Bremen have a better record against Bayern than any other club in league history and aside from last season’s one sided cup final, Bremen have always come out strong in this “Nord-South” derby in the last couple of seasons. As noted by just about every Bremen supporter, their club have had a disastrous season, compounded by poor form, injuries, dissatisfied players and internal turmoil. On the pitch things have been even worse. Bremen’s defense has been one of the most porous in the league and no other team has allowed more goal scoring chances (58) than Bremen. Bayern have had a slow start to the season themselves but have rounded into form and have been edging closer and closer to the top of the table.
Louis van Gaal made one change from the side that overcame Aachen midweek in the Cup, bringing in Robben for Altintop while Schaaf rang a wholesale of changes after last week’s calamity against Köln. Bremen opted for a midfield diamond with Aaron Hunt playing off Pizarro and Marin while Bargfrede and Fritz were the respective side midfielders. The closely contended matches between these two sides made for an interesting match up. Would Bayern’s historical bogey team step up despite their poor form and how would Bayern cope in the face of so many injuries and personnel changes?
First half – Bremen come out strong
As was the case last week against Kaiserslautern, Bayern were put to the sword by an energized Bremen side early on. Bremen were the better team in the first 20 minutes and had several chances to go ahead, playing well between the lines and outplaying Bayern’s central midfield. Schaaf’s men controlled large parts of the match throughout the first half hour and came close as early as 40 second into the match when Fritz was played through on goal and was denied by a reflex save from Kraft.
A lot has been said about the frailty of an Ottl-Pranjic partnership in central midfield. The truth is that both have stepped in admirably during an injury laden season for Bayern but neither offer the stability and platform that players like Tymoshchuk, Schweinsteiger or the recently departed Van Bommel can. What happens then is that despite adequate performances from the two, the discrepancies have a domino effect on the rest of the team. The instability in central midfield and a constant array of changes has made Bayern as erratic and vulnerable this season and explains partially how Bremen were able to apply as much pressure as they did.
Second half – Bayern up the pressure while Bremen’s tactical mismatch brings about their collapse
Bayern rarely sees the ball less than their opponents but that was very much the case in the first half. That changed after Mertesacker’s goal however and Bayern started bossing the game as they have been known to do all season. The goal gave Bayern the necessary boost to get into gear and soon they started dominating possession the way they have been often able to this year, seeing the ball nearly 80% at times by the time Robben equalized.
Neither Bargfrede nor Fritz are naturally accustomed to playing in a diamond formation. Bargfrede is a more traditional central midfielder while Fritz is a conventional fullback. In this case, both were asked to play more demanding roles. In such a formation the width is ideally provided by the fullbacks but neither Silvestre or Pasanen were very proactive getting forward meaning that Bargfrede and Fritz needed to come out wide while also supporting the isolated Frings in central midfield.
It was therefore easy for Bayern’s fullbacks to get forward and exploit the space given to them. It was no wonder that Lahm and Gustavo saw the ball more than any other players on the pitch.
Gustavo proactive as fullback
Since Lahm was switched to the right by Van Gaal last season Bayern supporters have been screaming for a left sided equivalent. In the last year and a half Pranjic, Contento, Braafheid and Badstuber have all been tried there but none really made enough of an impression to maintain their place. Because of this imbalance Lahm ended up receiving the ball more than most other players on the pitch. It has become common for Lahm to have as many touches as Bayern’s central midfielders and it has the detrimental effect of making the team dependent and one-dimensional. Last season Lahm and Robben combined more than any other players on the team and as successful as both were most of Bayern’s attacks went through them, which deprives the team of options and becomes quite predictable.
Robben has been injured most of this season and Lahm has taken a dip in form. This vacuum explains part of the reason why Van Gaal moved for the versatile Gustavo this month. Besides playing in central midfield, the Brazilian is equally adept as a left sided fullback and that is where Van Gaal intends to play him for the remainder of the season.
Against Bremen Gustavo had his most effective match in his short time at Bayern. Gustavo had the most touches next to Lahm and for the first time Bayern’s wide play was balanced, combining well with Mueller and making sure that Pasanen and Fritz never crossed the halfway line. His runs forward also allowed Mueller to cut inside more where he was able to wreak havoc on Bremen’s defense.
Conclusion - Habits catch up
Despite a slow start to the match, Bayern gradually came through in the second half to continue their winning ways and climb up to third place in the standings but again failed to take control early and left it till late to wrap up the match.
Robben said in the post match interview that the team needed to concede first before getting going and sure enough Bayern became better and better after Bremen scored. It has often been the case this season that Bayern start a match slow and even concede first before really getting into gear. For the most part they have been able to overcome this sluggishness but with the Champions League approaching it is a habit they will need to drop quick. Overall it has been a good last couple of months for the defending champions, losing only twice in the last 18 matches in all competitions now, an impressive turn around considering they had their worst start to a season in over 15 years.
Bremen on the other hand are a collective mess at the moment. The clock is ticking for Schaaf and company and the supporters are becoming restless. Things will not get any easier either with a trip to Mainz and Hannover in the coming weeks and historic rival Hamburg soon after. Bremen’s policy of focusing on players compatible with the Schaaf’s attacking philosophy has been pursued at the expense of their ability to defend successfully, and that deficit is costing them dearly. The need for defensive sturdiness has been apparent for several years now and instead of fortifying it it has gradually gotten worse. Even though Schaaf and General Manager Allofs have enjoyed the support of their fans over the last decade it is increasingly appearing to wane completely as Bremen plummet directly into the relegation battle.