Bayern must shake off current cobwebs
Last weekend’s German Cup final was never really about the German Cup final. Of course, for Borussia Dortmund, winning the first double in the club’s history was a major feat. But for Bayern Munich, the main event was always Saturday’s Champions League final against Chelsea.
“It’s a very important game,” the Bayern manager Jupp Heynckes said before the match in Berlin, “in terms of confidence.”
That, then, is deeply worrying, for Bayern were pummelled by Dortmund 5-2, beaten far more convincingly than it had been in either of the league games this season (both of which ended 1-0 to Jurgen Klopp’s men). Perhaps minds were already looking a week ahead, but this was Bayern’s first-choice side, the same eleven that had played in both legs of the Champions League semifinal against Real Madrid. There was no resting of players before Bayern’s second Champions League final in three seasons.
Bayern has now lost five in a row to Dortmund and, given its struggles against Klopp’s former side, Mainz, this season – it lost 3-2 away and only drew 0-0 at home – it’s fair to say that the traditional uneasiness against hard-pressing sides remains. The good news for Bayern is that it was precisely Chelsea’s efforts to become a hard-pressing side that led to the poor form that culminated in the dismissal of Andre Villas-Boas. There is no way that Chelsea will play with a high offside line at the Allianz Arena on Saturday.
To an extent, the defeat to Dortmund can be written off as a one of those days, an evening when everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. Former Bayern Munich forward Karl-Heinz Rummenigge called it “an embarrassment.” Dortmund was ahead inside three minutes thanks to two errors by the holding midfielder Luiz Gustavo. The Brazilian then seemed to undergo some sort of meltdown and was at fault for Dortmund’s third, the goal that stymied the Bayern comeback and thus effectively settled the game. He is suspended for Saturday’s final, altering the shape of the midfield, which may be a blessing in disguise.
Gustavo wasn’t the only Bayern player to have an off-day. Jerome Boateng, solid against Real Madrid, had a shocker. Bayern had fought back to 1-1 when he senselessly brought down Kuba Blaszczykowski four minutes before halftime. Perhaps on another night Manuel Neuer, brilliant in the penalty shootout against Real Madrid, would have saved Mats Hummels effort. Yet, last Saturday, he too had a miserable game and gifted Dortmund’s fifth by spilling a simple cross.
"They’ve had one chance and scored three goals," said Heynckes. "Our defensive behavior was catastrophic. If you don’t concentrate from the start, you don’t deserve to win.
“We’ve only got ourselves to blame."
The question is why. Bayern has the best defensive record in the Bundesliga, having conceded only 22 goals in 34 matches. To concede five was an aberration and to that extent the excuse of individual errors holds water. But why did two players have such bad games at the same time? Why now? Luiz Gustavo, out of the Champions League final, couldn’t have claimed to be distracted. The positive is to think – as former Arsenal goalkeeper Jens Lehmann said in his television punditry – that the defeat will shake any complacency out of Bayern. The negative is to look at Bayern’s weirdly patchy season and wonder why so many players – Thomas Muller, Mario Gomez and Arjen Robben as well as Saturday’s two culprits – are so inconsistent.
There are systemic issues as well. Villain he may have been against Dortmund, but against Real Madrid, Luiz Gustavo was excellent – aided by some lenient refereeing admittedly – in a midfield that won the battle for control against Real Madrid during both legs. Where Real Madrid’s 4-2-3-1, in Munich in particular, featured Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso sitting extremely deep with Mesut Ozil somewhere in the far distance, Bayern had a much clearer connection from front to back. With Luiz Gustavo holding and occasionally hunting, he provided Gomez and Robben the liberties to attack Madrid’s vulnerable fullbacks.
Luiz Gustavo’s suspension presumably means Bastian Schweinsteiger will take on his duties, with Kroos coming deeper to replace Schweinsteiger and Muller deployed behind Gomez. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but Muller is nowhere near as intelligent a player as Kroos and it’s easy to imagine him being swamped and not being able to find room if Chelsea play a deep and narrow three in midfield.
There is also a question over how Bayern will deal with the suspension of David Alaba. The like-for-like replacement would be Diego Contento, but the Italian has started just five league games this season. Captain Philipp Lahm may switch across to the left with Rafinha, who has started 20 matches, coming in at right back. That, though, breaks up the highly effective partnership between Lahm and Robben on the right flank.
And finally, there is the issue in central defense. With Holger Badstuber suspended, Daniel van Buyten, who has been out with a fractured metatarsal since January, could come back. It’s more likely that Anatoliy Tymoshcuk, more comfortable as a central midfielder, will be used in the back four. Be as it may, that gives Bayern a slightly patched-up feel.
“Believe me, the whole club has this week been working on rebuilding the team’s confidence," the club president Uli Hoeness told Suddeutsche Zeitung. "Before the final in Berlin, I was of the opinion that it was important we went into the Chelsea game with our heads held high.
“For a long time, we have all been fixated on May 19. You can reach the German Cup final many times in a career here, but the Champions League final comes along maybe just once.”