If Bayern Munich want to finally overcome their European hurdle they must adjust and improve, both in performance and in mentality, to ensure this year doesn’t end up in another disappointing exit. The Arsenal loss was a stern wake up call against lumbering complacency and the arduous demands of European football. Dominating domestically will mean very little in the grand scheme of things if Bayern cannot translate that level of performance where it matters most, the Champions League.
Domestic vs. European
The statistics are quite telling for Bayern this season. Their domestic dominance is unprecedented. With a 20 point lead over defending champions Borussia Dortmund and a growing resume of shattered records they have set the pace for everyone else in the league. In fact, they can wrap up the league by next month and for many, the German Cup is also a formality. The Champions League on the other hand hasn’t quite been the same story.
Europe is a different proposition altogether of course, but the fact that their performances haven’t translated remains worrisome for a team whose primary ambition is to reach the pinnacle of club football. Looking at the table below there is a notable difference in performance between the league and Europe.
The Champions League provides teams with different challenges which bear repeating; fewer games, tougher opponents in some cases, longer travel distances, etc. The discrepancy does deserve mention though, particularly when it comes to Bayern’s defensive performances in the Champions League. For a team who has arguably the best defense in Europe this season, one clean sheet in eight Champions League games is somewhat of a disappointment. It’s also strange considering only two teams have allowed fewer shots per game than the Germans.
|Competition||Goals Scored Per Game||Goals Conceded Per Game||Clean Sheets||Average Possession %|
|Champions League||2.25||0.8||1||57.7 %|
For many teams throwing away leads or coming up short when it matters most is a rare occurrence. For Bayern it has become a nagging habit. Some would say even a curse. Only two teams have overturned a first leg home loss to progress to the quarterfinals before in the history of the competition. Ajax Amsterdam did it in the 1995/96 season against Panathinaikos and Inter Milan did it against none other than Bayern Munich just two seasons ago. Arsenal nearly pulled it off on Wednesday. Again, Bayern Munich were involved. Not to mention their infamous night in May against Chelsea last year.
This season they followed up a memorable and quite impressive win in London with arguably their most lethargic and disappointing performance to date this season in the competition the entire club so desperately want to win. After what seemed like an insurmountable first leg win, Bayern nearly threw it away with a performance obviously below par. One could not help think back to their second leg against Inter Milan two years ago in which most people had Bayern pegged to go through only to lose in the final minutes to a weakened Inter Milan side.
It’s the dichotomy of the sheer potential of the squad and the examples of dominance coupled with disappointments like yesterday that make Bayern Munich a difficult team to assess. In a way it seems like they are their own worst enemy, letting nerves or a degree of comfort compromise their competitive ambitions. Jupp Heynckes himself admitted Bayern weren’t themselves against Arsenal, “We failed to put up a real fight against them in the first half. We weren’t as compact or as aggressive as we have been in recent weeks. This should be a reminder for us that it takes two games to qualify for the next round. We weren’t as focused as we usually are.”
Areas of Improvements
There are a few significant areas in which Bayern can improve in Europe. Heynckes noted after the Arsenal game that his side were never truly in control of the game. Despite dominating possession, it was not comfortable possession, as he pointed, “We improved in the second half and created chances to score, but overall we never had real control of this match and were never able to pass the ball in the calm and controlled manner we are used to. We managed to get off with a slap on our wrists.”
The point made about aggression also bears repeating. Bayern are 14th in the Champions League this season in tackles per game, behind teams like Anderlecht, Celtic and Olympiakos. Aggression can be subjective though as teams who keep the ball more spend less time trying to win it back but winning the ball back quickly was one of the problems they encountered against Arsenal on Wednesday and throughout the group stage. At times their pressing this season has been absolutely superb but at others it has been sorely lacking.
Finally, Bayern would do well to stop falling into the same trap that cornered them last year and find ways to vary up their game when necessary. Against Arsenal Bayern sent in cross after cross but like Franz Beckenbauer said after the game, “We have five great headers of the ball and all the crosses only reached knee-height.” The service was lacking indeed but it’s also the propensity to always resolve to crossing that makes the team both predictable and ineffective. Bayern cross on average more than any other team in the competition with a staggering 30 crosses per game. When it works, it’s great but when it doesn’t, it limits the team to an easy-to-defend routine that most defenses at this level have no problem dealing with.
There is no question that this is a much improved Bayern Munich that we saw last year or many season before that but the greatest teams are always aware of the pitfalls of failure and the greatest shortcomings, their own complacency. Bayern must find their focus again, pick themselves up and not let this happen again. If they can do that, there is no reason why they can’t take part in another final come May.
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