December 17, 2017

Bayern’s Lost Wunderkinds

From a Bayern fan’s point a view, a look at the club’s bench against Borussia Dortmund would have been a welcome sight: Bayern, with injuries ravaging their praised depth, gave seats to two highly admired youngsters, Mitchell Weiser and Pierre Emile Højbjerg. It was clear from the start that their place on the bench at the Signal Iduna Park was only to fill gaps left by the injuries of Claudio Pizarro, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Xherdan Shaqiri and Franck Ribéry, as a match of Der Klassiker‘s magnitude doesn’t fit the early development of these two young players; however, their absence from lower stake matches – such as UCL matches against Viktoria Plzeň or the Pokal matches, as well as some Bundesliga matches where rotation was possible – must be a cause of concern for any Bayern enthusiast.

The same concern applies with the lack minutes for Jan Kirchhoff,  a center back/defensive midfielder who is regarded as one of the most talented defenders in the Bundesliga. This concern seems weird when we consider Pep’s previous willingness to playing youngsters at Barcelona. Indeed, he gave starts to Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets and Pedro well before sending them on their way to stardom under his stewardship.

What’s so different at Bayern?

Pep cannot afford any mistake

The first explanation for the lack of playing time of Bayern’s younger players is that the coaching staff are given absolutely no marge of error. Indeed, Pep inherited the European treble-winners, a  team that has already qualified for the Champions League knockout stage this season and is sitting at the top of the Bundesliga with a four point lead over Leverkusen. However, looking at the reactions to the matches against Viktoria Plzeň away, Wolfsburg at home, and the away draw at Freiburg explains why Guardiola isn’t taking any risks with his players. In these cases, if Weiser, Højbjerg or Kirchhoff were given starts and the team consequently played the way they did, one can surely expect a torrent of abuse directed toward the coaching staff from fans and magazines, attacking Pep’s experiments in the side and The younger players capabilities.

The team hasn’t absorbed the tiki-taka just yet 

Guardiola admitted to the press last week that this year’s Bayern wasn’t really “his team” until now, explaining how the players are still influenced by the counter attacking culture of German football  and Jupp Heynckes’ methods whether he prefers possession based football and short passing. By watching this season’s games any football fan will see that Bayern achieved real tiki-taka style of football in only a handful of games, the draw against Freiburg, the draw against Leverkusen, the 3-0 win against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium, and the 7-0 demolishing of Viktoria Plzeň in Matchday 3 of the Champions League group stages.

Once again, Pep’s hesitation to use Weiser, Højbjerg, Kirchhoff, Green or the others can be understood because the coach clearly doesn’t see them yet as players who can replace the first team members. Furthermore, giving Guardiola’s focused attention on details and his continuous search for his famous “Eureka” moment, it is only normal that he focuses on a group of established players who have already shown what they got. It must be noted that Bayern have in the past gained notoriety on ruining potential big talents such as Nils Petersen, Jan Schlaudraff and Alexander Baumjohann, and this argument will not play on Pep’s side for a long time because Die Roten are getting more dominant with every  game they play.

The squad depth is a problem for the younger players

One of the main problems of Bayern’s doomed 2011-2012 season was the lack of depth in the squad and the huge difference between the starting line up and the bench. Since then, the management has invested greatly and brought quality players to the squad until the team can now rely on at least three world class players in every position.  The squad depth is great for rotation and for the much-needed rest of the starting line up and it gives a chance for substitutes such as Xherdan Shaqiri, Rafinha, Claudio Pizarro and Diego Contento to get match practice to keep them sharp and ready if they are called upon.

However, when a team has this extensive pool of superstars it becomes close to impossible for the club to integrate players coming from the youth team and the reserves, and this is the case for Bayern München this season. Weiser, who had a relatively successful loan stint at Kaiserslautern in the 2. Bundesliga last season, finds himself behind Franck Ribéry, Arjen Robben, Thomas Müller, Mario Götze and Xherdan Shaqiri for a place of the wings. The same can be said about Kirchhoff; in this case it is clear that Pep sees Jan as a defensive midfielder and not a centre-back, with the player having to settle for limited cameos, coming on with 15 or less minutes left because he plays in a position where Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Thiago Alcântara, and Javi Martínez are the main subjects. Finally, when we observe the situation up front where only Mario Mandžukić and Claudio Pizarro are real number nines, while this fact should have given a real hope to Julian Green and Patrick Weihrauch among others, Pep’s preference of a false nine in his formation rules those two and others out of contention .

In conclusion, Bayern’s squad is hit with injuries of various players in various positions which, along with the team’s guaranteed qualification to the knock-out stages of the Champions League and the comfortable lead at the top of the Bundesliga, should give Pep a new set of options to use the fringe players, especially in the striking position and in the middle of the park.

Header courtesy of Getty Images

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