July 24, 2017

Why They Lose to Bayern: a Bremen Case Study

My seven year old son will tell you that on Bundesliga Matchdays, I get slightly obsessed with the possibility of another Bundesliga side beat Bayern Munich. Strings of profanities issue from my mouth when Bayern’s opponent concedes the opening goal, invariably to Lewandowski it seems. Conversely, I scream hoarsely when Bayern’s opponent opens the scoring, or, better yet, actually wins, like Mainz 05 did last season in Munich. My joy bounces  on these rare occasions.

Why does my Bayern Schadenfreude surge during these moments?

Because they are so rare.

My obsession in hoping for a Bayern non-win is really an obsession in trying to understand what exactly sets Bayern apart from its Bundesliga opponents on the pitch. How does Bayern do it? How do the Bavarians’ opponents blow it?

Each Matchday, this inquiry invariably draws me to Bayern’s matches, because seeming invincibility in sport has always fascinated me. The 2007 New England Patriots in the NFL, the mid-1990s Chicago Bulls in the NBA, the Pep Guardiola Barça sides, Roger Federer’s golden era, Serena Williams, or the UConn Women’s basketball team. And it cuts two ways: on the one hand, I’m sucker for greatness; on the other hand, I’m fascinated by what it takes to topple greatness. So each Matchday, I watch Bayern’s matches, hoping to see what’s possible when Bayern’s greatness is on display.

Bayern’s invincible phase kicked off in earnest when Jupp Heynckes took over from Louis van Gaal in 2011. This version of Heynckes’ Bayern was imperial — still one of the best sides I’ve ever seen. When Pep took over Bayern in 2013, this imperiousness only increased as Bayern mastered the Spaniard’s juego de position style. Aside from Juventus in Serie A, none of Europe’s Top 5 leagues has had such a dominant table topper these many seasons past as Bayern Munich. Bayern’s ability to win wherever and whenever in the Bundesliga is unparalleled in other leagues — what this phenomenon says about the Bundesliga, or whether it’s beneficial for the league is the topic for another article — it’s so unparalleled that I watch each weekly Bayern match with a strange mixture of mostly loathing and some awe.

Under Pep Guardiola, drawing and (especially) defeating Bayern seemed miraculous. Pep’s unit simply held onto the ball for too long so that when an opponent finally earned possession, it seemed slightly dazed owning the ball, almost “rusty” with it, as if a training session were just beginning and the players were finding passing ranges and coordinating movements. It’s no wonder that many Bundesliga opponents received what we came to call here “the Bayern Treatment,” which can be defined as the deluge of goals Bayern’s opponents conceded once the Bavarians grab a match’s opening goal. These last seasons, I came to expect nothing less than “the Bayern Treatment” when the giants faced the likes of Hoffenheim, HSV, Hannover 96, VfB Stuttgart, Werder Bremen, etc.

Under Carlo Ancelotti,  Bayern has still been dominant this season. Hell, the club’s in 1st place, right? And a UCL champion favorite to boot. However, Bayern’s dominance is diminished. Slightly. Ever so slightly. Instead of “the Bayern treatment,” some opponents are “escaping” with 1-2 or 0-1 losses to Bayern this season. During these matches, Bayern certainly seem touchable, drawable, or occasionally even beatable.

By this point last season, Bayern had 17 wins, 1 draw, and 1 loss with a GD of +41 (50 goals scored vs. 9 goals conceded). Currently, through Matchday 19, Ancelotti’s Bayern have 14 wins, 4 draws, and 1 loss with a GD of 31 (43 goals scored, 12 goals conceded). Last season, Bayern possessed the ball 66% of the time; this season, 64% of the time. Moreover, last season, Bayern averaged 18.5 shots per match (8 on target); this season, 17 shots per match (6 on target).

Everything is down just a tick for Bayern this season — enough to account for the extra 3 draws, perhaps? (That, and some slightly poorer luck probably.)

