Build from the back, they say. Having signed Lucas Hernández and Benjamin Pavard, FC Bayern München will have a more versatile back four as the foundation for renewal after the summer of 2019.
I prefer to warn you that this forward-looking analysis may not prove to be 100% accurate in a few months. What I currently see in the crystal ball is subject to change since the Bavarians could make more transfers.
Fresh legs and flexibility
What can Bayern be after with this “renovation” of the back line? Fresh legs and younger players who bring adaptable skills to a team that needs to vary its tactics increasingly.
The backdrop is a transitional edition of FCB in 2018-19 edition of FCB. The squad and tactical scheme are the products of the van Gaal-Heynckes-Guardiola era. Star players have declined. European football has adapted to the total possession game. This translates into necessary change. Without entirely discarding what coach Niko Kovač inherited, there is a need for rejuvenation and rebalancing.
Pavard and Hernández join at the right time to make such renewal happen. Both bring an interesting set of skills to the table, perhaps where they are the most needed.
Benjamin Pavard excels at tackling, intercepting, reading the play, and being creative with the ball at his feet. Not the fastest runner, the Frenchman has a sense of positioning that makes up for lack of pure foot speed.
Hernández has similar skills, with added explosion and run-and-gun when driving the attack forward.
The pair’s abilities appear to be a perfect match for Bayern. The team’s established star defenders, Jérôme Boateng and Mats Hummels, have had brutal moments this season. Dealing with the counter has become a painful affair. Their attacking punch is not what it used to be. It may not be a coincidence that Hasan Salihamidžić and his mates have selected new players who shine when defending against piercing final-third passes and when joining the attack.
Should their arrivals be a threat to David Alaba and Joshua Kimmich? Not exactly. The Austrian and the German are solid enough at both ends of the pitch to guarantee their relevance in the foreseeable future, as long as playing for Bayern is their wish.
Instead, the two significant arrivals coincide with Rafinha’s departure, and with the fact that Bayern have no backup left-back since Juan Bernat went to Paris Saint-Germain.
Hernandez can play at CB and left-back. Pavard can do the same at CB and right-back. This will boost overall versatility of the back four, possibly eliminating the need for backup full-backs.
Starting from next season, Niko Kovač could implement a new defensive scheme and rotation. Niklas Süle should be the number one central defender, playing alongside Pavard or Hernández. The flanks should generally be handled by Alaba and Kimmich, who both provide high mobility and natural attacking skills. Pavard and Hernández would be logical “backups” in such positions.
Such a scheme makes sense because quality at full-back is one of the biggest headaches for sporting directors and coaches at top European football clubs. It’s hard to find anyone who has the skill set and mojo to handle such responsibilities. It’s even harder to find guys who can warm the bench most of the time and turn into a top performer for the occasional cameo.
With Pavard and Hernández on board, Kovač will have proven and positionally flexible talent in all defensive positions. It will give him more tactical options. Should the squad be free from major injuries, his biggest problem will be implementing a proper rotation. In other words, a first world problem.
What this means for Boateng and Hummels
I am not Jérôme Boateng’s agent, but I do have a message for him: we are at crossroads. You can still play good football, but you have lost a step. Look for a new club. Bayern are most likely paving the way for a future that doesn’t include you.
Mats Hummels may have a better chance to stay. While he had a few horrific moments this season, his presence in the back four has generally been more beneficial. He could still provide depth, experience and leadership without being a world beater.
What this means for Lars-Lukas Mai
Lars-Lukas Mai, a promising young central defender, is still in Bayern’s youth ranks. However, it’s hard to see a generous amount of playing time ahead.
Süle, Pavard and Hernández are ahead of him. If Hummels stays, the path to top-flight football in Munich faces massive roadblocks. If he doesn’t, there still isn’t that much room for Mai. I suggest a change of scenery if regular playing time at a top-flight club is what he wants.
Niko Kovač must be rubbing his hands in anticipation of the 2019-20 season. The defense that needed fixing will most likely be one of the most adaptable. It only depends on Hernández recovering from a knee ligament tear injury and on Pavard’s ability to migrate to an elite club.
The €115 million gamble on two defensive players could backfire, but it could also turn into a memorable masterpiece of transfer business.
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