Okay, lads and lasses, we’re not all going to die. Nor did our team suddenly become like Kaiserslautern or something. But there is plenty to be learned from yesterday’s Pokal match, and plenty that it gives perspective to. Let’s dive right in, shall we?
The most prevalent stance in the last 12 hours among the plebs of the internet has been bewilderment as to how could Bayern win the Champions League after a performance such as yesterday. With all the alarmism of Daily Mail-reading housewives, even our own flock has taken to this line of thought. But there are a fair few key points that are cause for plenty optimism ahead of the big ol’ game in a weeks time.
For one, this barren run of ours has been exclusive to Dortmund only. Nowhere in Europe is there a team that plays like Dortmund does, and while this is reason for plenty concern on the domestic front, it has absolutely no bearing on our Champions League campaign. Dortmund press high and attack fast – Chelsea does not. And while it is very important to realize that Chelsea are not going to replicate their bus-parking heroics of Camp Nou (in which they still conceded two goals and had a penalty, among other shots, hit the woodwork), they do not have the roster to come even close to the style of play of Dortmund. I think a good comparison between the players the two teams have is now due (assuming Chelsea line up in their 4-2-3-1 turn 4-5-1 formation Di Matteo likes using):
Didier Drogba and Robert Lewandowski – At first glance, the duo might seem rather similar in their target man like qualities. Both are great at holding up the ball, have an eye for goal and making the dangerous runs that lead to them. But that is where the similarities end. Droggers is a true target man of old – huge physical frame and a presence that usually manages to occupy both the opposition centerbacks to create space for his attacking partner, something that is a bit of a relic from the days of three man defenses. But Lewandowski is a far more refined player than that. The Pole has the skill and technique to function well with his teammates, not on his own. He can always count on a through ball coming to him or a passing option being available for him. Droggers doesn’t have that luxury, especially in the more negative Chelsea sides.
Frank Lampard and Shinji Kagawa – I do not think two more different players even exist! Frank Lampard is another relic (notice a theme here?) of box-to-box midfielders, ready to pick up a lay-off from the target man or get a touch on the cross from the wingers (who certainly are playing on the “right” flank). As such, he doesn’t have huge technique or dribbling skills – he finds space instead of having to play himself into it. Kagawa is however a versatile playmaker-second striker of the Thomas Müller mould, perhaps with a dash of superb technique added in – someone who treads the fine line between one and two striker formations. Until yesterday, I did not realize just what a key man he is to the Dortmund side. Unfortunately for us, Reus is not far from filling the same purpose in their tactical system…
In any case, this is a key difference between the two teams and their tactical approach. Kagawa can stay far up the pitch, pressing the centerbacks and fullbacks without the ball, and being instantly in space once the high pressing yields results. Lampard fulfills his defensive duties first and foremost, and then seeks to join the attack in the second wave in overlapping runs from the midfield. And the reason why we had so much difficulty handling the former and are going to cope fairly well with the latter is something that we praised so much in the autumn.
Come now, you remember this. Once we hit that huge clean sheet run, we were all praising Jupp for finally getting our defense together. We attributed this to “finally getting the whole team to defend”. But here’s the thing – while our whole team is working in defense, they still start the defensive phase of play in the positions they were in when possession was lost. And if we are chasing a lead or just pushing for a goal, they will be caught rather high. Even then, mere centimeters could make the difference – if we lose possession with Schweinsteiger being face-first to the Dortmund goal and Kagawa being face-first to ours right beside eachother, the latter will have a 5 or even 10 meter lead on the former.
What I am slowly and ramblingly try to get at is that this season, Dortmund have been deliberately trying to create situations on the counter where they have numerical parity with our defenders, seeking to expose them without the cover from our midfield. Klopp has very cleverly realized how Heynckes fixed the post-van Gaal defense, and torn it open again. In fact, as odd as this might sound, what has spared us from more 5 goal spankings in our previous two meetings with Dortmund has been the individual class of our defensive five, and that is a thing I never thought I’d say as a Bayern fan! When our back four has an off day against Dortmund (perhaps Lahm is exempt from this statement, but the other three have seen better days for sure), things like yesterday happen.
Let’s actually take a quick look at the fourth goal we conceded – it was the crystallizing moment for me when I finally understood what Dortmund was doing beyond “they counter a lot”, but effectively the third and fifth goals, despite being a bit less dramatic, came from similar core issues as Dortmund simply took advantage of space due to us being caught too high upfield.
Slide one – the counter is on. Our midfielders and fullbacks got caught too high up the pitch. Kagawa is a mere three meters ahead of our CM duo, but it’s plenty enough. Boateng is faced with three options – Badstuber seems to have difficulty with Lewandowski, so a through ball could put him clear through on goal. Far at the right flank, Grosskreutz is way, way past Lahm and has the whole flank at his mercy. And then there’s Kagawa himself, so covering for Badstuber or heading across the pitch to stop Grosskreutz mean that Kagawa will be completely uncounted for.
