August 20, 2017

2016-17 Report Cards: Bayern Munich

Well, they’ve done it again. The Bavarians won their record 5th title in a row. Cue the somewhat staid celebration scenes of the “salad plate” Meisterschale aloft again and the fun-looking Bierdusche antics again, while Arjen Robben’s kids again take shots at the goal mouth on the confetti-covered pitch.

(Did you notice all the agains?)

Surely Bundesliga Champions Bayern Munich earned an “A” grade for the 2016-17 season, right? Not so fast. For any other Bundesliga side, the answer would be yes. But not for Bayern, who are burdened with the world-class expectations of the elite.

You know, just win the Bundesliga, win the DFB Pokal, and win the Champions League. That is, just win the treble. And why not? Bayern’s roster is consistently among the world’s finest, and after the three Pep Guardiola project seasons that seemingly transformed Bayern into an invulnerable machine, new coach Carlo Ancelotti was seen as just the “knockout tournament specialist” (#WishfulLogic) to win the Champions League trophy that maddeningly alluded Bayern during Guardiola’s three seasons.

A season later, Bayern “only” won the Bundesliga, lost in the DFB Pokal semis to Dortmund, and didn’t even make the Champions League semi-finals. Oh, the burden of being Bayern. Or of being an unrealistic Bayern supporter, who believes that randomness can be crushed by sheer expectations. Look, the best sides get knocked out of tournaments. Randomness strikes. Besides, I’d argue that by winning the Bundesliga, Bayern won the competition that it had the most control over, thus burnishing its elite credentials.

Given the silly drama accruing over Bayern’s “failure,” you’d be forgiven for forgetting that Philipp Lahm played his final season of football. In the aftermath of winning five consecutive Bundesliga seasons, Bayern’s success is easy to take for granted, especially since Lahm not only captained this side, but also anchored the pitch for over a decade. No matter what gaudy transfers Bayern brings in next season, Lahm’s absence will loom large. I don’t think we know what it means yet.

In the meantime, it’s time to review and grade Bayern’s 2016-17 season.

Highlight

It’s gotta be winning the Bundesliga for the 5th consecutive time, am I right?

Lowlight

Two words: Real Madrid. Actually, six words: Real Madrid and blown referee calls.

The Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid Champions League quarter-final showdown came a round too soon, at least according to the standard dramaturgical view. Regardless, the showdown didn’t disappoint, despite the 7-4 aggregate scoreline in favor of the Spaniards. For many Bayern supporters, this scoreline was the product of ill-gotten Real Madrid gain.

In the showdown’s aftermath, Carlo Ancelotti’s entire raison d’etre at the club — i.e. “knockout tournament specialist” — imploded, and, along with it, the magical thinking that simply hiring Ancelotti guaranteed Bayern’s Champions League success.

Did you too drink the Kool-Aid?

Nevertheless, and call it unfair, but the outcome of the Real Madrid showdown was Bayern’s worst moment in 2016-17. However, I might suggest that Bayern trailing RB Leipzig for much of the Hinrunde is perhaps a more damnable moment for the Bavarian giants, as they seemingly struggled to mete out their customary “Bayern Treatment” beatings to opponents. For instance, Bayern finished with 39 points by die Winterpause, 5 points less than the average of 44 points by die Winterpause during the previous four seasons.

Attack

Let’s start with output: goals. Bayern scored 89 goals this season — 17 more than its closest rival, Borussia Dortmund. This output was more than the club scored under Guardiola’s previous two seasons (80 goals both times), but not the Spandiard’s first season (94 goals). Impressive. You want to know a terrifying stat? Bayern had 20 shots hit the woodwork this season — more than other Bundesliga club. Yikes. But it sure does help to create more shots than anyone else; Bayern created 18.3 shots per match (6.3 shots on target per match), more than any other Bundesliga clubs naturally.

Time-wise, Bayern scored more goals during the 2nd half of matches (55%) than the 1st half (45%). Next, Bayern’s most productive 15 minute increment during matches was minutes 75-90 when the club scored 26% of its goals. Exhibit A: the stunning MD 34 win at Leipzig. (Significantly, this is the 15 minute increment when Bayern conceded the fewest goals all season, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

Goals scored during all Bayern Munich matches from 2016-17 by 15 minute increments (both for and against Bayern). Source: InStat Football.

