued to create chances left and right and were to an extent very unlucky not to go up 4-1 but as almost always is the case in a football match, if you don’t take your chances the opponent will punish you. Bayern slowly started to take their foot off the pedal in the second half and after Sneijder’s equalizer seemed to have come out of nowhere the Bavarians slowly started to lose their grip on the game. That in turn built Inter’s confidence and the Italians became more adventurous in their search for a winner. Schweinsteiger and Gustavo started to lose control of their midfield and the backline seemed ripe for the picking at any moment.
Complacency is something that goes beyond tactics or the in game touch of a manager. It is an individual mental approach that can either make or break a result/performance. Some players have nerves of steel regardless of the circumstances and are rarely ever phased. Those players are rare and often desired by teams in moments like this. Van Bommel was such a player and so were Stefan Effenberg and Oliver Kahn. Bayern currently lack such a presence on the field and as such there is a leadership vacuum, which has been especially evident since Van Bommel’s departure. How players internalize games at specific moments goes a long way. It not only has an effect individually but collectively as well. Like a domino effect, one player’s slump creates another and so forth. At Bayern this seems endemic when the pressure begins to build against its players.
The Inter match was an example of the mental frailty of this Bayern side. It also shows how raw this team still is and that they are some time away from the finished product Van Gaal has intended. It also raises the question of whether a managerial change is necessarily the best option for a team still in transition, regardless of the year’s disappointing run. Are interruptions and managerial changes the right answer? Some of the veterans on this team have already had 4-5 different managers in their time with the club which far from creates the stability necessary to produce and develop a strong and disciplined mental approach.
Using 14 different variations of a backline is never going to create the kind of stability that is going to help a team going forward. Neither is the lack of a back up to one of your best players. Philip Lahm recently played his 100th consecutive match for Bayern, something no other player in Europe has managed. While it is a credit to Lahm’s consistency and fitness it also reveals a lack of alternatives and quality in depth. In particular, Bayern have failed to establish a first choice center back pairing. The constant shift in defense in large part contributes to Bayern’s poor defensive record this season. Stability requires consistency and vice versa. More over, team chemistry is built over time and with plenty of match practice. Players have to get used to each other and accommodate their individual games to that of the team and each other.
Prior to today’s match, Breno and Van Buyten started a total of 2 matches together this season. That was back in November of last year. While there is training to gain chemistry nothing replaces the experience of actual matches. It was no surprise then to see the two struggle during the match. The pair looked nervous at times and appeared as if they were playing their own game and looked vulnerable all night long when Inter attacked. The same can be said about all of Bayern’s center back pairings this season and there have been over a dozen.
It goes beyond just the rotation of defenders this season however and effectively comes down to an issue of personnel. Bayern’s attacking and possession game under Van Gaal requires ball playing defenders that can link up defense and attack seamlessly and contribute to the calm and cool passing game. Van Buyten, for his aerial prowess, is a slow defender who is prone to lapses in concentration and tends to struggle against mobile quick strikers. Badstuber and Breno on the other hand are still very raw and in the early stages of their development. Both have shown glimpses but neither have been consistent or reliable over a long period of time. In the first half of the season, Bayern’s most consistent center back was not a defender at all but midfielder Tymoshchuck. That is telling of Bayern’s defensive conundrum to say the least.
What the future holds
No matter who is brought in to replace Van Gaal in the summer Bayern’s number one priority has to be its defense. So far Bayern have been linked with attacking players like Lille’s Hazard and Gervinho or Schalke goalkeeper Neuer and the attack minded Benfica fullback, Coentrao. While all those are welcome additions none address the uncertainty and instability at the center of Bayern’s defense. A solid defense is the foundation of any successful football side and even the most attack minded sides in Europe have a reliable defensive base on which their attack is built.
For whatever reasons, Bayern have neglected this aspect in their team building strategy over the last couple of years and this season has highlighted it more than any other in recent memory. The accumulation of this defensive neglect will surely spur a spending spree in the summer but the question remains whether management will consider the right type of player or whether they will go with a carbon copy of what has created these problems in the first place.
In addition. The stabilization of their defense can and should be supplemented by an infusion of leadership, whether reached for externally or built from within. Bayern’s weak nerves have been exposed one time too many and a team can rely on individual moments of brilliance only so often before crumbling under pressure. Suffice to say, the summer will be a real test in the progression of this team.
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