Many moons ago, FC Bayern stormed the beaches of Troy and charged towards the city itself, to retrieve the prized possession of the Champions League trophy, yet were stopped at the very last gate called Santiago Bernabeu by a mighty and feared Portugese warrior, before he left to protect the royalty of another faraway land. But everything else had fallen to the behemoth of FC Bayern, so a council was called together and it was decided that next year, the great general van Gaal would renew his offensive to return the trophy to its rightful owners. Such was van Gaal’s confidence in the task ahead, that he deployed no sentries, no guards, no defenders to the outskirts of the siege camp. The clever garrison of Troy exploited this, and frequently raided the ill-defended Bayern camp. For every enemy van Gaal slayed, ten of his men would fall as well. And one day, a young and enthusiastic Brazilian soldier took the blue and black body armor left behind by the Portugese warrior, and charged straight into the once again undefended Bayern camp to destroy all the siege equipment left. The Bayern men were struck with fear at the sight of what they thought the Portugese warrior returning, and murmurs of discontent were not quietened even when the Brazilian later fell to other countrymen of FC Bayern.
Of course the gods have their interests in even the most petty feuds of mortals. And as it happened, after a few more defeats in battle, van Gaal was beset upon a madness that led him to slaughter a flock of parrots, believing them to be the golden-black enemies that taunted him so. Upon realizing his folly, he fell himself unto his sword. It was easy to see the hand of the god Hoeneß in this, as after van Gaal, a man who had affronted him greatly before the start of the campaign by neglecting to sacrifice and appease the god in his vain quest for personal glory, was replaced by the wily old fox Jupp Heynckes, a general known to be favoured by the capricious Hoeneß. Jupp emerged from his tent and started shaping his army to his accord.
So. Where to begin when answering the simple question “why aren’t we playing well anymore”? Well, to start off, we have to go back to the very beginning of the season. Of course, the pre-season started earlier for Bayern than a fair few other teams, with the drawn-out transfer saga of Manuel Neuer starting in early spring. Neuer was identified as the proper successor to Oliver Kahn, and preferred over the veteran, but average Hans-Jörg Butt, and the van Gaal-backed Thomas Kraft. Indeed, the goalkeeper selection seemed to be less in Jupp’s hands and more a result of boardroom politics – buying Neuer was a great coup in Hoeneß’ eyes, bringing in the goalie touted as among the world’s best, if not a candidate for the title himself… and weakening a domestic rival in the process, a consequence that is given the hush at Säbener Strasse, but is an open secret among anyone following the Bundesliga, really.
The alternative has been by now forgotten by most Bayern fans, even those who called for him in the first place, but Thomas Kraft has emerged only stronger and better from the whole drama – in 2010, he had yet to register a single Bundesliga appearance, but now, he is a regular (perhaps even a key member) of a mid-table Bundesliga squad, although for how much longer Hertha stays a mid-table team is anyone’s guess. In any case it seems like the whole issue’s been forgotten about, including by those most passionate about it. But memory is a funny thing, and even the slightest push can act as a catalyst for old wounds to be torn open once more.
So a solid two thirds into the season a preliminary assessment can be made – did Bayern make the right move by buying Manuel Neuer? Three aspects need to be considered – the sporting, the business, and the one relating to the soul. And despite me just stating the opposite, I will not be dissecting matters of the soul as each has his own. The season ticket holding ultras deserve the right to make their opinion heard and not ridiculed, as do the more remote fans whose devotion is no less fanatic. The two parties (being the largest two groups with conflicting viewpoints) are not going to be in agreement in any time soon, nor do they want to be, it seems.
So sporting-wise, how has Neuer fared for Bayern so far? His detractors will be quick to point out his two costly mistakes against Gladbach home and away, and justifiedly raising the question “why was Kraft crucified for just one?”. But that is a very selective query, completely ignoring the real reason why Kraft failed at Bayern – that he was van Gaal’s boy. A mere pawn in the game of the big guns. His performance has absolutely nothing to do with his fate, in the end, yet it is still a good idea to give his performance a quick run-over.