Nonetheless, for me the phenomenon of watching Bayern play Bundesliga opponents this season remains largely the same as in the past crushingly dominant four seasons. That is, other clubs still look exceedingly strained to do anything productive against Bayern, even if “the Bayern treatment” has been less frequently meted out on these same clubs this season.

That is, Bayern still possesses greatness and I’m still obsessed with simultaneously watching that greatness on display and waiting for cracks to appear in it. So naturally, I was just slightly excited when, at home, Werder Bremen was holding Bayern scoreless for the opening 30 minutes on Matchday 18. Not only this, but Werder was generating counter attacks and physically disrupting Bayern’s midfield play. Up to this point, the Bavarians lacked rhythm. The match had that knife-edge quality in which any outcome was seemingly possible.

Then a moment of brilliance happened when Arjen Robben scored this world class goal:

Football matches tend to do this: in a single second, the match’s complexion, logic, script, and struggle change instantly. Suddenly, Werder was chasing the match and Bayern settled into more comfortable build-up play. So it seemed almost predetermined when David Alaba scored on a lovely freekick seconds before halftime, giving Bayern a 2-0 lead:

At this point, I was wondering if “the Bayern treatment” for Werder was the match’s most likely outcome, especially with an entire half still to play. Of course, this outcome didn’t happen, thanks to Max Kruse’s goal at 53′. Yet Bayern’s single-goal cushion enabled the Bavarians to kill off the game rather blandly (of Bayern’s 53 2nd half episodes of possession *only* 7 crossed the center circle), as Werder surged and surged again for the equalizer, attempting another 5 shots (from 8 genuine attacking opportunities in 45 episodes of possession).

In the end, Robben’s moment of brilliance provided the winning margin for Bayern, that or Alaba’s goal — however, the point is that Bayern scored twice before halftime. And Bundesliga sides don’t get results when they’ve down 0-2 to Bayern.

However, Robben’s goal is worth focusing on, since it shifted the match from a 0-0 gamestate into a 0-1 gamestate in favor of the visitors. In fact, this scoring sequence illustrates a couple of the little things that set Bayern’s greatness apart from their Bundesliga brethren.

Curiously, the highlight video (above) of Robben’s goal edits out the most important moment in this scoring sequence. When the highlight begins, we see Ribéry dribbling down the flank. However, how the Frenchman received the ball — and under what circumstances — profoundly effect this sequence. Without seeing the seconds leading up to Ribery’s dribble, the ensuing goal becomes context-less as a sort of “out of the blue” Bayern goal.

But it wasn’t.

Let’s rewind the match a few seconds. First, Bayern’s goal was ultimately set up after Werder broke on a counter attack, resulting in Manuel Neuer easily saving Kruse’s shot. You can see Kruse taking his shot on goal in “Image 1” below.

Image 1

Max Kruse’s shot will get saved by Neuer at the end of Werder’s counter-attack.

What happens next is that these Bayern players quickly reorganized for build up play. Neuer passed to Lahm, who was on the left flank. Lahm fed the ball to Alonso, who was positioned perfectly as a defensive midfield sitting centrally. The Spaniard then passed to the enterprising midfielder Joshua Kimmich, as seen in “Image 2” below.

Image 2

A tackler (Milos Veljkovic? Zlatko Junuzovic?) emerges to close down Joshua Kimmich.

I would argue this is the match’s key moment, in which Bayern’s greatness provided the tiny edge needed to win the match. In this image, Kimmich is about to receive Alsono’s pass. Notice the yellow arrow pointing out the Werder defender (Veljkovic? Junuzovic? I can’t figure out who), who is full-speed sprinting to close down Kimmich, Also notice the open space this streaking defender is leaving in his wake.

What strikes me is this defender’s decision to close down Kimmich at this particular spot, especially given the defender’s relative distance from the midfielder. Is the defender simply following the match’s tactical plan? Going rogue? Following another player’s advice? Anyhow, this decision is very risky, given that the defender will be one-on-one with a talent midfielder. If the defender’s challenge is unsuccessful, then Bayern will surely penetrate the final 3rd.

