Be it Man City’s match against Brighton or Barcelona’s against Real Valladolid, the possibility of them facing Bayern in the Champion’s League were mentioned and the challenges of such an encounter too. Strange isn’t it that all these different leagues being played throughout Europe have their eyes set on a team which has ended its campaign weeks ago and is not even playing active football the moment! F.C Bayern Munchen, though, finished the season on a high winning the ‘meisterscharla’ for the eighth time in a row, grabbing the “Deutsche Dubble” and bettering on Guardiola’s unbeaten streak in the process.
Remember, it’s not only the ‘Bundesliga’, but they have retained their scintillating form in the ‘DFB Pokal’ as well as in the Champion’s League Group stages, where they have not dropped a single point. This run also includes the 7-2 thrashing of Tottenham at home. In fact, London proved rich pasture for the team, Chelsea was all but hapless before them.
The Faltering Start:
However, the beginning of the season had not been this promising for the Bavarians, in fact, augurs had not seemed good from the previous season itself and when Bayern lost 5-1 to Frankfurt things had reached a boiling point. The mighty Bayern seemed a mere shadow of its past and there was dissention within the team. The anguish of the team could be seen clearly in Neuer’s face every time the defenders leaked in a late goal forcing the team to drop points at the last moment.
Niko Kovach had failed to judge the team. He had stripped it of its identity.
The team hardly pressed higher up the pitch any more and as a result goal scoring opportunities had been drastically reduced. In case they lost possession of the ball, the team hardly tried to disposes the opposition unless they were mere yards away from Neuer’s post. And then, the defensive lines were haphazard with none of the players knowing their roles. When you take away the attacking mentality of a team like Bayern Munich nothing much is left and that showed clearly when they took on Liverpool at home in the knock out stages of the Champion’s League last year. No Bayern fan had ever seen anything so unlike their team! Why try to alter a team with a motto that says, “MIA SAN MIA!” (we are who we are)
Then, having sacked Nico for good the reigns of the team were handed over to Hansi Flick, a name well known to the fans of German football and things took a turn for the best for the ‘Record Meisters.’ Flick took this floundering team to the top of the Bundesliga charts and soon, the team had more points and goals per game and were conceding fewer goals than under Kovach. Bayern was beginning to look like the team that the fans had come to love.
How did such a change come about?
1. Change in personal: The two major changes in this department were the positional changes of Kimmich and Alaba. Alaba was given more of a central defensive role, whereas Kimmich was shipped off to mid-field. The faster, younger Alphonso Davis became a permanent fixture at Left Back and the French World Cup winner Pavard took control of proceedings at Right Back.
Other than these major positional changes, Flick boosted the morale of the team giving the experienced members of the team their due. Muller rose to prominence again and excelled under Flick. The “raumdeuter” finished the season with a record 21 assists and even Boateng whose ability of playing at the top most level was being questioned has fared better under Flick. Yes, he is sometimes been found wanting due to his lack of pace and mobility but overall he has done his job well.
However, the other change which turned the team around was more of a coincidental nature- the revelation that Leon Goretzka turned out to be. In the Kovach era Goretzka only found himself on the field in the final third of matches, as a late substitute. Plagued by injuries as he had been, that did not immediately change under Flick, with Thiago getting the nod ahead of Goretzka most of the times. The pandemic break gave Goretzka the much needed time to work on his fitness and he is back on the field fitter than ever. This coupled with an injury to Thiago after resumption of the season saw Goretzka appear as a permanent attacking mid-fielder along with Kimmich. And soon they were being rated as one of the most feared mid-field duos in the whole of Europe. He has often won games single-handedly, with crucial last minute goals like the ones against Bayer Leverkusen and Monchengladback.
2. Tactical Changes: The team has got hungrier under Flick, they have more possession of the ball in their matches and they fight to keep it that way.
Bayern on the Attack:
Even though the structure of the team has not changed much (4-2-3-1), the roles of the players have changed considerably. The Full Backs, i.e. Pavard and Davis advance up the pitch in search of the vertically that gives Flicks side passing lanes all over the pitch. It helps that both have the pace needed to beat their opposition counter parts.
