Saturday night’s 3-0 defeat away against Bayer Leverkusen brought Bayern Munich manager Thomas Tuchel comparisons with one iconic predecessor, though not quite in the way he intended. To cynics, it was his “Guardiola moment” — an overly clever yet flawed attempt to do something very special in a big match.
A defiant Tuchel later said he would pick the same three-at-the-back system again if he had to. In his defence, one could see the logic of adapting to Leverkusen’s wing-back formation and there’s no way of telling whether a strangely meek Bayern team would have shown more personality in their regular setup.
But one of the former Chelsea coach’s personnel choices was much harder to comprehend. Why did he prefer Dayot Upamecano (just back from injury), Kim Min-jae (just back from the Asian Cup) and Eric Dier (just in from the Tottenham Hotspur bench) to Matthijs de Ligt, the club’s most consistent centre-back since the winter break?
De Ligt is Bayern’s designated boss at the back and to leave him out in a game of this importance in favour of three other central defenders felt almost personal, another example of Tuchel’s disregard for team hierarchy and the status of leaders within the team.
Tuchel might counter that the fixation on players’ leadership qualities is a very German obsession. You don’t have nearly the same level of debate about this issue in other big footballing countries, where the emphasis is traditionally placed more on the influence of the manager and the hard skills of the men at his disposal, but that doesn’t necessarily make such considerations irrelevant.
In Munich, especially, decision-makers have long been convinced that defences are best when directed by a strong figure on the ground and that one or two (figuratively) big midfielders are needed to set the tone and tempo for the rest.
De Ligt’s arrival in the summer of 2022 was supposed to fill the void left by David Alaba, who had actively coached his team-mates in the Champions League-winning 2019-20 season.
The Dutchman showed signs that he was up to the job in his first campaign, but since Kim’s transfer from Napoli this summer, he has slipped down the pecking order.
In Tuchel’s safety-first approach, Kim and Upamecano offer better protection against Bayern’s vulnerability from counter-attacks. Bayern have become stable defensively this season, but that still doesn’t quite explain why the lesser-talented Dier was picked ahead of De Ligt to orchestrate Bayern’s build-up on Saturday. Dier made 129 touches, more than any other visiting player. None of them resulted in meaningful progress up the pitch.
Watching January emergency signing Dier take to the BayArena pitch can only have exacerbated De Ligt’s discontent — rumours about his willingness to leave in the summer have swirled around Munich for weeks. If Tuchel leaves him out once more against Lazio on Wednesday, a match that has taken on added importance since Bayern’s defeat in Leverkusen, De Ligt will know where he stands.
But that might not be the end of the matter. Like his former idol and Schumann’s Bar companion Guardiola and other coaches in Munich before him, Tuchel is not free to coach without taking the club’s long-term view on players and squad composition into account.
He can of course choose his own line-ups — as long as he wins, that is. If results disappoint and important figures are left diminished and disgruntled, however, patience at Sabener Strasse tends to run very thin.
Tuchel needs to be careful he doesn’t end up with a dressing room in which too many leaders want him gone.
(Top photo: ANP via Getty Images)
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