So what happens?

Image 3

Werder’s tackler (Veljkovic?) goes for it, as Kimmich takes an evasive step to the right.

Well, the defender reached Kimmich and got in his challenge. But here’s the thing. Kimmich evades it. Open fields tackles are enormously risky. Remember all that open space? Oh, damn. Let’s jump to “Image 4.”

Image 4

Whoops. The tackler (Veljkoic? Junuzovic?) misses completely, ending up splay-legged on the pitch. Suddenly, Kimmich has an entire midfield of space at his disposal.

Our poor defender has done the splits, and now, splay-legged, he’s out of commission for awhile, so Kimmich doesn’t have to worry about a pursuing defender as dribbles through the open space with his head up. Soon, Kimmich will have bypassed five Werder defenders by simply dribbling up the pitch in  a straight line.

Image 5

As he dribbles across the center circle, Kimmich plays a pass out to Ribery, who’s lurking along the left flank, as usual.

As the defenders finally close down on Kimmich, the midfielder switches play over to the left flank. Ribéry awaits, wound up like a coil to make one of his trademark dribbles down the left flank. Is there anything more vintage for Bayern in the last, like, ten seasons?

Image 6

After his trademark furious angle of dribbling toward the 18 yard box, Ribery plays a remarkable pass to Arjen Robben, who suddenly enters the frame from the opposite flank. RED ALERT RED ALERT ROBBEN IS CUTTING IN FROM THE RIGHT RED ALERT RED ALERT.

A couple more Werder defenders have been bypassed, thanks to Ribéry’s hard dribbling. The rest of the scoring sequence smacks of Bayern automatism: the Frenchman crosses to the Dutchman, who laser beams in the goal. Damnit, Bayern is great when “Robbéry” are connecting from the flanks. But you already knew this.

Image 7

Robben finds space. The ball finds Robben, who’s already cuing up for his shot to the right post. The defenders are split. Werder’s keeper hasn’t adjusted his position after Ribéry’s dribble. Robben has a shooting lane. Torrrrrrrrrrr!!!!

Robben connects with Ribéry’s cross and scores a brilliant goal in the top right corner. It’s no wonder the highlight reel is stuck on this particular moment. Indeed, these moments of brilliance are what punctuate Bayern’s greatness.

Yet without context, this moment of brilliance is a bolt from the blue. However, you can now see how it was set up by Kimmich evading that risky tackle and finding Ribéry on the flank. Kimmich, and the Werder defender’s risky decision, are the key to this scoring sequence.

Robben’s goal had out-sized effect on the match. The goal was psychologically devastating for the home side. Once Bayern grabbed the lead, Werder was visibly deflated, immediately conceding 80% possession to Bayern until halftime (!). Werder didn’t create a single shot during this stretch, while Bayern settled into patient build up play, ultimately culminating in Alaba’s free kick goal before halftime.

This is how they lose to Bayern.

At least it’s one of the ways they lose to Bayern.

I think my point with this case study is to emphasize that it’s not the highlight moment, which set Bayern apart from Bundesliga opponents, but it’s the moment(s) before or between the highlights that underscore Bayern’s greatness. Intuitively, this make sense, because many professional footballers are capable of creating a highlight moment, individually (just glance through Fox Sports’ Bundesliga playlists in YouTube). However, it’s Bayern’s collection of fanatic individual talents who are able to set up and play between these highlight moments, e.g. Kimmich’s ability to evade that tackle and eventually get the ball to Ribéry. As Uli Hesse’s observes in Bayern, the Bavarian giants historically have always (or mostly!) had this ability to synchronize their collection of talent as a great unit on the pitch.

Anyhow, beating Bayern requires almost unbelievable physical, but especially, mental stamina from other Bundesliga sides, who must match Bayern, move-for-move in the vast spaces and time between the highlight moments. It’s little wonder that as a squad as great as Bayern has ruled the Bundesliga for five years now.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U6s 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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