This game was a classic example of a tale of two halves. Bayern progressed steadily after the kick off, finding it quite easy to stifle Roma, push them back and capitalize on their mistakes. The two-goal lead at half-time was much deserved and as comfortable a match as Bayern have seen this season. More impressively, they had done so without the suspended Schweinsteiger and the injured Robben, Olic and Van Bommel.
The second half was a different story altogether. Roma came out aggressively and played a high energy pressing game, which pinned Bayern back and completely turned the game around for the Italians. Ranieri removed two of Roma’s deep lying midfielders Brighi and Greco for more attack oriented Simplicio and Totti, two moves that reversed the pressure completely and piled on a Bayern that looked more and more timid and nervous as the second half progressed. Along with Ranieri’s tactical adjustments Bayern took their foot off the pedal, became complacent, failed to compensate for Roma’s energetic play and as a result collapsed completely.
Despite a nine match unbeaten run, this loss is indicative of greater issues at Bayern, problems that were noticeable even during their successful season last year and several years before that. So why did Bayern collapse the way they did and what does it mean to the team’s progression and remainder of the season? Four reasons in particular stand out to explain this loss and define some of Bayern’s issues as a team.
1. Lack of quality in depth
Bayern’s incredible run in the CL and domestic double was even more impressive when considering the fact that Van Gaal used the same 11-14 players for much of the season. Players like Lahm (53), Schweinsteiger (49), Van Bommel (40) and Mueller (52) played a combined 195 matches between them with next to no breaks. Occasionally squad players like Pranjic, Gomez and Altintop filled in but for the most part the starting eleven remained the same throughout most of the season.
One of the criticisms aimed at Van Gaal this and last season has been his failure to rotate and integrate other squad players, a notion and tactic that has become a norm in modern football. A growing calendar of fixtures and participation in multiple competitions requires teams to prepare larger squads and players. Players like Tymoshchuk, Ottl and Gomez did not get consistent playing time last season but in the absence of other players are asked to step in seamlessly this year and the transition was not without bumps in the road.
Furthermore, Bayern still lack the equivalent of Philip Lahm on the left side of the pitch. In the last season and a half, Contento, Pranjic and Badstuber have all filled in at left back which makes it a large area of vulnerability and inconsistency and an area that opposing teams target on a regular basis. In addition, Bayern have become so dependent on Robben and Ribery as their primary creative and attacking outlet that their absence creates a huge vacuum that neither replacement has been able to fill effectively. Altintop, Pranjic, Olic, Mueller and Kroos have all been played out wide as wingers with no real success, primarily because none of those really are out and out wingers like Robben and Ribery.
2. Defensive frailty
When Diego Milito easily turned and rounded Van Buyten in the Champions League final in May it was not only the decisive moment of the match but symbolic of the gap between a team worthy of the title and a work in progress.
Whatever progress Bayern made in the last season and a half is paralleled by the continued defensive frailty that has consistently been Bayern’s Achilles heel for years. For all of Van Buyten’s scoring prowess and towering headers there is also his slow pace, which has been a liability ever since he joined the club. Van Buyten is certainly not the only defender whose pace is a concern but it is really an issue of accommodating a certain style of play. Van Buyten does not fit into Van Gaal’s passing and possession based system. He is not the best passing defender nor does he move the ball out of the back as a defender should in a passing and possession team.
The trend has been to partner a more rugged physical defender with a ball playing type as Manchester United (Vidic and Ferdinand) or Barcelona (Pique and Puyol) as prime examples. On paper Van Buyten and Demichelis seem to fit this mold as well but the distinction is in the in game intelligence and composure that the former have and latter lack. Bayern’s defense concedes more goals than they should considering the amount of possession they have on average against their opponents. It is no wonder that Van Gaal promoted Badstuber from the amateurs as soon as he arrived at Bayern. He even opted to play a natural defensive midfielder, Tymoshchuk, at center back.
