After a pair of ugly, disconcerting draws in the Bundesliga and a humbling Champions League defeat at Atletico Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti and Bayern Munich are officially in their first little mini-crisis together.
That might sound counterintuitive, as Bayern still lead the Bundesliga in points, goals scored and goals allowed, but a look at the table belies an uncomfortable reality for the four-time defending champions: the transition from Pep Guardiola to Ancelotti has been tougher than anticipated, and it’s starting to show on the field. Never mind that Bayern’s last winless run of three games dates back 17 months ago. For the first time in a long time, Bayern just don’t look that good.
In the two most recent games against Koeln and Frankfurt, Bayern were too sloppy on the ball, too stagnant off it, and too vulnerable without it. Despite a pair of early-season international breaks, Bayern are lacking energy and concentration, with Ancelotti admitting his players have “slept for 45 minutes in every game.”
But Bayern won their first seven games in all competitions to start the season. So why are they struggling now?
More than anything, Bayern have yet to find their identity under Ancelotti. For three years, they had sucked the life out of opponents with Guardiola’s relentless possession football and constant high pressing. That’s all gone now, replaced by a more conservative approach that has lately been uninspiring.
Bayern still possess the ball at a similar rate, but the offense seems to trudge along at times, with defenders and midfielders holding the ball too long, forwards not making enough runs, all while granting tactically sound defenses enough time to close up shop and pounce on mistakes. This was the problem against Atletico and Koeln.
Ancelotti has Bayern play over the wings more, amounting to more crosses for Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller. But those have hardly worked. Muller has yet to score a Bundesliga goal this season, while Lewandowski hasn’t since Matchday 3. Either Bayern have become predictable, or they are simply short of ideas. Even in wins against lowly Ingolstadt and Hamburg, individual moments of brilliance had to bail Bayern out. Ancelotti must devise a Plan B and C when Plan A isn’t working.
Defensively, Bayern’s center backs play a much deeper line this season, creating more space for opponents to attack the middle. But because Ancelotti prefers his fullbacks higher up the field to support the wings, Bayern also remain susceptible to counterattacks, their biggest weakness under Guardiola. Despite the more defensive alignment, Bayern are giving up the same amount of shots per game as last year (7.5). On Saturday, Frankfurt teed off 13 times on Manuel Neuer’s net, while Atletico had 16 shots.
The new system only partly explains why Bayern are in a funk. Besides Joshua Kimmich (who has 3 of Bayern’s last 4 goals) and the now injured Franck Ribery, it’s hard to pick out any player who's consistently performed up to his standard. How come?
Perhaps the bigger issue has been the players' mentality. After Bayern failed to seize control against Frankfurt despite taking two leads and then conceding the final equalizer while up a man — Bayern! — even the captain had to sound the alarm.
“We have to ask ourselves why we can’t play to our strengths like we did last year,” Philipp Lahm told Sky Sports. “When you think it can be done at below 100%, then you risk losing tackles and the control of the game. None of us gave 100% today.”
Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Bayern’s legendary CEO, was fuming. “How we played the first half, that was not Bayern Munich. You can’t play like that. We were lucky to get a point.”
Needing time to adapt to a new manager’s tactics is one thing. Not showing up for games with the right attitude or motivation is another, and more incriminating of the coach.
There’s talk in Munich that Ancelotti’s management style has been too lax, a sharp contrast to his predecessor’s ultra-controlling and obsessively detailed hands-on approach. Ancelotti was lauded for his loose and cozy demeanor when he arrived in Munich, and Bayern’s perfect start inferred it was exactly what the players needed after three years of the daily Guardiola grind.
But maybe Bayern’s players have gotten too comfortable under the new regime and are starting to take advantage of the new freedoms, like children with strict parents getting released to the unsupervised life of college.
At his last stop with Real Madrid, Ancelotti was also knocked for fostering too relaxed of an environment after winning the Champions League in 2014. On the same day Real lost 4-0 at home to Atletico the following season, Cristiano Ronaldo threw a huge birthday party for his friends and teammates — with Ancelotti’s blessing. Would Pep ever allow that? Real failed to win a single title that season and Ancelotti got the sack.
It’s up to the manager then to turn up the intensity, and it appears he’s already doing so. One of the players’ new privileges has already been revoked. According to Bild, the team must now spend the nights before home games in a hotel rather than their homes — like in the Guardiola times.
With a deep roster that will get healthier soon – Douglas Costa and Javi Martinez are training again, while Arjen Robben is now back to full fitness – the odds remain in favor of Bayern figuring it out. The quality in the team is too great and Ancelotti too good of a coach for them not to.
Until then though, hope continues to spread across the Bundesliga. Bayern appear at least vulnerable again, and given Ancelotti’s poor league record (three championships in 20 years), a prolonged stretch of weakness will see the pressure start to mount.
“We need to pick up the pace quickly, starting on Wednesday,” Rummenigge warns. “or else we’ll have a problem.”
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