May 19th, 2012 will be a date imprinted deep within the psyche of every Bayern fan for all the wrong reasons. The date was meant to be synonymous with the crowning of the club as Europe’s elite, and all in front of their own fans. The club went to great lengths to drive home the idea of manifest destiny – Bayern reclaiming the trophy that they have been seeking for over a decade at the Allianz Arena. As soon as the venue was announced it was to be written in the stars that FC Bayern München would be present on the day of the final and emerge victorious. A lot of money was invested in plastering the city with solicitations of support. To its citizens, Munich was asked in its entirety for full support as the city’s club would bring home the trophy and perhaps usher in a new era of success for the German Record Champions. If you asked General Manager Uli Hoeneß before the final, he would have told you it was nothing less than destiny for Bayern to achieve this goal, not to mention the amount of profit made from this would be astronomical. This is how much was at stake, not only for the man, but for the club.
So what went wrong? Was it simply a matter of missed chances? After all they dominated the match if you’re one for statistics. Of course this is football and they often don’t tell the full story. Was this perhaps a case of hubris, punished? It makes for better headlines doesn’t it? Naturally the post-match reactions all concern the rued chances and undeserved loss. However this exact reaction and proposed period of mourning is typical of the club’s behavior in the face of chaos – emphasizing nothing less than a self-serving reality and masking the truth behind the reality. None of the real issues and reasons why the club failed to fulfill arguably their biggest ambition in the last two decades are declared or rationalized. In this ideology lies the danger of not understanding its present problems but instead continuing to perpetuate them, at the cost of their perception.
To begin understanding the events of last night, we must first look back at how the season began for the Bavarians. They started the campaign with new manager Jupp Heynckes and high expectations – to reach the Champions League final naturally but also challenge Dortmund domestically. They got off to the worst possible start – a home loss against Borussia Moenchen Gladbach. They didn’t play particularly well but tactically it would highlight Bayern’s gameplan for the coming season, defined by pseudo-possession football, use of wide outlets – giving them creative control and center it all around striker Mario Gomez.
The first component of the club’s continuing problems lies in this very tactical approach. Heynckes structured a gameplan that was primarily based on a core group of players. For the most part it was a success. The club struggled here and there in the league but more or less thrived in Europe. It was sensible from their point of view how they could remain on board with this gameplan until the end. After all, there was far less to suggest that it wasn’t an optimal option compared to anything that would render it questionable or at least open for change. Dortmund proved that a counter-attacking side could damage Bayern on three occasions this season, none more so than the 5-2 defeat in the DFB Pokal a week before their encounter with Chelsea. Here Bayern’s possession game was rendered meaningless because of Dortmund’s constant pressing. Bayern simply had to push the ball forward but constantly lost it and activated Dortmund’s counters which Bayern simply could not deal with. This is where we must be extra critical of Bayern’s possession game. Against Real Madrid, Bayern met an opponent also keen on counter-attacking but here Bayern used possession wisely. Taking advantage early on and exposing their vulnerable defense was the catalyst that gave them the belief that they can progress across two legs. However Bayern’s passivity in the second half of the second leg at the Santiago Bernabeu must be noted. Madrid already failed to respond to their own energetic first half and failed to match their two midfield band to Bayern’s three. Bayern had the impetus to attack and expose Madrid even more but chose to remain conservative and only occasionally drive forward.
Bayern win “tactical” battle
Questions were raised about Chelsea’s approach – would they line up in the final as they did against Barcelona, namely put as many players behind the ball and catch the opposition on the counter? Here they didn’t defend as well as they did against Barcelona but they maintained their defensive shape (their last ditch tackling was phenomenal in all regards) very well and played slightly different in the final third using Mata similarly to how Dortmund used Kagawa so successfully this season, especially in last week’s DFB Pokal. At the end of the match Bayern had a record 43 shots on goal compared to Chelsea’s 9 while averaging 56% of possession. They amassed 20 corners to Chelsea’s 1, which came in the 88th minute – and one they took full advantage of. The problems arise when you dissect these numbers. Luiz, Cahill, and Cole did well to anticipate the space Bayern’s attackers would drift into and as a whole Chelsea managed to block 23 of those 43 Bayern shots – an enormous number relatively speaking. Only 7 shots actually went on target including the missed penalty. Arjen Robben had more shots than the entire Chelsea team with 15 but a vast majority of them were not even close to hitting its target. As the match progressed Bayern continued to hold more possession but could not create comprehensive chances. Part of this comes down to Bayern’s rigid tactical set-up.