Kraft’s brightest hour was, along with fellow January “revelation” Luiz Gustavo, the night at San Siro. Having made vital stops throughout the game, it is not unfair to credit the away victory to him considering the lateness of Bayern’s winning goal. But every coin has a flipside, and that flipside came weeks later back at his home (or was it Kevvy G-s living room, I forgot), where Kraft saw his team go out in an infamous collapse that saw Bayern shoot themselves in all three feet. To the joy of conservative Christians everywhere, Kraft didn’t want to touch any of those three feet, but opting so meant that he did not make a single save to keep his team in the competition. My natural tendency to invoke hyperbole made me type out “might as well not have had a goalie on the pitch at all”, but that’s mean and petty. But on its own enough to nullify his good performance in the first leg.
Neuer, on the other hand, enjoyed what must’ve been a dream Champions League run. Having taken out Valencia in an unorthodox, yet utterly uninviting fixture, he continued to be part of a team that dispatched Bayern’s bane with almost ridiculous ease. And perhaps even better, he managed to have a legendary game against one of the most popular (and therefore, viewed) teams in modern football. There’s no argument that Neuer’s stock was, and is, a lot higher than Kraft’s. Of course, this is somewhat irrelevant – Bayern are not known as “Der Galacticos”.
Looking forwards to 2011-12, Neuer’s had a fine season despite his high-profile blunders. He easily overcame the notorious difficulty of adapting to a bigger club (and more possession) as a goalkeeper, the cited downfall of Ben Foster among others. The goals he has conceded have been almost entirely not on his shoulders, and his oft-lauded ability to play the ball, a (rapidly increasing) rarity among goalkeepers, has been an important part of Bayern’s possession-based tactics. The latter is what truly separates him from his peers Kraft and Butt, both known to punt more than a fair share of kicks straight into the stands. More than a few Bayern fans can report a strange sense of calm when a backpass is made to the him under pressure… or could a few months ago…
In purely sporting terms, Neuer is an upgrade over Kraft in every way, but now comes the doozy – was it worth it? There was quite a bit of criticism aimed at the Bayern board when the figure – 18 to 25 million euros – of Neuer’s transfer fee became known. In the domestic league, that’s almost 50 million euros for Schalke over Bayern. And it also prompts one to ponder, if 25 million euros could not have been spent better on the now-misfiring offense? Certainly with deals around the same sum made for Luis Suarez and Juan Mata it is worth considering. And to be honest, I can’t blame anyone for calling the Neuer deal narrow-minded. Nor can I agree.
As Jupp exited his tent and shielded his eyes from the sun, he already saw his god provide him with what he needed – a big, northern warrior, proven in many battles despite his young age. A perfect candidate to form the second and most vital line of defense against the raiders. But he could not win such a battle alone, so Jupp set out to search for more hardy men to shield his Germanic giant with. And he knew exactly who to go for.
Jérôme Boateng was the next addition to Bayern’s long-lasting troubles in defense, and the piece of business was certainly not about be out-drama’d by the one before it. As it turned out, the club backed by a man with almost everything wanted money for their players as well! Well in the end, Bayern did manage to bring home the centerback, both to his homeland and his position on the pitch. Or so they said…
Boateng is often called a victim of his own versatility, and it’s not hard to see why. He is great with both feet, can play all across the defensive line and has the creativity and technique to be quite potent up front… when allowed to do so. Yet it is minor tragedy that a player so suited to play a high defensive line arrived at Bayern after Louis van Gaal left. Could the Dutchman have saved his second season in München if he had Boateng to field on the pitch instead of the ridiculously slow triad of Badstuber, van Buyten and Breno? Some may call counterfactual history a waste of time, but me… well, I do too. But it is good food for thought.
So how has Boateng upheld himself? Well, for most of our winning run, he saw little of the centerback position he came to the Allianz Arena for, and instead became the defensive option for right back (as opposed to the offensive option of Rafinha). This is not so much their fault, but Müller was right when he said that Bayern was a bit “left-heavy”. The main reason for this is that for almost every game this season, Ribéry and Lahm have played together on their flank, providing a sense of consistency and mutual understanding (not to mention their past experience of playing together). On the right, we have a combination of Müller, Rafinha, Boateng and Robben, all thrown into the mix despite the two fullbacks never having played with the wingers before this season (and the national team doesn’t count, it never counts! Otherwise Klose would’ve been top scorer in both the Bundesliga and the Champions League).
