Borussia Dortmund defeated Bayern in the 2019 DFL Supercup with a mix of ruthless speed and predating on die Roten‘s mistakes. The game sends a clear and unequivocal message to the board.
Before I get a load of responses saying that the Supercup is a glorified preseason game, let’s get some asterisks and disclaimers out of the way. First off, let me acknowledge the relative importance of the DFL Supercup. While some people contend that it’s a title game like any other, most fans agree that it amounts to not much more than a glorified pre-season friendly. Some players and managers have even gone on record with similar opinions. However, pre-season is important. Just look at Real Madrid for reference. Their abysmal form this summer has been labeled a crisis in its own right.
Secondly, it’s important to not overstate the DFL Supercup as a trendsetter for the season it precedes. The last time Borussia Dortmund won it, they ended up seventh in the Bundesliga, 33 points behind Bayern. Winning the Supercup is no indication of having a good season – or a bad one.
Still, neither of these things mean that this game is something we’re just supposed to brush off. There are conclusions to be made from it.
4-3-3? Nein, nein, nein
One of the main reactions on Twitter and social media at large was that Niko Kovač failed to learn his lessons from last season. The Croat fielded a 4-3-3 of sorts, with a midfield trio of Thiago Alcântara, Leon Goretzka and Corentin Tolisso. Most of us agree that the 4-3-3 is a no-no for Bayern. It leaves the defence exposed in a team that has relied on at least one defending midfielder for cover, and whose full-backs have almost as much responsibility in attack as they do in defence.
The criticism directed at Kovač’s 4-3-3 yesterday is half right and half wrong. Yes, it was ill-advised to present that against a team with players like Jadon Sancho. But did Kovač really have much choice at all? Without Javi Martínez, Bayern has no real central defensive midfielder alternative. Sure, Thiago can fill in and do his best. And most days that will be more than enough. But asking him to deliver the kind of performance a natural CDM would be well accustomed to is wishful thinking. Indeed, it was a misplaced pass by Thiago that got things going for Dortmund’s second goal.
Kovač had to make do with the hand he was dealt. If you’re sensible, that 4-3-3 was one of very few options that would even remotely make sense. This leads us to the actual core of the issue.
In 2012-13, Bayern had a star duo of Martínez and Bastian Schweinsteiger in Jupp Heynckes’ 4-2-3-1. And here’s the thing: behind them stood Luiz Gustavo and Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, whose role as back-up CDMs was crucial. Gustavo played over 2000 minutes that year, making appearances in every single Champions League knockout game. Tymoshchuk clocked in at just under 900 minutes, deputising often late in the season and even seeing the game off at the Camp Nou in the CL semifinal.
Today, only Martínez remains.
As for the wings, the problem is documented enough. Seeing Renato Sanches on the left flank was a perfect summation of Bayern’s current squad problem: too many central midfielders, too little everywhere else. Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman are fantastic footballers, but they are also prone to injury. The team needs alternatives.
Concern from within
Robert Lewandowski doubled down on recent statements to the press after the Supercup was lost. He insisted that the team needs reinforcements that can immediately make an impact and add another gear to the Bayern machine. This is the sentiment of many fans, who expected more swift and decisive action from a board that has been announcing this summer as the time to build the FC Bayern of the future.
Every day of preseason counts. While it is clear that some negotiations are harder than others, it is clear that the club could have done better. Instead, Kovač had to pick up the pieces and do his best with a 17-man squad. Not nearly enough. Whoever does arrive will have to catch up with the rest of the team. Not ideal. This opens up a recurring theme in discussion about Bayern: what good is pre-season if the reinforcements turn up just before the actual season starts? The Supercup could have been a game where a renewed squad tested out its cohesiveness and reap the rewards of a summer’s work well done. Instead, it was one where Bayern had to play with the remnants of last season’s group.
I will insist once more that indulging in commentary about transfer rumours is not something we do at Straight Red. However, this summer has proven to be atypical, to say the least. This forces me (and many others) into a position where it becomes all but necessary to discuss Bayern’s antics in the transfer market.
For over a year, it has been clear just how much business Bayern would have to do in time for the 2019-20 season. And for just as long, many important figures at the club have been touting this time as one where the club will dish out the cash it’s been diligently saving by being frugal in years past. This, in principle, sounds good. Rather than overspending constantly, Bayern decided to pick their moment to go on a shopping spree.
Unfortunately, this approach carries more than a footnote with it. The first problem comes with the state of the market. We know it all too well: premium footballers come at a very premium price. After Paris St.-Germain tore everything apart with their €222m swoop for Neymar, nothing is holy. Antoine Griezmann cost Barcelona a whopping – and as yet disputed – €120m. Atlético de Madrid offloaded €126m for João Félix – a 19-year-old.
No good at poker
While there is very little Bayern can do on their own about the state of the market, they can certainly behave in such a way that their position isn’t compromised in it. That’s not the case when you’ve been boasting for a year that you will spend the most money your club has ever spent, and that you have a more than healthy reserve of cash ready to fund the operation.
To put it simply: if your squad is in need of strong, valuable players, and you say you’ve got tons of money to get them, why would anyone give you a bargain? Your negotiating position is inherently terrible.
Another area where Bayern has left much to be desired is in the discretion. Hasan Salihamidžić made no secret of his intention to sign Callum Hudson-Odoi from Chelsea back in January. Bayern at one point looked to be just about to make the announcement, and then the whole thing went off the tracks. Today, Hudson-Odoi appears to be a non-issue for Bayern and poised to stay at Chelsea. We’ve seen a similar thing happen with the ongoing Leroy Sané saga, to the point where the club even tweeted about the whole thing, and apologised to Manchester City for remarks the manager and other important figureheads made about the player.
Nowhere to hide
It is true that there is plenty of time before the transfer window ends, but it is preciously ticking away. The Supercup made that terribly clear. Bayern’s revamp isn’t off to the best of starts, and it’s on the board to correct the heading and help the manager and the team by doing their part.
The Bundesliga, and indeed the season, loom in the horizon…