Faux-possession and the Gomez Paradox
The 4-2-3-1 Heynckes implemented has worked against most opponents this season but on the occasions they were beaten, a pattern emerges. They have generally had trouble against defensively organized sides that can play a high line and also alternate to play more narrow. Moreover they have had trouble against counter-attacking teams such as Gladbach, Hannover, and Dortmund. Chelsea failed to counter proactively however and their strategy was mainly a reactive one, so why did Bayern fail to create comprehensive chances and at times looked timid to attack?
To emphasize Gomez’s misses is overlooking a more important variable – particularly Bayern’s lack of tactical variation. Their primary gameplan involves Ribery, and Robben to make use of the wide spaces and provide as many chances for Mario Gomez. In this match, both wingers were actively involved but Mario Gomez was completely isolated and failed to make a significant impact having had the least amount of touches of all Bayern players.
The paradox of Mario Gomez is also that of Heynckes who has not shown the ability to alternate his tactics when necessary this season. Bayern don’t have a player who can play just behind Gomez effectively enough to create link-ups. Heynckes has experimented with Müller in the #10 role but it hasn’t yielded the desired results because by nature he is a player who prefers to drift out wide. Kroos was also tried in the position but he doesn’t have the mobility and penetrative drive of a playmaker in a 4-2-3-1. Kroos has better served the club in midfield or in a transitional #10 role where he drops to create a midfield band of three (as against Real Madrid for example). More criticism has to be aimed at the tactic to make Mario Gomez such an overwhelmingly important component of the attack. Most notably when he is either contained or has an off day the Bayern attack often looks aimless. What is left are confused wingers who are left to their own devices to take over the game. What if Bayern had a genuine forward/#10 who could actually have occupied the space where Chelsea’s rebounds came to and picked them up? Instead, we saw most of these rebounds either drift away from Bayern players or into empty space where Chelsea’s midfielders would receive them.
Already marked heavily by Bosingwa, Cole, Bertrand, with support from Mikel and Lampard, Robben and Ribery were tasked with roles of taking the matter into their own hands. Both players are good individually but would have to rely on shooting from distance since there were not viable link-up options. In short, neither of them made penetrating runs. Robben’s shots were wide and Ribery eventually succumbed to injury. Ironically Chelsea’s plan was not to make sure Bayern didn’t get in the box because Bayern essentially made sure themselves that they wouldn’t.
A team that emphasizes possession so heavily must do so knowing why and most importantly what the end-goal is. Naturally to simply keep possession without idea for build up is far too redundant a tactic to implement in a primary gameplan. When Bayern’s primary goal outlet is removed from the game and no other outlet is available to target with their possession they were to aimlessly pass the ball around with hope that something will materialize. In this match, it didn’t. The players got fatigued and gave the ball away more and more as the minutes wound down.
What perhaps reflects Heynckes’ tactical ideology most is his use of the bench. This has been one of Bayern’s biggest weaknesses this season. Apart from an excellent starting eleven, their options off the bench leaves much to be desired. Against Chelsea, Heynckes had the likes of Butt, van Buyten, Rafinha, Olic, Pranjic, Usami, and Petersen, of which only three would realistically be options in a match of this proportion. Müller’s removal was strange as he was the key figure in eventually unlocking Chelsea and was the only player Chelsea had true difficulty picking up because of the nature of his gameplay. Bringing in van Buyten would indicate a conservative move; protecting the lead with seven minutes to go. But this is more or less typical of the manager’s approach. Chelsea didn’t look threatening and were containable. There was no need to bring in van Buyten. Müller’s substitution seemingly threw the natural rhythm of the match out of whack. Moreover, the use or lack of use of the bench highlights the problem that is Heynckes’ over-reliance on his starting eleven. One could even argue that Gomez could have been removed in favor of Olic earlier in the match when the former failed to make an impact and seemed low on confidence. With the need for a more comprehensive approach and link-up play, Olic would have seemed an ideal candidate. (Allegedly Müller was substituted because of an injury but he seemed to have indicated he was more than willing to continue playing.)
