Disclaimer: This article was written before the poor displays by Bayern in the last few matches and prior to Schweinsteiger’s injury.
All of us love to be armchair managers, whether it is in Football Manager, simply playing FIFA with friends or in nearly every match thread. This is a hypothetical two-part article in which I will attempt to be an armchair manager and ask some core tactical questions that, if implemented, I believe could make us close to being unbeatable in Europe.
Bayern Munich fans recently have been slightly underwhelmed with their team’s performances. This is mainly because of the amazing record-setting start that FC Bayern had following an impressive transfer campaign that consisted of signing Boateng, Neuer and Rafinha. However, since the winter break although still inconsistent in delivering results, the team is showing some positive signs of improvement from match to match. In each match we can notice that pressing is improving in certain areas of the pitch or that players are now being placed in their natural positions and therefore help harbour chemistry in key partnerships.
The question is if this rate at which the team is improving is going to be good enough once FC Bayern makes it deep into the UEFA Champions League and faces off against the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona. In order to get there, I believe that Bayern and Heynckes have to improve on five things tactically and become the unstoppable European giant that we all know this squad is capable of.
The ‘automisms’ or dry-drilled mechanics that Heynckes often mentions when talking about training sessions are more noticeable from match to match. A typical example of this is whenever our wingers pass the ball back to Schweinsteiger and make a darting run to draw defenders away allowing Schweinsteiger to play a lofted through pass towards Gomez who is unfortunately caught offside frequently. It is extremely clear that Schweinsteiger holds the bulk of the responsibility in this aspect. He does make some interesting creative passes that distribute the ball across the pitch, often to Lahm or Ribéry but it is too much to ask Schweinsteiger to carry all of this responsibility on top of the many others he already has, being the engine of this team. It is starting to become obvious that Kroos is being chosen to partner with Schweinsteiger more and more whenever Robbery are in the starting lineup, which means that we will have another player in midfield to distribute the ball as well as Schweinsteiger.
Heynckes needs to create more dry-dilled mechanics in training that combine Kroos with Robben/Rafinha and Müller. More long-range through balls, lofted through balls, accurate crosses from one side of the pitch to the other. This would mean that all our distribution to the wings will be starting from the center and not from the defense like it is happening right now (extremely predictable).
What the receivers need to do is to make constant runs whether they be to draw defenders away or to get into holes into the opponents defense. Ideally, as soon as Schweinsteiger or Kroos receive a ball in the opponents half all the rest of our offensive players need to start hustling and making diagonal and direct offensive runs. As of right now the only player seeming to put in the high work-rate off the ball is Müller who is consistently seen making mazy runs to get into space or draw defenders away from Gomez. Whenever Robben and Ribéry make runs, they are often rewarded with a favorable through-pass and space to work their magic because they would have beaten their defenders in the process. We need more hustling whenever our central midfielders have the ball.
Everyone here who has played FIFA or PES must have come across the multiple settings when one has to make the play wide or narrow. Unlike FIFA/PES where you had to select one strategy and then manually change it mid-game in reality football players are doing this constantly throughout the match. The term making the field big and small refers to the ‘Pressing Game’. We have the players for it. One thing Heynckes has been amazing at implementing is making our wingers and forwards chip into the defense. Every time we have possession we distribute it to the wings making the field ‘big’ and therefore stretching their defenders thin. Whenever we lose possession everyone with the exception of our outlying fullback and winger on the opposite side needs to pressure the ball carrier and mark any potential receiver, thus making the pitch ‘small’.
We are improving in this aspect but are not quite there yet. Our pressing play only occasionally results in winning the ball in the opponents half and most of the time we seem to be turning over possession around the middle of the pitch. We need to turnover more possession by pressing with two or three individuals in the opponents half.
In the Champions League, we have witnessed a pressing play by the team that should come as no surprise. The same can’t be said of the inconsistent level of pressing play displayed towards the end of the first half in the Bundesliga. Hopefully for Bayern Munich’s sake they can repeat the pressing play like the one against Manchester City at home. We will need such a level of pressing when we face off against Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Is it only me who thinks that right now our central midfielders and central attacking midfielders seem to be standing there ball-watching and are only there as individuals to pass the ball to Robbery? We have arguably the only central-midfield that can compete with Barcelona (better than Madrid). We have Schweinsteiger, Kroos and Müller yet they seem to never possess the ball as much as they deserve, they do not take as many long shots as they should or attempt to directly synchronize with Gomez as much either. When in doubt they simply pass to Robbery or back to the defense. This has to stop. Robbery needs to start realizing how world-class their fellow teammates in the centre of the pitch are and give the ball back as much as they receive it. If the opposing defense starts feeling under pressure from the center and the wings then it simply stretches them thin further, allows for less pressure on Robbery and less chances of Gomez getting caught offside.
In Barcelona, Iniesta and Xavi have as much of a danger level on them as Sánchez and Alves (he is basically a winger). This is what allows them to find space and cut opposing defenses to shreds. Kroos and Schweinsteiger have the technical ability to equal and possibly surpass Xavi and Iniesta one day and therefore they need to be used as such. We should not be worried that Kroos and Schweinsteiger will lose the ball under pressure. There is a bigger chance of Robbery losing a ball when being double or triple teamed than Schweinsteiger.
Can any other European giant boast the speed that Bayern’s attacking midfielders possess; counter-attacking wise? Ribéry, Müller and Robben can counter-attack faster and more efficiently than any other team in Europe, yet they refuse to do so. This has been the most confusing aspect of Bayern’s play for me. I have seen players break for a counter only to see them slow down the play and let the opposing defense stabilize itself.
Why is our team so terrified of making risky passes and possibly losing possession? Does Louis van Gaal’s ghost still haunt some of our players? We played against one of the best counter-attacking teams in Napoli and saw how lethal and devastating a good counter-attack can be. We possess players from the German national team that are known for the best counter-attacking play in the world stage and we have two of the fastest wingers in Europe.
In the form of Lahm, Neuer and Badstuber we also have three excellent ball-playing defenders and distributors who can start off counter-attacks quickly and efficiently. The potential for devastating opponents on counter’s is there yet we seem to not utilize them. This is the one aspect of Bayern’s play I cannot understand.
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