The late stages of the season are looming, and FC Bayern München look different going into the phase this year. Now underdogs on the European stage, they play more conservative football than in the past. How should the club react next summer?
The context that brings me to write this piece is well-known to Bayern fans. A squad that lost two legends in recent years has also seen vital players decline. Last summer, the board of management asked new coach Niko Kovač to get the best possible result out of the deck of cards at hand.
Results have been mixed.
Chasing Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga is difficult, but prospects are improving quickly. As any group of humans sometimes does, the bees stumble now and then.
It is a different matter in the Champions League. Once among favourites, Bayern are dark horses instead of title contenders.
Player declines have caused fragility, forcing a rebalancing of the tactical playbook towards a safety-first approach. We saw that in action in the Champions League Round of 16, first leg, against Liverpool at Anfield. The Bavarians trusted their coach, played for the draw and brought the tie back to the Allianz Arena.
Having called for a draw mere minutes before the match, I am satisfied. Droves of fans are not. They look at past editions of Bayern and wince because they expect the Bavarians to steamroll opponents with the ball at their feet. This mindset once was Real Madrid’s motto: how you win matters as much as the final result.
There is a problem: the dynamics of the game have changed, as my colleague Juan Pablo González pointed out in his latest piece on this site.
Why would Bayern amend their philosophy?
The severe decline of defensive players such as Jérôme Boateng and Mats Hummels hit where it hurts the most. How can you expect Kovač to send his guys forward in numbers when there is a weak spot in central defence? Would you instruct the team to go up the pitch and spray passes everywhere when the back four can collapse under pressure at any time?
I would not.
That is why I advocate defensive football. That is also why I applaud Kovač’s decision to adopt the double pivot in central midfield for greater safety. He can always tweak the playing style later, provided that the board brings in the right players to afford a riskier game plan.
Secondly, Real Madrid themselves have redefined club football at the top by having balance under Zinédine Zidane. Robust at the back, strong in the middle and deadly up front. It did not matter what style you threw at them. They knew how to counter it.
Real’s recent successes are the most iconic representation of a trend towards balance. The era of total possession, initiated by FC Barcelona and perpetuated by FC Bayern, is broadly over. Coaches across Europe have adapted. They say “come at me, bro”.
Where does a purely defensive team stand in that context? Atlético de Madrid have hit a glass ceiling. Their last La Liga title was clinched in 2014. They came short twice in Champions League finals. Bayern have fared far better in Germany, but have not gone past a European semi in five years.
Bayern have contributed to outlining the need for balance in 2012-13. Physically strong, quick on their feet, and able to turn on the jets at both ends of the pitch. They were complete. Chelsea FC were equally fearsome in the season that followed.
The last time they won the Champions League, in 2014-15, FC Barcelona had rebalanced their game. They were less possession-oriented in Luis Enrique’s first season than during the Guardiola era. A few counterattacks featuring the MSN line were enough to put a game to bed.
Bolster the defence
I believe that balance is currently essential for a club to win shiny trophies in all competitions. Transfer activity should be fueled by a quest for completeness, not merely by a desire for more attacking football. Bayern should make it a mission in the summer transfer window.
Everything starts at the back for the most obvious reasons. Jérôme Boateng and Mats Hummels could very well be on their way out. Benjamin Pavard will come over. Atlético de Madrid’s Lucas Hernández is a most likely target. These guys can bring fresh legs and the ability to switch positions to complement the excellent work of Niklas Süle and David Alaba. The need for backup at left-back and right-back could justify making another deal.
A more capable back line would give the coaching staff the confidence to attack more aggressively. However, it should only be a component for the greater ambition of being capable all around the pitch.
Keep Javi and the double six
The current mix of players in central midfield may not need to change. Javi Martínez plays very well in a double six scheme. He provides structure and stability to a previously liquid area of the park. With Thiago Alcântara, Corentin Tolisso, Leon Goretzka and Joshua Kimmich on board, Kovač has a range of options to complement the Spaniard’s defensive work.
Managing the front four positions may be trickier. If he can stay fit, Kingsley Coman is the team’s most prominent attacking star. Serge Gnabry is developing into an impact player.
Get a winger
Will Alphonso Davies live up to his potential? It is early to tell. He needs playing minutes and time to grow, so I would have him as a third or fourth winger.
With three men already on board for the wings, the club needs one more guy. Either it promotes one of its youngsters (unlikely) or digs in the treasury for a significant transfer (very likely). Whether that man is Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi or not, the Reds need depth in that position.
At number 10, the team can count on Thomas Müller. If it returns James Rodríguez to Real Madrid, it will have to buy a replacement.
Last but not least is the striker position. Sandro Wagner is out. Will the rumoured Timo Werner transfer happen? Good news if it does. Werner would be a solid backup with counterattacking skills.
When our favourite club starts spending money this summer, it should not look over its shoulder with the 2013 to 2016 editions in mind. The ultimate rebuilding effort would result in a complete team. One that can attack against inferior squads and defend against the ones that have firepower.
Dominating with the ball is a beautiful dream that a single counter can shatter. Defending without much of a scoring threat has its limits. Completeness is the ultimate objective. It multiplies chances to run the table in all competitions.
Real Madrid have achieved balance in recent years. Today’s Liverpool are close to it. We should ask for nothing less.