The first match day of the 49th installment of the Bundesliga came to a close this past weekend and Bayern Munich were at the forefront of the round’s biggest upset. The 0-1 home loss to Borussia Mönchengladbach was their first opening season loss in 10 years and the first time the visitors had beaten them at home in nearly two decades. The club that spent a total of 43 million Euros over the course of the summer got off to the worst start imaginable, losing in front of their home crowd to a side that needed a relegation playoff to stay in the top flight. For most pundits, the main talking point was and will remain the continuing defensive problems of the club. After all, the goal came from a misunderstanding between the two new signings, Manuel Neuer and Jerome Boateng – the two players brought in to iron out those very defensive concerns. In reality, the problem lies much deeper and singling out the defensive errors is criminally glossing over a far bigger issue – namely, the ideological one.
To avoid presenting this as purely a match analysis, a contextual basis needs to be laid out. Against Gladbach, Bayern had more possession, more shots and created more chances, as is almost always the case for Bayern in the Bundesliga. So what is the problem? Poor finishing? Bad luck? Bunkering by Gladbach? All these will no doubt be used to describe the result but to really understand why this match was not an anomaly but in fact much of the same, we have to step away from this as a singular event and delve a little deeper.
As such, two primary factors can be outlined: 1. Tactical – or how Bayern’s setup is incongruous to the way they intend to play and instead is inexpedient, and 2. Managerial – the governing element – a continuing stubbornness and subversion of modernization, and its’ subsequent fallout. This ideological component is the bigger and more important one of course.
For the better part of three years, Bayern have been lining up with a 4-2-3-1, the formation of choice for most big club sides in Europe. When Louis van Gaal first arrived he set out to instill his own philosophy at the club and part of that meant he had to experiment initially. He began with a 4-3-3 and eventually settled on a flexible 4-4-2 which eventually evolved into what we see today. He had his critics from day one but in his first season, van Gaal got Bayern to play a brand of attacking football that, despite its rawness, was able to hold up in Europe. His philosophy was a retention-based counter attacking game. The idea was to teach the side how to alternate between a proactive and conservative style of play at will. He had an ideal midfield pairing of Schweinsteiger and Van Bommel to work with, suited perfectly to that philosophy. Both were hard working players, good defensively with a very good football IQ. They alternated continuously between retaining the ball, kickstarting attacks and generally dictating play from the center of the pitch. Both were of course excellent throughout the season and key in the team’s success. What also distinguished Bayern that season was its flexibility in attack. Olic and Müller constantly interchanged and played the channels wisely, allowing Robben and Ribery to cut in at will and play their natural game. And although the gameplan isolated record signing Mario Gomez, who remained an auxiliary figure that season, Bayern were creative and unpredictable and had their most successful season since the Champions League win in 2001.
The Gomez Paradox
The following year, van Gaal compromised and used Gomez to spearhead his attack in the new 4-2-3-1. A long-term injury to Olic no doubt played a part in the decision as well. Gomez went on to have an incredible individual season, scoring 39 goals in 45 competitive matches – a more efficient rate than any other striker in the top four leagues that season. But to understand the problems inherent in this system we need to take a look at what made Gomez so successful in it. For one, he was more confident. After being marginalized tactically in his first season he was motivated to prove his worth but the key element was the modification, not the shape itself as van Gaal toyed with the notion of a 4-2-3-1 in his first season as well, but to make changes within the existing framework. This meant that Gomez became the reference point of the team. All attacks were from then on geared towards him. Fullbacks, when overlapping, would not cut in as they do in most 4-2-3-1 formations but instead cross directly. The same was true of the two wing forwards, Ribery and Robben. There was a visibly greater emphasis on wide play and crossing to Gomez and a great decrease in use of the space between central defenders and fullbacks as Olic and Müller thrived on the previous season.