If the opposition tries to press high, Kimmich often drops back to create a numerical advantage of 3:2 at the back.
In case the opposition is not that keen on pressing high up, the two mid fielders- Kimmich and Goretzka push higher up to press the opposition mid-fielders deep before dropping down to receive the ball. In case these two are heavily marked, they try to move off and create a passing option for Lewy to drop back and get the ball to the wingers. In fact, in the Flick era Lewy has been way more involved in the build-up play than he had been under Kovach.
On the other hand, if the Center-Backs move wider, the Full-Backs have multiple passing options. The inverted Full-Backs as Kovach had often used Kimmich and Alaba, are less common in Flick’s team. Instead he makes them use the width of the field better. Muller creeps in running through lines and adding more attacking options. The fluidity of the front three has increased tremendously. Earlier, Lewy would have been Bayern’s only hope for a goal but now the front three along with Goretzka and Muller pop in between to score.
Their first defensive instinct is to press. The front three, i.e. Lewy, Coman and Gnabry try and cut off the wider options for the opposition with the wingers overshadowing, while Goretzka and Kimmich along with Muller join in the effort. The back line pushes high up confident of winning the long balls. They defend deep by forming a 4-2-3-1 which is hard for the opposition to break through.
Thus, Flick has revolutionized the team almost overnight, sans a transfer window or spending tons of money but just by putting the right players in the right spots.
3. Super Bayern’s Super Management Board:
While some clubs in Europe have made the mistake of depending on their star players far more than is healthy and held on to their older players far longer than justified, namely Barcelona, the Bayern Board has made efforts to rejuvenise the team by injecting youthful players into the fold. The younger pool of talent at Bayern is considerable, to say the least and this coupled with the experience of the seasoned veterans makes the team quite exceptional. This started with the addition of Kimmich into the squad from R.B Leipzig and soon others like Goretzka from Schalka 04, Gnabry from Arsenal, Davis from Vancouver Whitecaps, Coman from Juventus, Pavard from Stuttgart and Leroy Sane from Man City followed in.
In fact, if Bayern had to make a team comprised of only players less than 25 years, that would also be a pretty formidable team. Indulge me.
A. Davis Sule Hernandez Pavard
Sane Goretzka Gnabry
True, Zirkzee is nowhere near as effective as Lewy but he has youth and potential on his side. Hell, some of his goals would have made Lewy proud! And even after this, there will be the likes of Coman, Cuisance and Sarpreet Singh on the bench. So, Bayern not only has the present planned but also the foreseeable future!
4. The understanding between the players: This had not been part of the initial draft of the article but watching Barcelona play their last few matches, especially the struggles of Griezemann made me realize how important it is for the smooth functioning of a team. While Griezemann has no clue as to when to expect the ball and if to pass it around for go for goal himself, the Bayern players know exactly what to expect of each other and often present each other goal scoring opportunities selflessly.
Most of the Bayern players have come through the ranks together. The likes of Kimmich, Goretzka, Sule and Gnabry have literally grown up together and know each other’s style of play inside out. While on the other hand the camaraderie between Lewy and Muller is evident from the fact that Lewy’s chances of scoring a goal increase fourfolds if Muller plays and almost 80% of Muller’s final passes find their way to Lewy.
This team is a well-oiled machine running on recognizable cogs. And for the selfless bit, just take a look at Thiago’s goal against Hoffenheim, presented to him on a silver platter by Lewy.
Of course, the future is hard to predict, especially given the fact that this Champion’s League will feature one legged ties. That means there are more chances of upsets in the tournament. But that being said, Bayern has the groundwork laid for making it a ‘Treble’ this season. And they should do it not only by virtue of the points aforementioned but also for emotional reasons. For Lewy, because he deserves a Ballon d’Or. For Muller as a way of answering Joachim Low back and of course, for Flick for bring the old Bayern Back!