October 23, 2017

Sure There’s Smoke at Bayern Munich, But Is There Fire?

On Matchday 3, Bayern suffered its earliest loss in a season, since losing 0-1 to Borussia Mönchengladbach on Matchday 1 in 2011-12 (!). Otherwise, we’re used to waiting until the likes of November for Bayern’s first league loss. I mean, after the Jupp Heynckes, Pep Guardiola, and Carlo Ancelotti domination years, we’re just not used to Bayern losing so early in a Bundesliga season. So of course everyone started talking about it.

And Bayern’s players certainly obliged—both before and after the match—things were said, counter-things were said, rumors floated, and condemnations were made. Just like the good ol’ Wutrede / FC Hollywood days, oder? Or is it? In other words, there’s certainly some smoke at Bayern Munich right now, but is there actually fire?

Some of the Bayern commentariat thinks so, especially former players, who just can’t help themselves in pronouncing moral condemnation against any current Bayern player, who, somehow, violates the Bayern ethos. This time around, it’s Stefan “the Tiger” Effenberg, who’s at fault, as the Fanatic‘s own Rick Joshua compellingly details over at Bayern Central. In Joshua’s reading, a series of foot-in-mouth moments, deliberate misunderstandings, and (especially!) Stefan Effenberg’s role in running off his mouth and misinterpreting things sparked the Bayern drama this week. In this context, the 2-0 Hoffenheim loss simply became the pretext for some heated talky-talky, bringing the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Thomas Müller, Effenberg, Uli Hoeness, and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge into a word-fighting cage. More on this word fight later.

First, some thoughts about Bayern’s 2-0 loss at Hoffenheim. In a certain respect, this loss is a big deal, because Bayern haven’t lost this earlier into a season in a long time, which means you Bayern haters should take long and luxurious look at the Bundesliga table everyday until the natural order is restored. Screen capture the sucker, and cherish it. Here, I’ll even do it for you:

Enjoy the view while you can. Source: WhoScored.com.

Of course, we’ve only just finished MD 3, and, of course, Bayern is “only” one point off places 1-3. But still. Even something as silly as seeing Bayern sitting at 6th place hasn’t happened in a long time. It’s the little things.

The other significant thing about this loss was that Hoffenheim is a much weakened side from a season ago. Gone are Sebastian Rudy (to Bayern), Niklas Süle (to Bayern), and Jeremy Toljan (to BVB). Moreover, Hoffenheim’s most dangerous scoring threat, Sandro Wagner, was unavailable, as was star loanee, Serge Gnabry. On the other side of the pitch, Bayern featured a strong lineup, even if Ribéry, Robben, and Jamés didn’t start. With these lineup dynamics, the match felt like one of those weird 2-1 or 1-0 losses that Bayern seems to have about once a season to the likes of a Mainz 05, FC Augsburg, or Borussia Mönchengladbach in recent seasons.

Finally, the early loss was the unlucky result of scheduling, sending Bayern to Hoffenheim so early in the season. And Julian Nagelsmann Hoffenheim has now defeated Bayern in back-to-back matches, so chances decent were that, at the very least, Bayern were going to have a difficult Sinsheim trip regardless when it occurred in the schedule.

As for the match itself, the loss was mostly unlucky for Bayern. By many metrics, Bayern was the better side. Most significantly, the guests won the Expected Goals battle:

On another day, this match is a draw or even win for Bayern. (For example, see Lewandowski’s woodwork shot at 6′.) Moreover, Bayern’s 23 total shots easily topped Hoffenheim’s 6. However, as the ExG graphic illustrates, Bayern didn’t exactly earn the highest quality chances. On the day, Bayern’s shot chart looked like this:

Bayern’s shot selection against Hoffenheim, which was good enough for 1.6 ExG. Source: Squawka.com.

That’s 6 blocked shots (one was a very save late in the match though!), and a bevy of shots sailing over everything. However, on another day, this performance is probably enough for a point or three points against anyone in the Bundesliga.

In other ways, the match was typical: Bayern dominated possession (72%), while generating high quantity of passes good for 88% completion. The usual stuff.

But you just can’t account for ball boys. A Hoffenheim ball boy was, at least, partially responsible for the match’s opening goal, as he obliged Andrej Kramaric with a sly fresh ball:

However, I don’t want to simply attribute Bayern’s loss to bad luck. To do this would be unfair to Hoffenheim’s strategy, especially Nagelsmann’s defensive instructions to this front line and midfield. After turning over the ball, these two Hoffenheim lines used a moderate zonal press to close down passing channels into the middle, while forcing Bayern’s ball carriers to make snap passing decisions, meaning that Bayern’s passes often didn’t penetrate the most vulnerable parts of the pitch. Miraculously, Hoffenheim kept the magnificent Thiago out of the match, but more significantly, out of the middle. Repeatedly, Thaigo was forced to Bayern’s left side, away from his usual sphere of influence. I was shocked to Bayern so effectively kept out of the middle.

