FC Bayern München may be able to win the Bundesliga title in 2018-19, but they must face three uncomfortable truths if they wish to be Champions League contenders in the future.
In previous pieces, I have outlined the need for squad rebuilding to make up for the gradual fading of a golden generation of players. This need remains, but other troublesome questions require our attention after a home loss against Liverpool in the Champions League.
Manuel Neuer no longer the best
I vividly remember watching the German national team’s stressful 2:1 win against Algeria at World Cup 2014. With nothing to lose, the Algerians played brilliantly. They took the game to the Germans and pushed the match into extra time.
The hero in that match was Manuel Neuer. Nicknamed the keeper-sweeper, he multiplied interventions to minimise danger. He was bold, quick and accurate. He was at the height of his powers.
That is not the case anymore. Neuer is no longer the world’s best goalkeeper, but his reputation makes him very hard to drop. His status as team captain makes matters even worse. How do you bench your pitch leader?
FC Bayern have three potential solutions. Stripping Neuer of the captaincy could create unrest in the dressing room. Selling him to a European rival could backfire badly, motivating an extraordinarily talented and experienced player who is only 32 years old.
I suggest a third solution: bringing in competition. Sven Ulreich is a capable keeper, but his ability is more limited than Neuer’s. In the absence of injury, a coach can hardly implement rotation.
Bayern should copy other European giants’ model by having two keepers who can start any match in the league, Champions League or DFB-Pokal. Only this kind of competition could keep Neuer on his toes at all. The coach needs a mandate to use both keepers.
Group Stage Bob
In post-match interviews after the loss to Liverpool, Robert Lewandowski criticised his coach’s defensive tactics. In the striker’s opinion, the team did not take enough risks to score goals.
I agree in part. Staying back without surging forward often enough hardly creates scoring chances. However, I can understand why safety comes first when the opposition, Liverpool FC, is one of the finest teams in the world with superior firepower.
On the other hand, Lewandowski is in a bad position to hit out at Niko Kovač.
Robert Lewandowski's scoring record in his last 7 #UCL knockout games:
Real Madrid (a):
Real Madrid (h):
Besiktas (h): ⚽️⚽️🅰️
— DW Sports (@dw_sports) March 13, 2019
Isn’t this a little embarrassing, Group Stage Bob? Surely anyone with a straight mind and a big mouth would tell our number nine that a striker who converts chances can help his team to win big matches. Surely he would ask whether Lewandowski was unable to score in the late stages in the Champions League last season because of Jupp Heynckes’ tactics.
Lewandowski’s big-match form is not only a topic for 2018 and 2019. He went quiet for three straight KO matches in 2016, when Pep Guardiola was still in charge. Was that caused by the absence of attacking tactics?
No. The uncomfortable truth is that Lewandowski is not a big-match player. I can hear the laughs from Juventus Stadium if you know what I mean.
What can Bayern do? Bring in competition. Depth at striker has been a problem since Lewandowski joined the Bavarians. Most coaches have relied solely on him. When Heynckes used Sandro Wagner in a rotation, it worked, but it banged a big ego in the process.
The team needs two starting strikers for depth and to have the luxury to use two at the same time whenever necessary. It needs someone to light a fire under Lewandowski so that he scores more frequently in big matches.
The missing weapon
Would firing Niko Kovač solve anything? Not necessarily. It would perhaps give way to more popular tactics, but nothing guarantees better results.
FC Bayern have several players who declined this season. Some are inconsistent. Some underperform in the big matches. The current coach has improved the team’s fortunes in the Bundesliga, and he may be able to win a double.
Should that happen, a loss in the Champions League Round of 16 ahead of a major reconstruction effort would not be catastrophic. Especially not when you consider the quality of the opposition.
However, there is a weapon missing in Kovač’s current arsenal: turning defence into attack. The coach needs it for his playing style to be more effective against the best sides in Europe.
Years of possession obsession and the talent pool at hand limit the ability to score on the counter, an essential element of a more defensive scheme. According to WhoScored.com, the Bavarians have notched only two goals on the counters this season, against six for Borussia Dortmund.
A tactical scheme becomes more fragile when important weapons are missing. Possession teams that score only from open play will see opponents use set pieces to waste time. Defensive teams that don’t have teeth on the counter get pinned in their own half. And so on.
Niko Kovač can help by invigorating the counter through coaching. The Bayern board should also keep that need in mind before signing players in the transfer window.
A crucial summer is ahead. Should management deliver on its promise, a squad overhaul will make Bayern more competitive on the European stage and more secure domestically.
The transfer window will be the first serious test for sporting director Hasan Salihamidžić, who did not have the mandate to restructure the team upon arrival. I look forward to this period, with the hope that the outcome will be a balanced team.