As usual, Bayern’s talent allows it to score goals from open play (71 goals), meaning only 20% of its goals were scored from set piece situations (e.g. corners, free kicks, or penalties). Of these, Bayern scored slightly more goals from its right flank (e.g. the “Robben side”). By the way, about two-thirds of Bayern’s goals were scored from inside the penalty area. This is how champs roll, folks.

Of course, Robert Lewandowski was the leading scorer (30 goals), as well as leading shot taker (4.3 per match), of which 42% were on target. Additionally, Lewa scored 11 goals from set piece and penalty situations. Next for Bayern is Arjen Robben with 13 goals, who “only” started 21 matches. By season’s end, Robben was magic, looking absolutely unstoppable. The age-defying 33 year old Dutchman somehow out does himself each of these past seasons. After Robben,  it gets weird for Bayern as both Thiago and Joshua Kimmich each have 6 goals. After them, Franck Ribéry and Thomas Müller finally show up on the list with 5 goals apiece. Weird.

An emerging opinion during the season was that Bayern over-relied on Lewandowski for goals, especially in Europe. Indeed, Lewadowski scored 34% of Bayern’s goals:

This 34% was the Bundesliga’s 4th heaviest scoring burden on a single player (Modeste at Köln, Gomez at Wolfsburg, and Aubameyang at Dortmund were worse).

Given Ribéry’s age and decreased role, his scoring dropoff made sense, but not Müller. Lest I judge the “Space-Translator” too harshly, we should all remember just how weird Müller is as a player, possessing no obviously elite skills or physical advantages competitively. So you could say he was “due” for some regression at some point. However, no one is really “due” anything statistically, and yet his 5 goals is a stunning dropoff from the previous seasons:

  • 2015-16: 20 goals.
  • 2014-15: 13 goals.
  • 2013-14: 13 goals.
  • 2012-13: 13 goals.

By the way, Müller’s Expected Goals was “only” 6.7 this season, according to Alex Rathke’s model, so it’s not as if the German was suddenly very unlucky. Either way, expect the offseason to chatter to focus on Müller as a source for an increased goal tally next season.

But forget about goals, Müller assisted 14 goals this season. Only RB Leipzig’s Emil Forsberg had more assists. Honestly, I was surprised by this number, because my own perceptions of Müller’s season had hyjacked by all the chatter about his goal dropoff. Suddenly, the view is different: with these assists, Müller was indispensable to Bayern’s attack.

Some final attacking numbers: the average length of possession leading to a scoring chance was just under 50 seconds (the Bundesliga average was 19 seconds). Moreover, Bayern completed just over 16 passes per possession with scoring chances (the Bundesliga average was 6 passes). Obviously, these numbers bear the imprint of Pep Guardiola’s possession system, build on long strings of passes leading to scoring opportunities. Ancelotti is good on his care-taking word.

Defense

For the umpteenth straight season, Bayern had the Bundesliga’s stingiest defense, conceding the fewest goals (22). The closest rivals? Hoffenheim (37 goals), RB Leipzig (39 goals), and Dortmund (40 goals). Trivia tidbit: those 22 goals were the most Bayern have conceded since the 2013-14 season (23 goals). By the way, Bayern’s expected goals conceded number was 24.03 goals, according to Alex Rathke. Of these 22 goals, only conceded 4 (!) on set piece situations and only 2 during the match’s final 15 minutes. By contrast, Bayern conceded 7 goals during the match’s first 15 minutes.

With Bayern’s defense, it’s always tricky to separate actual defensive skill and prowess from the effect that possessing so much more of the ball has preventing opponents from scoring. Of course by many index stat ratings, Bayern’s defenders (Mats Hummels, Javi Martinez, Lahm, and Alaba) were ranked the league’s best for their individual performances. Naturally, Bayern’s opponents possessed the ball less than anyone else, while Bayern conceded the fewest shots per match (8.9) than anyone else, although RB Leipzig wasn’t too far behind (10 per match).

Finally, Bayern got another elite performance from Manual Neuer at keeper, who only conceded 0.63 goals per match, when the expected goals conceded per match number was 0.77. This difference between goals conceded and expected goals conceded ranks Neuer as the league’s 2nd best keeper in 2016-17. However, I’m totally happy saying Neuer’s the best keeper, given that Timo Horn (the best differential) had a career year and has a bit of regression written all over him for next season.