The situation with Boateng is fairly simple, yet multi-faceted – he is not a long-term fullback, he is prone to having lapses of concentration, he is a somewhat lazy player and as such doesn’t close down every time when he should, but on the upside, he is physically a superb player, great in the air, strong, fast, and young enough to work on the mental aspects of his game. He is without a doubt a superb player, a bargain for 12 million euros, and a definite factor in the long-term planning for the Bayern squad. However, was he the best option available? Considering he was highly endorsed by Jupp, it is baffling that he doesn’t fit into Jupp’s tactics at all. A player with his superb physical attributes deserves a fast and energetic style of play, and his creativity warrants a counterattacking style where he is allowed to make long passes forward, but his poor concentration and work rate make for an error-prone player in a deep defensive line (or as much as Bayern is playing one, that is). It really is starting to feel like that Jupp was not entirely sure what he was going to be doing in Bayern when looking at the Boateng transfer.
The other new purchase so seemingly uncoordinated was Rafinha. At first, it seemed like a true bargain – 5.5 million euros for a player who was one of the best fullbacks in the Bundesliga a season before! But why him? Why an attack-minded fullback bought to the flank with a player that tracks back only when his left foot decides to play on the proper flank for once? Why an attack-minded fullback for a coach that limits his fullbacks to simple passes near the sideline? In fact, the conditions are there – Boateng’s pace makes him a perfect covering player to Rafinha’s forward runs – yet whenever he does get forward, the centerbacks are nowhere to be found. Again, it all smacks of poor coordination and planning in an eager rush to buy the best players available instead of building the best team possible.
Having secured the services of a tall and powerful Nubian fighter and a feisty pygmy from the Amazon, Jupp thought to himself: “Now that my camp is secure, I should seek for ways to break down my enemies…” Little did he know the generosity and foresight of the gods!
This is where it gets ugly. Our remaining transfers were duds, no other way of putting it. Both were theoretically promising youngsters who could make it to the first team, but lack of rotation and, once more, foresight, prevented that. So who to take first?
Usami is a player that most Bayern fans can agree upon – a superb talent. Not a single fan would mind seeing Usami don the red shirt for quite a few more seasons. But now we know that it is not going to happen, since Shaqiri will take up the right winger role come summer. All that are left are what-coulda-been’s. Usami could’ve turned out to be the Japanese Messi through and through. He could’ve displaced both Robben and Müller and become a key member of the squad. And he could’ve remained in the Regionalliga, reluctantly scoring goals in a grand push to… make it to the third tier of German football. But we’re never going to know, because for some reason, it was thought wise to sign him on a loan deal. And all of a sudden, everyone except Bayern wants him. Usami deserves a hearty farewell for trying his best among some of the most myopic decisions made in football, but in the end, Bayern is down 1.5 million euros, Usami is down in the Regionalliga for a year, and German football is down one more exciting talent to behold. There are few winners in this deal.
Petersen, however, looks doomed to fall into some average Bundesliga team ready to accept FC Bayern rejects. Let’s just say it, Hertha Berlin. In a team where keeping around Gomez is an expensive and oft non-rewarding luxury, having a player with exactly the same style of play yet who is a class below is just idiocy. Unlike Usami, Petersen has hardly impressed in his few runouts, usually looking lost and getting the occasional no-way-he’s-gonna-miss-that chance (which he normally missed). The question here is not even about him, but transfers elsewhere. Will Olić remain for another year? Will we make that “bomb” striker signing? Will Bayern bring in a promising young forward? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes”, then Petersen’s Bayern adventure is finished. I’m not too downhearted about it either.
Jupp carefully looked at his two green additions and realized that they are useful for little more than fodder to protect his great warriors. If they were to be sacrificed, so be it.
Having done all he thought possible, Jupp assembled his men and prepared for his first battle in charge of the Bayern forces. And what a disaster it was. His veterans up front were confused with his tactics, and his new reinforcements had no understanding of eachother at all. Instantly the murmurs returned, but Jupp was determined to continue the siege. And eventually, it payed off. In every battle, his warriors began to form a better understanding of eachother, and slowly but surely Troy began to fall. And over a month into his command, he finally made a breakthrough, when he defeated the rich Italian businessman and his band of mercenaries bought with Assyrian gold. But the hold of money was proven to be fragile when an ugly troll betrayed his leader and clubbed him to death from the back.
The siege was finally over, and Jupp took heart from his determination to slowly but steadily chip away at the defenses of Troy. Yet in the ruins, there was no trophy to be found, and some said that it was a battle not worth fighting, for the quest would continue yet a lot of energy was spent. Bayern’s “Finest Hour” came too early, they mused. It was then time to sail home, but Jupp once again took his time. And so it happened that he was about to enter a plethora of tragedy and catastrophes, on his way home to the Allianz Arena.
