FC Bayern fans all across the world held their collective breaths when the news came down that team captain Philipp Lahm had injured himself in training earlier this week – they expected the worse but hoped for the best. The verdict, a broken ankle requiring surgery and a 3 month layoff. If there is any silver lining at all it is that 6 of those weeks fall within the mandated Winterpause meaning he’ll only be missing 6 Bundesliga and 2 Champions League matches. This injury marks the first time in nearly a decade that Lahm has missed significant action for his club – in the 2004-05 season while on loan at VfB Stuttgart a knee ligament tear sidelined him for 6 months.
No injury ever comes at a convenient time, Philipp Lahm’s broken ankle is just one of a laundry list of significant injuries to key Bayern players. Pepe Reina (calf) and Thiago Alcántara (torn knee ligaments) are both out indefinitely, while Holger Badstuber (ruptured tendon), Claudio Pizarro (muscle tear), David Alaba (torn knee ligaments), Tom Starke (high ankle sprain), and Javi Martinez (torn knee ligaments) all join Lahm as players who will not feature until the beginning of the Rückrunde at the very earliest.
It is also being reported that both Mehdi Benatia and Franck Ribéry are questionable to play this week due to knocks picked up in training.
While the situation at present is far from ideal, it could have been much worse. Manuel Neuer and Jérôme Boateng both pulled out of Germany’s friendly with Spain last week with minor injuries although their absence was likely precautionary and both should be available for Saturday’s match versus Hoffenheim. Thomas Müller suffered a bruised back, or pferdekuss, in the match and needed to be substituted although he should also be ready to play on Saturday. Another bit of good news for Bayern is that Bastian Schweinsteiger, who has been out since the summer with a torn patellar tendon suffered in the match versus the MLS All-Stars, looks to be fit enough to play some part in this weekend’s match.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that no one, with the exception of the Bayern supporters themselves, will feel much sympathy for the club, perhaps least of all Borussia Dortmund who themselves have had to endure a catastrophic run of injuries to their key players. But if there is one club that is best equipped to deal with the loss of so many important components it is FC Bayern; their squad depth is the envy of world football and the man at the helm is no stranger to using adapting his squad’s formation and tactics to best suit the given situation.
So far this season in all competitions Pep Guardiola has trotted out his staring 11 in 10 different formations, so clearly the man is not afraid to experiment with his players’ starting positions. Of course anyone who has watched a Guardiola coached Bayern match will know that Pep’s teams will react and morph as the in-game situations dictate. But this isn’t meant to be an in-depth tactical discussion (there are plenty of good ones out there) and more of an examination of potential team selections until the squad gets back to full health, in which there will be a whole new set of team selection headaches to mull over.
The no brainer decision. It doesn’t matter who Pep has the ability to choose from, Manuel Neuer is going to be the man in between to goalposts for Bayern. Youngster Leopold Zingerle will be the backup and will remain firmly rooted to the bench unless Neuer is sent off or injured enough that he’s unable to play. At one point, Bayern invited former Mainz goalkeeper Heinz Müller to train with the squad with a view to using the veteran as a potential emergency option should anything happen to Neuer.
Bayern’s defensive injuries haven’t been incredibly damaging to the team although with both Alaba and Lahm out the fullback positions are rather thin at the moment and with the health of Benatia in question for Saturday’s match it could become problematic for the near future. If Pep were to play with a back 4 we’d expect Juan Bernat to play on the left and Rafinha on the right flanking Boateng and Dante in the middle. Sebastian Rode has also played at right fullback this season so that remains an option for Guardiola to ponder.
One solution to any defence issues, while perhaps not ideal given the current situation, would be to simply play a back 3. Boateng and Dante, the 2 natural central defenders, would be automatic inclusions in the starting 11 and one of Bernat or Rafinha would join them in the back line. At one point or another this season both Bernat and Rafinha have featured in a back 3.
Injuries to Bayern’s midfield have been the most disruptive to the team selections. Both Lahm and Alaba have been extensively used in midfield and their injuries mean obviously mean that their responsibilities must be taken on by someone else. This means that both Sebastian Rode and Pierre-Emil Højbjerg could both see some time as starters; the most likely scenario is in a central midfield partnership with Xabi Alonso.
However, the opportunity for either of these players to cement a place in the team could be short-lived as Bastian Schweinsteiger is finally ready to slot back into the team after a lengthy lay off. The likeliest scenario is that the 3 will all take turns partnering Alonso until Schweinsteiger regains his form and that partnership remains intact until the injured players return. In the meantime it could perhaps be a bit of a showcasing for Højbjerg who has recently stated that he’s looking for a more permanent position in a squad and if he needs to leave Bayern to achieve that, he’d be open to a move.
Expect little to change with the attacking midfielders in the long-term but if Ribéry is not available for selection on Saturday, it could be an opportunity for Xherdan Shaqiri to take his place at left wing. Shaqiri, like Højbjerg, has been disappointed in his lack of playing time so this could also present him with an opportunity to show what he’s got. Another option could be to keep Shaqiri on the bench and move Mario Götze to the left wing and have Thomas Müller (assuming he’s shrugged off his “horse kiss”) play either behind or in a partnership with the striker.
Bayern only have 2 out-and-out strikers in the squad but only 1 of them, Robert Lewandowski, is fit. This may not seem overly problematic for Bayern who get goals from a wide variety of players but Claudio Pizarro’s injury shouldn’t be so quickly overlooked. Pizarro is a proven goal scorer in the Bundesliga and this experience should not be discounted. With that said, Lewandowski appears to be rounding into form after some so-so outings earlier in the season so as long as he stays fit, the forward position shouldn’t be much of an issue.
Pep’s IF-THEN (-ELSE) Conundrum
What all of the above means is that there are numerous permutations of how Guardiola can set up his starting 11 compensating for the loss of so many key players, and it can sort of be viewed through the lens of an IF-THEN-ELSE expression in computer programming.
IF Pep goes with a back 3 THEN that back 3 will consist of Dante, Boateng and Bernat ELSE that back 3 will be of Dante, Boateng, and Rafinha.
IF Pep goes with a back 4 THEN the fullbacks will be Bernat and Rafinha ELSE the fullbacks will be Bernat and Rode.
IF Pep uses a double pivot THEN Alonso will be paired with Rode ELSE Alonso will be paired with Højbjerg ELSE Alonso will be paired with Schweinsteiger (Alonso’s place in the starting 11 is practically a given).
….and so on.
When you really look at it, it almost seems that Guardiola has too many options!
Conclusion: Is it really all that bad?
Are all of these injuries actually going to slow Bayern down? There are 6 league fixtures remaining before the winter break when it is assumed that most of the injured players will return to full health. All but 1 of these matches (home to Freiburg) are against teams in the top half of the table, 1 or 2 of which could be rather tricky fixtures. However since Bayern have already qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League and there are no Pokal matches until March next year, maintaining their excellent (and unbeaten) run in the league will likely be the primary concern.
As has been underscored multiple times above, Bayern’s unparalleled squad depth will likely see them steer this ship through the choppy waters. Guardiola has multiple contingency plans at his disposal but let’s not forget that he has been dealing with significant player injuries all season, and has adjusted his team selection, squad rotation, and tactics accordingly. Long story short…Bayern should be just fine
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