The lapses in concentration that characterize the defensive volatility of this team are very much a result of the uncoordinated and incompatible personnel. Last year the multitude of defensive mistakes nearly cost them when Fiorentina nearly knocked them out of the Champions League early on, game that exemplifies Bayern’s defensive shortcomings better than any other. Because Bayern lack a defensive compliment to their midfield and attack they remain vulnerable when countered or pressured in any way. They lose their shape easily as Roma proved so well in the second half. Moreover, the lack of passing defenders prevents quick transitions from defense to attack when in possession. Every winning team is consists of a solid defensive core that acts as a foundation for everything else. Until Bayern address this issue they will continue to give up unnecessary goals and fail to fully realize Van Gaal’s philosophy.
3. Injuries/Absence of key players
Robben was singled out last year as Bayern cruised to a domestic double and an impressive run to the Champions league final but the single most important reason for Bayern’s success was the double pivot of Van Bommel and Schweinsteiger, a tactical tandem that represented the defensive and attacking core of Bayern’s game-plan. Both were unspoken heroes throughout the season and pivotal to every positive move the team made.
Against Roma, Bayern missed both Van Bommel, who is still nursing an injury, and Schweinsteiger, who was suspended due to card accumulation. The two built a relationship on the field that is as good as any central midfield partnership in Europe and are arguably Bayern’s two most important players in a systematic sense. Their replacements, Tymoshchuk and Ottl, lack the necessary ruggedness, energy, initiative and leadership of Van Bommel and Schweinsteiger. Both are also natural defensive midfielders and more comfortable sitting deep than joining the attack. Van Bommel and Schweinsteiger’s strength is that they are both box to box midfielders, as comfortable on the ball as they are in the tackle. Both Ottl and Tymoshchuk remained very deep against Roma and initiated few attacks, leaving the wide players to do so but when they were pinned back in the second half Roma was able to take full control of the game.
The severity of Robben’s absence cannot be understated either. He was the key attacking ingredient last season and his goals and willingness to take on players was the platform for Bayern’s imposing game. Aside from Ribery, who himself has just returned from injury, Robben is the only player adventurous and willing enough to take opposing defenders on and create opportunities by disrupting defenses and unsettling the opposition. A trade-mark and key strength of both Robben and Ribery is their tendency to cut inside and either link up with a team mate or shoot at goal. In their absence Bayern’s gameplan has stagnated and become more direct. While Gomez has benefited directly from this it has made Bayern more predictable and stale. The last game against Leverkusen was a good indicator of the one-dimensional nature of Bayern’s attack as almost all came from wide areas.
The return of the injured players will likely give Bayern a boost but it may not come soon enough. Robben and Badstuber are out until January the earliest while Olic may just miss the season. Ribery is struggling to get back to 100% fitness and it is uncertain whether Van Bommel will regain last season’s form. Either way, the key absences go a long way in explaining Bayern’s erratic form this season.
4. Mental weakness
Although dropping a two-goal lead is unprecedented in Bayern’s recent history, this was not the first match in which Bayern failed to maintain the necessary mental fortitude to see out games or hold on to a lead. This season, Bayern have made a habit of conceding either early or shortly after half time and that is indicative of a distinct lack of discipline that permeates the team.
In their first Bundesliga match Bayern took the lead against Wolfsburg and conceded ten minutes after the break. Only a last minute winner spared their blushes. Against Freiburg they scored a goal shortly after half time only to concede one three minutes later. When they traveled to Gladbach Bayern went into the break 2:1 up and again collapsed after the break, conceding two goals in succession. Again, a last minute equalizer from Lahm was the only thing that prevented a loss.
Bayern also have a curious case of conceding goals first and early. This truly makes Bayern its own worst enemy, as they always have to chase the game, which then creates an entire new set of problems for them. It took Bremen under two minutes to score against Bayern in their second round Cup match and Ibisevic under a minute to score when Hoffenheim hosted Bayern earlier this year. Mainz scored their first less than fifteen minutes when they beat Bayern at the end of September. Last year it took Dortmund and Bremen only ten minutes to open the score against Bayern. In the return fixture Dortmund scored less than five minutes into the game. In the Champions League Bayern conceded against Juventus, Bordeaux, Fiorentina between the 20th and 30th minute mark, which considering the compact nature of the competition, relatively early. In the quarter final against Manchester United, Bayern were down two goals after only seven minutes. These are not coincidences but evidence that Bayern lack the necessary discipline over 90 minutes.
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