So what seems to be the most pressing issue we have? Tactics. We just aren’t getting our tactics right. We have a superb squad, we do not have a true injury crisis, we just can’t get the potential out of them anymore. And that is because everyone has by now figured out – Bayern plays slow football. We just do not show any urgency on the pitch. This is down mostly to the roster selection by Jupp. There’s no way to play fast football with Ribéry, Kroos and Gomez on the field. When Schweinsteiger was around, his sheer work rate and versatility made sure that wherever we played the ball to, it’d be overloaded with players and at least with some degree of off the ball movement. Without him, we are stuck with three players bent on doing their own thing without anything to unite them.
Let’s take Ribéry first. It seems stupid to call him a slow player considering his speed, yet mentally, he is not cut out for fast football. He is stuck in a mindset of having to beat his man despite better options being available to him, and as such, has become predictable. Through sheer individual class, he sometimes breaks through, but those occasions are rare. And that’s assuming he isn’t dabbling in the dark arts of diving again, which, despite sometimes winning free kicks (blatantly unfairly, at that), does nothing to advance the tempo of the game, in fact quite the opposite.
Gomez is a different case. At Stuttgart, he showed his pace on the counters, but that only worked because, well, he played for Stuttgart. Defending deep against Stuttgart was a rare sight, and as such, he didn’t have to think too much about the next pass or dribble, but could just focus on blazing down to the penalty area and smashing shots in. For Bayern he can’t do that. He has earned his fame as a deadly six-yard box poacher, but when a Bayern player is in the opponent’s penalty area, you can bet your ass the opponent has set up two banks of four, and, well, initiative lost.
Then we come to Kroos. The true German wunderkind must be cursing his luck he wasn’t born 5-8 years earlier, because then he would make his debut at a time where his despair-inducing lack of speed was not an issue. Right now, however, Kroos has put in invisible performance after invisible performance, simply because he isn’t fast enough to open himself to passes or make convincing runs off the ball to create space for others. Not a problem for a central midfielder, but a huge problem for an attacking midfielder.
Some credit has to be given to Jupp, however, for realizing in the summer how some of the top players at Bayern are suitable for slow football. But now that the honeymoon period for snail-tactics has passed, he needs to prove his claims about “tactical flexibility” and fast. And he also has the top players to do so, despite them being not in the best form (if played at all) this season.
The men Jupp had assembled were not fast men. They took their time with packing up their loot, and did it with such a lack of speed that they did not have time to sacrifice some of their loot to the gods. And the divine said: “Fine! If you had such an easy time beating the slow and encumbered enemies defending the walls of Troy, then may you from here on forward see every one of your enemies on horseback!”
One particular complaint about lack of tempo relates to the utter lack of counterattacks in our game. And even worse, complete defenselessness against counterattacks. It’s almost as if Jupp doesn’t recognize the existence of counterattacks in the first place. When we have the ball, we do not seek to quickly play it forward to the most threatening position, instead, we make it a point to keep the ball safe before starting to probe for options. Cue the two banks of four. This is so incredibly frustrating to say the least. This is an acceptable modus operandi when a goal up, but not when looking to take a lead. Which Bayern is at the start of every game, mind you.
In defense, it gets even worse. We play fine against teams like Manchester City and Schalke, teams that look to take the initiative and as such are starved to death by our dominance in possession. But as Gladbach, Hannover, Mainz, Napoli and Dortmund have proven to us, we lose too many points against weaker teams that are built around a swift and deadly counter.
Both the counterattacking issue and the continued use of Kroos as a no. 10 bring me to the gripe people have with Heynckes – he is too old-fashioned. His idea of football is defending, getting the ball, building the attack through a playmaker/trequartista. This is just not acceptable in modern football. Kroos in particular looks a lot like Zidane, in that he is unremarkable in terms of speed, but almost unrivaled in technique and vision. Yet when trying to find the next Zinedine Zidane, Real Madrid have Bayern beat by a long shot with Mesut Özil – the true modern playmaker – an agile player capable of a few games on the wing, ready to make runs that do no more than open up space, the most valuable commodity on the football pitch.
