The clash with unbeaten league leaders Bayer Leverkusen was a game for “pulling down (our) trousers and putting the cards on the table,” buoyant Bayern Munich head coach Thomas Tuchel had said before the game. But instead of the desired show of prowess, Saturday’s big reveal was a truly sorry sight.
His Bayern had little up front, a dangerously exposed backside, and their hand turned out to be seven deuce, the worst two cards in poker, and incidentally the same two numbers that summed up all of their impotent misery better than a thousand words: A pithy 0.27 expected goals in a 3-0 defeat is all they managed in the most important game of the domestic season.
Seeing the serial champions being outplayed on an occasion of such magnitude was barely believable. For 11 years running, they have always turned up when it matters against whoever was closest at the time, but their 3-0 defeat at BayArena was reminiscent of the 5-2 hammering by Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund in the 2012 DFB Pokal final, the year before their hegemony started.
In the league, you had to go back even further, to 2009’s 5-1 humiliation away to eventual champions Wolfsburg, to find a title bout this one-sided in their opponents’ favour.
The post-mortem predictably zoomed in on Tuchel’s surprise 3-4-3 formation, practiced all week behind the grey curtains at the Sabener Strasse training ground.
The unfamiliar set-up, deployed for the first time this season, was designed to mirror Leverkusen and supposed to pit the right-footed Sacha Boey on the left to deal with the pacy Jeremie Frimpong.
Tuchel could not have known that Xabi Alonso would opt for a different system too, moving away from his wingback-reliant game to a hybrid four/five-at-the-back with the much more defensively-minded Bayern-loanee Josip Stanisic in Frimpong’s place.
Boey had not played on the “wrong side” in four years, however. And going out to negate their opponents’ strengths rather than ruthlessly exploit their weaknesses is not how things are traditionally done in Munich.
Tuchel nevertheless had a point when he insisted that putting it all down to the formation was “too polemical” a take. Bayern started well and controlled matters, for ten minutes at least, before a series of mistakes and mishaps that had little to do with the system opened the door for the home side. But the complete lack of reaction after going a goal down to Stanisic in the 18th minute proved that this went a lot deeper than that.
“A team like ours should be able adapt to a new system,” second-half substitute Joshua Kimmich claimed quite rightly. Thomas Muller concurred, going on a loud, angry rant about players “lacking the balls” to play with the sort of freedom and guile they routinely showed in training.
“We don’t have to have a go at the manager, it’s not about tactics,” the 34-year-old said. “We had enough players of international quality. But I’m talking about taking decisions on the ball, about playing with intelligence, about making runs and understanding situations. It’s OK to feel the pressure. But that pressure needs to turn into energy.”
In addition, he criticised his side playing to many safe passes that didn’t progress the ball. “We’re overcomplicating things.”
Muller’s remarkable intervention described the problem well, yet it stopped short of an explanation. How come players this good do not play with more fluidity and assuredness? Is it because too many of them have lost their hunger after all those championships, as some suspect? The malaise certainly is not new — low energy and confusion affected Bayern’s possession game well before Tuchel’s arrival last March.
But the manager must bear some responsibility, too. Tuchel, not for the first time, put the offensive problems down to players not beating their men on Saturday. One of his guiding tactical ideas, influenced by Pep Guardiola, is to isolate defenders in one-v-ones.
Since Bayern’s players are by definition better than their Bundesliga rivals, that should be a promising strategy. But injuries to Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman have reduced the general impact on the flanks, and Leroy Sane and Jamal Musiala have lost momentum since the winter break, along with everyone else.
Far too many players are struggling with their form to play with the kind of personality and presence expected of a seasoned Bayern starter, while their outspoken and critical coach has not done all that much to strengthen their self-belief either. Just look at midfield duo Leon Goretzka and Kimmich, who have both been undermined by the former Chelsea coach’s public pursuit of a specialist holding midfielder.
Worst of all though, there does not seem to be a collective fall-back option in Tuchelball. It is predicated on individualism and therefore cannot properly function if too many of the individuals in question seem pre-occupied with their short-comings.
Against Bayer, Bayern were so incredibly blunt going forward that one was left wondering whether Harry Kane’s goals have merely conjured up a mirage of attacking competence up until now.
This is not a state of affairs that will be tolerated for long in the Bavarian capital. The last Bayern Munich coach who lost away to Alonso’s Leverkusen, Julian Nagelsmann, was sacked four days later.
Things are not nearly as bleak for Tuchel as they were for his predecessor eleven months ago, not yet anyway. But it will take a strong run in the Champions League to lessen the shock of Bayern’s most un-Bayern-like performance in a potential title-decider in 15 years. If he does not manage to breathe more confidence into his weirdly lifeless side quickly, next summer’s inevitable shake-up might not be restricted to the squad.
(Stefan Matzke – sampics/Corbis via Getty Images)
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