After a rocky start to the 2018-19 season, FC Bayern have largely recovered to get back in the Bundesliga title race. Much work remains to be done to avoid a trophy-less campaign amid reconstruction worries.
Here are four improvements the Reds should make to be more competitive in all leagues.
A better Javi
Javi Martínez should be considered as the individual centrepiece for progress. Will he still be a Bavarian come summer 2019? The answer is very unclear although clickbait sites have already tried to send him packing thanks to the power of their keyboards.
We do know one thing: nobody in the squad can play better defensive football than an in-form Javi. The Spaniard has underperformed in the first half of the season, and he is nowhere near the top of his game despite being only 30. He must play better for the team to be successful.
Primarily, Javi adds defensive structure to the central midfield, an area of the pitch that has been weak for several years. Pep Guardiola’s tactics masked it until the loss of possession. Carlo Ancelotti and Jupp Heynckes inherited a headache without finding a permanent cure.
Niko Kovac brought a solution to the table late in the first half. He turned to the double six central midfield scheme, which immediately added defensive stability. Javi, often left on the bench, barely participated. However, he thrived as the defensive-minded man in the double six scheme in his last start of the year. He looked a bit more like the man who dominated the space alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger five years ago.
Javi’s contribution could make Bayern’s defence far better. It must be tried.
Carte blanche to Kovač
Disclaimer: the “we love Pep, the hell with any other coach” people will hate what follows. Discretion is advised.
Carlo Ancelotti did not fail to make Bayern a competitive team in his second season due to lack of coaching ability. Pundits and parvenus tried to define him as incompetent with a smear campaign, but he is not.
Ancelotti brought good ideas to the table, such as a better balance between attacking and defending. However, he faced resistance from the players and did not receive unconditional backing from management. It showed when the team failed to come to grips with its weaknesses.
The previous regime had left strong impressions, and the squad seemed convinced that the obsessed, hands-on approach of a certain Catalan was the only way to go. Reality is that micromanagement or a hands-off approach is not necessarily right or wrong. Personal chemistry, improvements or declines in individual form and numerous other factors come into play, but that is another question. What we know is that the timing for a hands-off approach may have been the wrong one.
After a short honeymoon, Niko Kovač faced a very similar problem. The squad did not adopt a new style of football. Manuel Neuer and Mats Hummels have candidly admitted it in public. A man whose footballistic foundation is active defending was forced to watch possession without purpose fail.
Thankfully, though, FC Bayern managers saw the light and gave Kovač clear backing in public. The coach started making changes such as making defence the number one priority against Ajax in Amsterdam, using the double six scheme, and a 4-4-2 formation in defensive phases. The team’s play improved.
In other words, Kovač is doing what should have been done years ago! Give him carte blanche to go even further and tailor a playing system to the strengths of the current squad, in a world that has adapted to possession overload. Let him use whichever players help to get the job done. What matters, in sports, is the result today and tomorrow. Past methods should not dictate the future.
Let Kovač do his damn job.
Daring to shoot
Bayern players need to level up badly when it comes to a fundamental psychological aspect of the game: taking chances. Some of them still look for a teammate to pass to when they should take a shot. This kills scoring opportunities.
Walking the ball into the net, after 100 passes while sipping an espresso, is not the only way to score goals. Players have to have the instinct to realise when they are in a position to take a shot to either beat the goalkeeper or create chaos.
Sometimes you receive a perfect pass or grab a lucky bounce. Sometimes you get clear because you are on the counterattack. When that happens, you are the best-placed man to shoot, with little time to act. What should you do? SHOOT. Becoming selfish can be a side effect, but it should be accepted as a risk when spotting scoring chances. Selfishness is only as equally destructive as wasteful selflessness.
Bayern players have more skills than the average in top-flight football, and they should be able to finish a chance. They should try doing that more often.
A short leash for Boateng and Hummels
A “fluid” midfield often caused Bayern’s defensive woes in the first half, but Jérôme Boateng and Mats Hummels were also to blame. The two defenders still start matches based on reputation and past achievements rather than pure performance.
The Benjamin Pavard transfer should already represent a warning that these two may be shipped out of Munich in the summer. Kovač should perhaps push the envelope by restricting their roles to not messing up before granting permission to go forward and attack.
Fans of the two players may come out swinging after reading the last two paragraphs. Before they do, I remind them that I called Boateng the best central defender in the world several times in the past, and rejoiced when Hummels asked to join Bayern. I hoped they would make the best centre-back pairing in the world. However, the team is more important than likeable individuals. Performance is not negotiable.
Improvement in the second half could increase FCB’s title-winning chances, although the odds of wild success are slim.
The race is on in the Bundesliga. Borussia Dortmund are worthy leaders, but any slip-up could quickly be punished. Dropping points is inevitable even when a team plays grand football throughout a full season.
The Champions League is another matter with Liverpool as the opponent in the Round of 16. Expectations should be low in that regard. Too many Bayern players have declined this season for the team to pretend to have a chance. Getting past Liverpool and making it to the semis would be a very satisfying result.
A DFB-Pokal final is as doable as winning the Bundesliga because it depends mostly on the prospects of beating BVB. It would be difficult, but not impossible.
A testing second half of the season is coming, dear friends, and I hope you will enjoy it.