Does this ideology also not translate to the mentality of its players? For a given professional, it’s important to know his role in the team but also to feel he can adjust accordingly to a match in real time. To understand one’s role is to have the confidence to play and when the game shifts, to be able to not only rely on the tactical instructions of your manager but be assured your teammates adjust as well. The second major problem for the club is its sporadic mentality. A consistent feature this season and those that came before is a reluctance to kill off matches. Too often Bayern sit and wait for its opponents to get going and more often than not failed to be proactive enough. This general mental weakness has translated to penalties. Too many players have missed important penalties this season. Is it not possible that a greater tactical uncertainty trickles down and rocks the core of the players’ confidence, especially when it is needed most. Surely the many missed chances put the players in a state of disbelief and panic causing a domino-effect and instilling even more doubt.
Perhaps what is most striking about the night is just how typically Bayern’s nomenklatura reacted.
“Chelsea didn’t create a single chance, but we’ve still not managed to win, which is unbelievable. It’s hard to put into words. If you have so many chances to wrap up a game, you have to do so. That’s why we’ve lost this match.” – Uli Hoeneß
“Everyone who saw the match knows we deserved to win. What happened is a nightmare for us. We’re deeply disappointed. We created chances. It’s hard to find the right words. It’s a total nightmare, and the mood in the dressing room reflects that. We were clearly the better team.” – Christian Nerlinger
“The team and I set out with the target of winning the trophy. But I’m well aware of how cruel football can be, and cursing your fate doesn’t help. But leaving the field as losers tonight leaves a bitter taste. We simply missed too many chances. We didn’t grasp the need to take our chances. Normally you wouldn’t get so many opportunities against a team like Chelsea. And if you take the lead after 83 minutes, you have to see it through to the end.” – Jupp Heynckes
The common theme is one of missed chances. Lamenting a match that was felt to have been deserved is a reaction of a club that is simply not willing to acknowledge the root components of a given disaster scenario. Bayern remain essentially a conservative club unwilling to take the necessary gambles, tactical or otherwise. Van Gaal arrived at the club and created a platform under which Bayern have significantly improved their chances in Europe. It meant giving a certain amount of control over to him but just a year and a half after came the usual conclusion when he and the club parted ways. His reign at the club represented a time of drastic change, maybe too much change. When a catalyst that is inherently different from the host is introduced it naturally causes friction. van Gaal was one such catalyst and the reaction after his stay was one of pure Bayern ideology – bring in a familiar component, re-group and re-stabilize. In this case; Heynckes who has a stable and amicable relationship with management. Heynckes however is not a tactical mastermind. He has a set system and he plugs in the archetypes he finds suitable. The result: a predictable but consistent trajectory for all involved, nothing unknown and uncontainable. The problem of course again, the aversion to the reality of why the club continues to experience such drastic changes and so often with sporadic results, never quite being able to attain its most desired goal.
Breaking the Bubble
Bayern Munich’s rigid ideology has predictably cost them the chance to lift the Champions League trophy in Munich. Interestingly the result represents a monumental occasion in the club’s history and presents questions that will determine their direction for the next decade. Will the club continue to fund the same policy? Simply buy the same players that are already available and hope that chances will not be missed next time an important match comes around? Do they make adjustments? Reactive sides have generally thrived this season and a change in tactical methodology would be welcomed, namely securing alternative options. Petersen was a typically conservative move for instance; simply buy a player who is similar in gameplay to Gomez, instead of someone with a different approach. Similarly, perhaps a link-up outlet can be introduced in an alternate shape. Chelsea was able to switch from a 4-3-3 against Barcelona to a 4-2-3-1 hybrid against Bayern, whereas the latter stuck with the same formation all season long. Most importantly, will Bayern lift the proverbial mask off the reality of their business-plan; extend Heynckes’ contract and continue to invest in stop-gap managers instead of younger, long term managers who will create a foundation or long-term success? It seems that Bayern requires an illusion in order for their reality to really function. Therein lies the problem. Thus in all likelihood we know the answer – The club simply won’t want to make such sacrifices. How can they when the attainable goal is never believed to be out of reach?