So what’s going to happen with Jupp Heynckes? He was never a long-term coach for Bayern, instead a provider of stability and the mandatory odd-year Salatschüssel. But if he refuses to recognize that the last time he spent a noticeable amount of time in charge of Bayern was in the last millennium, he will neither stay around for long or be remembered fondly.
Jupp’s ship landed on a strange and uncharted strip of land after sailing in many foreign lands and fighting tough battles there. It was full of luscious plants, much like a thick jungle. Yet there was something odd about the colour of the foliage… a certain poison green glint…
The crew decided to venture deeper inland in search of food and fresh water. After cutting their way through the jungle, they found themselves on a large grassy plain. There was an eerie calm as they stepped unto the clearing, when they saw something glittering in the distance. The mighty Germanic soldier rushed forwards foolhardily with his mates behind him, but was suddenly hit by an arrow. Cavalry archers! Cavalry archers had formed a circle around them and kept bombarding them with arrows! Bayern had been caught with their guard down. Offers of bribes did not stop the furious assault, and finally Jupp decided to attack the strange horsemen.
But he could not catch up with them. He was accustomed to arranging his troops into a phalanx, but a phalanx was too slow to get anywhere near his enemies. Barely did they escape from the well-drilled and well-led cavalry archers back onto their boats. The golden glitter, so inviting before, had become a small dot in the distance until it completely disappeared as they sailed even further away.
Enough about what Jupp is doing wrong. As everyone even remotely familiar with a democracy will know, noone needs a leader in prosperity, yet everyone needs one in times of turmoil. We’ve heard a lot about how the old “alpha-male” captains are a thing of the past, yet seen little on the pitch to prove it. Bayern knows big personalities. Kahn, Effenberg, Magath, van Gaal, Hoeneß, van Bommel. The requirement to have a strong will and a large ego was what eventually resulted in Podolski’s demise.
So often we can see the lack of a true leader on the pitch, especially now that Schweinsteiger is out with an injury. I do not know why the decision was made to captain Lahm. You cannot inspire a team through consistency. You need to do something incredible for that. Or if you prefer the stick end of the carrot dilemma, a strong intimidating physical aura (you know damn well who I’m talking about). Unfortunately this is something we can pretty much nothing about. Stripping captaincy is something so extreme that it would simply not happen to Lahm. Nothing extreme happens to Lahm.
Who else can we blame like a bunch of 12-year olds? Well, Robben, of course. There is no denying that since returning from injury, Robben has been a shadow of his former self. This is often the case for players returning from injury, only to reemerge later on, but it is especially worrying in Arjen’s case. I do not remember any injury that has affected him so. When he returned last season, he instantly started tearing teams to shreds again. Now he takes to heart comments meant to provoke him to improve himself and gives us some weird and alien display of his understanding of “teamwork”. He sees conspiracies against him in newspapers. And most alarmingly, he hasn’t beaten a single player with his pace lately. The Robben situation will be clearer at the end of the season, and one can never write off Arjen Robben. That said, I do not have the same optimism about him as I did in the autumn.
So here we are. 4 points off the leader in the Bundesliga with the title technically out of our hands. Drawn against a team in the Pokal that humiliated us just a month ago. And on the brink of elimination in the Champions League. What can we reasonably expect with our current form?
Jupp’s men once again came upon land. It was the home of hard-working miners who had little love for strangers. But even worse, they instantly recognized the Germanic as one of theirs in the past. They were furious. And the Bayern crew knew that this would be a must-win battle if they ever were to make it home to glory.
Yes, they’re all must win’s from now on. But Schalke especially so. Considering the table, if Bayern lose to Schalke, we’re back in last season, fighting for third. Winning against Schalke would get a monkey off our backs, though, and could be the catalyst for a rediscovery of the form of old, as long as a concentrated effort is made to keep such a rediscovery going at full steam. And beyond that… who knows? Does Bayern have it in them to remain in the Champions League? To advance far? To pounce on any mistake made by Dortmund? To beat Dortmund at their own home? This is a truly gargantuan task ahead of the team, and for all intents and purposes, they can consider themselves to never have had that brilliant run in the autumn. Because to keep this year from being another trophyless year, everyone needs to give 110% for the cause. And unlike Dortmund, do so in all the competitions that remain…
Late note: Looks like that monkey is gone, at least (and not talking about Huntelaar here). But it would be silly to get overoptimistic when mere hours ago, we were in “crisis”. The international break will tire the lads out even more, so all we can do is hope for the best in the rough fixtures that lay ahead.
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