Gomez benefited from similar conditions at Stuttgart where he was likewise the focal point of the side. As a player, he is a bit of an enigma. He doesn’t offer blistering pace of most modern strikers nor is his technical ability a particular strong point. He will often need one or two extra touches to set himself up and his ability to run off the ball does not necessarily suit the formation that was originally devised to play the channels between the fullbacks and central defenders. Still, his nose for goal is extraordinary. His positioning within the box is traditionally predatory and his physique lends itself perfectly to deal with even the most robust of defenders, not to mention he wins most of his aerial battles. Other notable sides that use the same formation use strikers who as fit the above criteria: ‘mobile’, ‘technical’, ‘ability play outside the box’ and so on. Inter’s Diego Milito under Mourinho was a deceptively technical player, capable of all the above. Eto’o and Pazzini do much the same now. Higuain and Benzema at Real Madrid, Drogba at Chelsea, and Torres in his Liverpool days, Barrios at Dortmund, even Manchester United with Berbatov and Ronaldo all suit the role.
Simply put the 4-2-3-1 thrives particularly because there is no direct reference point. It emphasizes its wing forwards cutting in and feeding the channels but the latter are as much attacking outlets as its strikers. The same is evident with the German National Team. With Bayern that is simply not the case. Ribery and Robben are reduced primarily to suppliers instead. For wing-forward whose natural game is cutting in, taking shots, feeding the channels, they are exceptionally passive in this setup. Of course both will occasionally still play to their instincts but by simply looking at match heat maps, it is extraordinary to see just how wide they stay during a game. On the other hand, when Olic was used upfront instead of Gomez, Ribery and Robben seemed to enjoy much more freedom to roam and play their natural game. Gomez’s inclusion restricted the amount of space notably. This weekend’s match against Gladbach is the perfect example. Bayern had a total of 27 crosses (24 of the 27 coming from the left flank), a matchday high. The corresponding charts shows Müller crossing an incredible 9 times and his replacement Ribery crossing 5 times in his 30 minutes on the field.
The strength of most elite sides is that there is a variety to their game plans. There is usually your plan A. which a given manager builds his philosophy on and is based on a core set of players and a plan B, or backup, if the former is ineffective – executed to chase games, close games, and so on. Examples are Mourinho’s counter-based sides supplemented by his bunkering/chocking late match tactics, Barcelona’s pressing supplemented by extreme retention, Del Bosque’s use of Torres supplemented by a Llorente substitution and aerial play. Bayern are seemingly void of any alternative to their Gomez centric strategy. On the contrary, there seems to be a severe over-reliance on their primary plan which can be quite simply condensed into “1. Win the ball, play it out wide 2. Cross to Gomez 3. Repeat”. There is absolutely no indication of a greater concept as van Gaal’s first season seemed to foreshadow. Bayern win the ball and drive it forward in hope, not to create space but rather that space will create itself. There is a whimsical desperation to their method, something extremely uncharacteristic of players like Ribery, Robben, and Müller – players we know are capable of far more adventurous play than their Bayern counterparts seem to indicate.
The use of Ribery around the 60th minute could have ushered in a new tactical approach but it was clear from his first touch that he was instructed to get the ball wide and cross to Gomez. It is even more startling that in the post-match interview, Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes made the following remark:
“We should have upped the pace and moved the ball wide more often, but we weren’t determined enough to prise apart a team which came here and set out their defensive stall.”
When crossing 20+ times failed to work, the next best thing is to cross even more. This, I claim, is where the club’s major problem lies – choosing the proverbial blue pill over the red pill or subverting the reality in front of their faces and substituting it for an illusory one. There seems to be almost a lack of clear direction when shaping this side for the future. It took management long enough to see that their defensive woes was a major gap that had to be addressed but at the same time it is a deceptive move because it fails to consider that no matter what defenders or goalkeepers are present, there still seems to be a distinct lack of team philosophy, embodied quite frequently and alarmingly. This again, is characteristic of Bayern management, not only in the past couple of years but one can claim for the last decade as well. Since Hitzfeld’s 2001 Champions League triumph Bayern had 7 managerial appointments – apart from Real Madrid, an extremely high number for a side wishing to establish themselves as a constant threat amongst the European elite.