Slide two – Boateng opts to cover for Badstuber, but just enough so that he can pounce on whatever option Kagawa picks, a good decision. Schweinsteiger switches into fifth gear and catches up with Kagawa, who gives the ball to Grosskreutz on his left. The danger situation is 3v3, but the defense seems to at least have slowed things down for a moment.
Slide three – Suddenly, the lack of cover shows. 3v3, Kagawa makes a superb off the ball run at Badstuber. Holger has no other option than to stay close to Kagawa, while Schweinsteiger couldn’t do anything else than close down Grosskreutz and perhaps make him pick a rash decision. All this means that suddenly, we have Boateng and Schweinsteiger both at Grosskreutz, Holger covering the run from Kagawa, and Lewandowski… oh shit, we forgot about Lewandowski. Sure enough, Grosskreutz finds the striker and he scores.
Take special note as to how Schweinsteiger and Kroos are next to eachother in the first slide, yet in the last one, only Schweini has made the run back while Kroos just… stopped. Honestly, I’m tempted to write the goal as his fault if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s actually the system we play that is responsible for this – why the hell did he stop? Alaba was miles behind after overlapping and couldn’t get there even if he had the pace of Usain Bolt. One can see Lewandowski and Grosskreutz effectively level in slide 2, and since Schweini caught up with Grosskreutz, Kroos should’ve been able to catch up with Lewandowski who spent at least a couple of seconds standing in the box gesturing to Grosskreutz how he was completely free.
So, what does this mean for the Champions League final? Nothing. Even if Di Matteo hopped on the same plane as Fergie yesterday, what he learned won’t be of any use to him. He simply doesn’t have the roster to pull it off. The closest they have to one of the players from the Dortmund front four is Drogba, and like I said, he can’t pull it off alone. The suspension of Ramires really hurts them – he has the energy, speed and technique to do exactly what Dortmund does. But Mata does not have the pace or the mentality to counter like this, while Sturridge makes Robbery look like the best team players on the planet. Malouda is way too slow these days and Torres is extremely unlikely to be fielded alongside Drogba from the start of the match, and even then Di Matteo playing with two proper strikers would just give us too much time on the ball for Chelsea to get anything done.
So to wrap up that topic – if you say “we are going to lose to Chelsea”, I will hit you.
Now, looking at the long term, things are rather different. While we finally managed to score two goals against Dortmund, they still came from a penalty and a great show of individual class. In fact, of all the 5 games we’ve lost to them now, we haven’t had a single goal coming from a tactical system like Dortmund are scoring against us ( in the 3-1 defeat we had Gustavo score from a corner). And quite frankly, I can’t see this changing with the current personnel we have.
Much to the chagrin of a certain admin named after a Romanian footballer/criminal, the fact that Gomez hasn’t scored against Dortmund since the 2009-10 season when Dortmund were still building up their squad and finished fifth is something that we really need to look into. Hell, he hit the crossbar yesterday, but for a man that scores a ridiculous amount of goals against other teams, this duck is slowly becoming a norm. This is not necessarily a reflection on his class as such, but rather the fact that the tactical system in which we use him simply doesn’t work against Dortmund. Right now, we have Hummels marking Gomez (and doing a superb job at that) and Subotic sweeping up any danger that is left. To remedy this, we need either a proper striker partnership (the 4-4-2 under van Gaal managed a combined score of 8-2 against and admittedly weaker Dortmund in 09-10) which Müller (under Heynckes at least) or the very probable purchase Giroud probably can’t provide. Or, alternately, playing a false nine that renders Hummels’ marking pointless.
In the defense, I think it is rash to call for the heads of Badstuber and Boateng now. Both had an off day, but as we know from the previous 1-0 defeats or the slides that I showed, even when they make all the right decisions, they can be let down by their teammates or just rotten luck. Next year we will have a new situation anyway – with two BuLi titles under their belt, Dortmund will no longer be expected to lose to Bayern as a given. The burden of pressure shifts, and we need to adjust our tactical plan to take advantage of that.
Is Jupp the man to do that though? Yes, the team is performing way, way better than last season in every aspect, but as we can see, so is Dortmund. “Stability” isn’t enough anymore to deal with this new opponent. And quite frankly, even if we end up with the ultimate prize that will make us forget the two domestic failures, I still think that we should properly acknowledge the emergence of Dortmund and retain our competitiveness. A 67-year old coach is not the best way to go about doing that. Rehhagel did not manage any miracles with Berlin, after all.
Basically, Bayern actually needs to think really hard about what is necessary to regain the domestic title, instead of more rage-purchases on the odd-numbered years. Our vision for this year was to reach the CL final on our home ground, and we managed that. Surely if we set our sights on taking back die Schale, we can do it as well.
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