Moreover, Hoffenheim had just enough menace on the counter with Kerem Demirbay, Kramaric, and Steven Zuber, who sometimes found dangerous passes between Bayern defender trying to turn their hips on the fly. And what can you say about the late bloomer, Mark Uth? His two close-range goals were the differences. Not pretty. Not even goal of the week candidates. Yet effective.

But make no mistake about it: replay this match with the same lineups and I’m guessing Bayern comes away winners 6 out of 10 times and draws 2 of the remaining 4 times.

However, I’d argue that Bayern’s losing performance provided a subtle pretext for sparking the war of words in the aftermath. Optically, Bayern looked more like a club of pricey individuals trying to force square pegs into circle holes. You know, like an expensive Premier League, or Real Madrid from a couple seasons ago. In other words, the imprint of Pep Guardiola’s system is disappearing from this side. The passing “automatisms” are faint. The positional movement is languid. And transitional play is pixelated. Put another way, Bayern resembled a collection of star players trying to find each other, than the terrifying machine we’ve been accustomed to from the past five years.

By the way, if you’re wondering, what I saw in Tuesday’s Champions League match when Bayern hosted Anderlecht, was more of the same from the Bavarians, who certainly didn’t deliver a “Bayern Treatment” beating on its Belgium opponents. Sure, Bayern won 3-0, but the guests were a man down for most the match, and typically we’ve seen Bayern put up 5 or 6 goals in these revenge matches. Scoreline aside, Bayern didn’t play with the fluency and systemization we’ve seen from the club in the last five years. Instead, there was a bit more of the stylistic unraveling that I saw against Hoffenheim.

So if there’s a fire sending up smoke in Bayern, it’s this: Bayern is changing on the pitch. Slowly. Almost imperceptibly. Right now, this change is just becoming visible. But the sample size is too small. Of course. However, Carlo Ancelotti’s managing style of autonomy and letting-them-play doesn’t seem like a compelling approaching for preventing a Bayern slide into stylistic oblivion, if this is indeed the phenomenon we’re witnessing.

I wonder if fear about this change, or even anxiety about some unspoken thing just not seeming “right,” is what underlined Lewandowski and Müller speaking out this week, as well as the backlash following their words. Granted, Lewa’s comments about Bayern needing bigger star players were clumsily taken out of context by Effenberg, yet these comments also underscore anxiety that the forward is feeling anxious about Bayern’s identity and status, if even only slightly.

In my reading of Lewandowski’s complaint, the remarkable “summer of Neymar” with its attendant galactic amounts of money, is only a distraction for someone like Lewa. The deeper problem is that Bayern’s on-pitch coherence could be unraveling. My sense is that footballers have extremely fine-tuned perceptions of the slightest changes on the pitch and of the subtlest dynamics between players. Is this what’s bothering Lewa? Of course, I don’t know. But my bet would be that something’s shifting in Bayern’s on-field as the club is now another year removed from Pep Guardiola’s obsessive system and another year deeper into Ancelotti’s anti-system system. You know what they say about centers and things falling apart.

Which leads us to poor Thomas Müller. First, I’d argue, he’s been unfairly singled out since Ancelotti’s tenure began. Personally, I don’t put any stock into the fact that Müller’s goal scoring tally is significantly down. I’ve never viewed him as a proper goal scorer, but rather as a creator who happens to sometimes score goals. But I’ll say more about this in piece I’m writing soon. However, Müller clearly hasn’t had as large an impact on the pitch since Pep left. My own understanding of Müller leads me to believe that Ancelotti’s autonomy-granting coaching style is more to blame for this phenomenon, rather than a diminishing of Müller’s abilities. Whatever else is going on (or not going on!), Müller is clearly not happy with Ancelotti. And it makes sense. A player of Müller’s whims and ability to create space for himself and other is predicated on a well-run system already functioning around him—at least this is something we learned about Müller during the Pep years. My guess is that under Ancelotti, Müller feels a bit unanchored, “at sea,” or simply lost on the pitch.

I wonder to what extent Müller’s experience will become a synecdoche for Bayern’s squad as a whole in coming months. Granted, I’m rushing to judgement here, but the early indication is that Bayern is devolving under Ancelotti’s direction. Yet could we have expected anything else? The Italian coach is following up a Spaniard coach, who’s the auteur’s auteur in football coaching. Any coaching act after Pep confronts this problem.

At the very least, we’re seeing why Ancelotti was always considered a care-taker manager for Bayern; you just don’t build anything on Ancelotti’s shoulders. Moreover, Pep Guardiola casts a very long shadow, one that Bayern hasn’t escaped yet. And I can’t help but conclude that this shadow is what’s at the bottom of the talky-talky drama between Bayern players and alums this week.

So in this sense, this recent Bayern drama is a world away from the tabloid subject matter of the FC Hollywood days. Instead, my sense is that this smoke is pointing to a fire that starts and stops on the pitch itself, which is the most serious subject matter for a football club. That is, what kind of football do you play? Who are you? To adapt boardroom talk, it might be time for Bayern to share the next five year master plan.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U8s 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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