The most successful sides today have been characterized by distinct philosophies, whether it is Guardiola’s Barcelona, Ferguson’s United, Mourinho’s Inter and Chelsea sides, Ancelotti’s Milan, and Benitez’s Liverpool. Those sides can be considered amongst the best this past decade, having won major trophies and doing so following a distinct ideological trajectory. There is a certain amount of trust that needs to be given upon appointment of any particular manager and time to build a team. All big sides face pressures to win trophies immediately but it is always more difficult when the manager is not allowed to take full control and when there is a clear indication that the framework is flawed. This has also been absent from Bayern’s point of view. It seemed that whatever Felix Magath tried to build there was restricted by the limited control he had at the club. The same applies to perhaps the most radical departure from Bayern’s traditionalist approach, Louis van Gaal.
Ultimately it is too easy to argue that Bayern’s problem lies in stubborn management. Several publications have made similar points already. The higher ups will always clash with any given coach who attempts to demand a kind of perceived challenge to established authority. Usually the pattern has been to appoint a manager with a specific vision, only to clash, fire and then appoint a newer, more familiar, and safer choice. This occurred three times in less then ten years already. First Magath replaced by Hitzfeld, then Klinsmann by Heynckes and most recently van Gaal by Heynckes. In the most pathological of senses, this can easily be viewed and argued as a suppression of reality, tackling a problem by coming up with what seems to be a valid solution only in reality to subvert the real problem.
This is Bayern’s ideology at its purest and the component the press has overlooked the most. By hiring the friendly and familiar, strangely conservative Heynckes it is not an admission that van Gaal was the wrong choice in the sense that he failed but really an admission of the very ideology that Bayern management can only really be satisfied if there is a mouth-piece at the helm and no real risks are involved. What does this mean translate to on the pitch? Well, Klinsmann took risks by trying to play an open style that although productive in attack, it revealed their defensive frailties. The same applied to van Gaal who also wanted to radically alter the way Bayern shapes up at the very top of the formation. There is a seemingly archaic desire to play with a striker as reference point as means to ensure that no matter how poor a side plays, goals are ensured. This however obviously neglects many other problems that this very injunction spawns in the first place.
What is the solution to this? For the record, I do not fully believe this is completely a lost cause and I think Bayern can still challenge domestically and even in Europe simply because experience and individual talent goes a long way but there is a nagging sense that the true potential of this talented side has yet to be unlocked and every time there is an indication that it is being approached, regressive steps are taken. Surely Heynckes is there long enough until Bayern can find a younger coach (possible one of the up and coming domestic coaches) to start building for the future, but this again is far too familiar a move for the club – the talent is there already and it just seems to go to waste in its developmental stage. Possible answers to this dilemma? – Clearly there needs to be a better balance in communication between Rummenigge, & Co. and whoever is in the coaching position.
The first steps need to be taken by the higher ups without question as they set the precedent for whatever the coach will have or not have to work with. Unlike a Barcelona or Manchester United, Bayern will likely not allow so much control to any given individual and that is also not likely to change any time soon. Risks need to be taken too if the intention is to get anywhere near the same level as a Barcelona for instance. There is a distinct traditionalist cloud looming over Bayern in every sense of the word. Between a reluctance to hire a true modern thinker/coach, to the very notion that a modern system took so long to be accepted only to be modified to accommodate a traditional re-framing, they will find themselves in this position time and time again if these concerns are not recognized and addressed. Recognize of course is the keyword here because the problem essentially lies in the ideology that permeates the very top. To drive home how serious a matter this is, take Nerlinger’s comments regarding Mertesacker rumors:
“Boateng and Badstuber are the best central defensive pairing in Germany. We won’t be buying anyone, definitely not.”
Much like Heynckes’ post-match comments, it speaks volumes, even past the self-aggrandizing, PR-driven context. The message is clear: We are fine, but not really.