Midfield

Bayern’s midfield was again the Bundesliga’s best: Arturo Vidal, Xabi Alonso, Thiago, Joshua Kimmich, Carrying over the Guardiola’s possession philosophy, these midfielders are Europe’s current apotheosis of ball holding, ball distribution, and Key Passes. Sure, Vidal’s got a bit of the undisciplined David Luiz-styled exploration about him, but he’s also a high volume passing contributor (70 passes per match, 87.8 completion rate). He’s crucial. Make no mistake about it.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Bayern’s midfield is actually the most underappreciated part of the squad. In a sense, these players almost become invisible with their seemingly automated precision and by the way Bayern’s attackers can rely on them to distribute the ball. I mean, how much do you know notice this elite unit? Or take it for granted?

Largely thanks to this midfield, Bayern possessed the ball an average and stunning 39:11 per match (not counting dead ball time). And get this, Bayern averaged 11 instances per match of possession longer than 45 seconds (the Bundesliga average was 4.7). Because of this ability to hold onto the ball for a long time, Bayern “only” averaged 111 possession instances per match (the Bundesliga average was 110). By the way, 72% of these instances occurred within the opponent’s territory. Finally, 24% (!) of Bayern’s possession occurred within the opponent’s penalty box.

Along with Lahm, Alonso played his final professional season. Like Lahm’s upcoming absence, I don’t think we know just how big this loss is for Bayern no matter who brought in to replace him (e.g. Alexis Sanchez). Alonso’s ability to play consistently perfect short balls and his ability — one of the world’s best in this regard — to play accurate longballs means that Bayern are taking a significant loss.

Improve for next season

Well, Bayern is really the one side about whom I don’t have much to say in this section. I’ll try fussing around a bit and see what I can suggest …

How about this? More than the improving business, Bayern will be in the replacing business this summer with the retirements of Lahm and Alonso.

Otherwise, the conventional wisdom is that Bayern need to develop alternative scoring options, especially during European matches and in case something happens to Robert Lewandowski. Sure. My guess is that Müller will score more goals next season and that Robben will still do some damage.

However, I think the issue Bayern needs to improve is developing its young players, as well as finding ways to get its youth players onto the first team. For instance, progress seems to have stalled in developing Renato Sanches, Kingsley Coman, or even Joshua Kimmich. Additionally, in its drive to win the Champions League and remain among the very top clubs in Europe, it seems that Bayern has gotten away from incorporating its youth players into the first team. If anything, the historical lesson in Germany has been that neglecting one’s own youth doesn’t work out in the end.

Transfer Preview

One name is dominating the transfer talk: Alexis Sanchez. We can daydream about the Chilean duo of Vidal and Sanchez joining forces in a single domestic midfield — I can see the two working nicely as the double pivots in a 4-2-3-1 shape.

Otherwise, look for Bayern to add defensive depth behind Hummels, Boateng, and Martinex. And obviously keep an eye on that rightback spot vacated by Lahm. Will Bayern groom an in-house replacement or buy one? Finally, a name like Marco Verratti has been tossed around as a signing to add more attacking depth in the midfield.

Player of the Season

Thiago Alcantara. The Spaniard was probably the Bundesliga’s best player this season. He led the club in passing (97 completed passes per match) with a completion rate  of 91% and a total of 2,566 passes, which is very impressive, given how much midfield pressing happens in the Bundesliga these days. Sure, Lewandowski has the goals and Müller has the assists, but without Thiago they’d both have much, much less of each. For example. Thiago’s 5 assists and 2 Key Passes per match directly contributed to Lewandowski and Müller’s stats. However, Thiago most important contribution his passing vision and consistency. Technically, he’s supremely skilled in passing technique, as well as the little sidesteps or maneuvers to elude defenders then pick out the best pass. As a bonus, Thiago even scored 6 goals this season.

I don’t know about you, but I found a healthy Thiago (for a whole season!) to be a revelation. Just look at what we’ve missing these past seasons, when the midfielder was constantly injured. For example, it’s not too hard to imagine actually winning the Champions League during one of the those Guardiola seasons if Thiago hadn’t lost so much time to injuries. Keep a close eye on Thiago next season and watch carefully: he’s probably the best central midfielder in the world right now, so enjoy him.

Grade

B+

Look, I toyed with an A-, since I don’t buy the argument that not winning the Champions League = a “failed season.” However, I’m willing to couple the early-than-expected Champions League exit with the German Cup knockout, plus the slowish Hinrunde start to downgrade Bayern from an A to a B this season. I get it. That sense of wanting more from this side is just unshakable.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U6s are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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