Black armbands triumphant: de Bruyne and Dost paid a good tribute to their teammate.
It’s been a busy weekend for any neutral football fan. On course of three winter days, Premier League leaders drew an uneventful game while Arsenal closed the gap between them and Southampton by trashing helpless Aston Villa. In Italy, rampaging Juventus and Roma were both held to draws by Empoli and Udinese. In Spain, Sociedad scored a goal 41 second into the away game against Real Madrid only to get trashed later, which included a wonder goal by Karim Benzema. Little more than 24 hours later, Villarreal took the lead on Camp Nou twice and each time, their defences immediately choked under the pressure from highly unimpressive Barcelona. Alas, a stunning highlight that dwarfed any other match occurred in Bundesliga, where VfL Wolfsburg, the side that’s been trailing the undefeated Bayern by no less than eleven points, took on the Bavarians in a likely title-decider. Had defending champions won – they would’ve been virtually set for another crown five months before an actual league finish.
The story of Friday Bundesliga clash started three weeks earlier, when VfL’s defensive midfielder Junior Malanda was killed in a car accident. This 20 years old Belgian player, who’s been hiring a driver and regularly allowing him to break the law by excessive speeding, eventually crashed his Volkswagen Tuareg into a tree while driving a A2 motorway in North Germany. Malanda, who’s been caught speeding over 20 times on course of the last 6 months, this time paid costly for that, not wearing a seatbelt at the time of his accident and subsequently crashing his head at the front windshield during the impact, which led to his instant death, while the other passengers of his car survived only with minor injuries. Thus, Malanda, who’s been Wolfsburg’s backup midfielder and played only 10 games this season, never faced Bayern in a game everyone anticipated. However, his tragedy apparently inspired his team, as Wolfsburg beat Lille 3-0 just one day after the accident and went on to collect five points out of last three Bundesliga games, dominating Dortmund in an away game and drawing that match only due to bad luck.
Though it would be a stretch to attribute VfL’s good run of form only to the extra motivation for paying a tribute to their deceased player, one thing is for sure: Malanda’s compatriot and friend, Kevin de Bruyne somehow managed to turn the sadness of his mate’s demise into even more passion for football than he usually shows. This 23-years old attacking midfielder has been magnificent this season, but only now, against the strongest opponent one can imagine, he stepped up further and delivered a world-class performance. Floating in-between opposition’s midfield and defence, de Bruyne was such a big thorn in Bayern’s back, it was hard to believe nobody dared to take him out with a brutal tackle because, truth to be told, there was no other way to stop him that day. Supported with passes from young Maximilan Arnold, the Belgian looked way better than his national team’s fellow Eden Hazard looked recently for Chelsea – and his team spirit did show four minutes after the start, when, being in a decent position himself, he set up Bas Dost for a goal, which the Dutchman promptly scored, shooting calmly past Manuel Neuer.
This should’ve been a wake-up call for Pep Guardiola. He has spent last couple of months tweaking Munich’s tactics and implementing weird ideas in order to optimize their attacking play. With his ball-posession approach, Pep insisted to push more players forward and teach them such flexibility that they could perform being played in various positions on the pitch – all in order to put more long-lasting pressure on the opponents when they win the ball and to overcome them with superior numbers upfront, when it’s Bayern, who are trying to score. This eventually led to a three-at-the-back style being tried and to the inclusion of players like Rode and Bernat, who were instructed to play like additional wingers. On Friday, Bernat did exactly what he’s been told: pushing Vieirinha to the limits and opening space on the left wing to run into and cross from. Yet – it wasn’t without paying the price. Widely open, Bayern flanks leaked defensively. Vieirinha – who’s been playing as a right-back only due to Christian Trasch’s injury – didn’t have the time to exploit that – but there were others. Arnold, de Bruyne and Calgiuri ruled this area on a counterattack – and the results followed:
In a way, it’s a bit sad development. After all, tactically, Bayern was trying out the most advanced stuff one can imagine. With one full-back (Rode) and two centre-back (Dante and Boateng), they pushed this three-man backline forward as much as they could. Their two central midfielders (Alonso and Alaba) played close to each other, just like Xavi and Iniesta did in Barcelona. Schweinsteiger’s was in the middle as well, but his role was much more offensive. Their nominal left-back (Bernat) and usual false nine (Mueller) played as two left-wingers, supposedly set to heavily expose opponent’s flank. Robben, known for being a winger, this time floated freely in the position normally reserved for Mueller. And finally, there was Lewandowski – often dropping deep and trying to get involved defensively. All good and well; except that this approach got punished with the most basic means a team could possess: long balls over the top and runs made from the deep. Shellshocked by Dost just before the half-time, Bayern pushed their whole defensive line to the opposition’s half and got busted, when de Bruyne reminded them that a man running from his own half cannot ever be offside. From that point on, it was easy for VfL.
Apparently, Pep’s players just suffered the heaviest defeat FCB had since 2009’s game against… Wolfsburg. Apparently, in 90 minutes, they’ve just conceded as many goals as they lost in 17 previous Bundesliga clashes, damaging his chances for a nigh unbeatable full-season record. And apparently, despite the money, the facilities and the cash available, Guardiola keeps living in an adventurous world he brought from Barcelona, where his team allows itself to be exposed on a counterattack because they believe that the opposition does not have enough determination, pace and composure to finish the few chances they’re presented with. However, this is Germany, not Spain: this is the country and the mentality of clinical finishing and making the most of any opportunities. Bas Dost and his two strikes proved what’s been unpunished so far: that Bayern struggles with tracking back and clearing the set-piece balls. Amazing de Bruyne pushed the claim even further: it looks like Dante is a massive liability for any element of the game that isn’t called “headed attempts”. All that, while Shakhtar, Real, Chelsea and Barcelona are watching closely…
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It wasn’t all without minor headaches at the back for Wolfsburg, though. With Bernat being a constant threat and Alonso-Alaba duo comfortably holding the possession, the threats from Bundesliga reigning champions were out there. Fortunately for the home side, it was a very bad day for two players, who are supposed to deliver goals for Guardiola’s team. Robben, who’s been inflicting some fantastic damage this season, looked visibly shaken by his most recent, six-week absence due to a knee injury he picked up in December, against Augsburg. Lewandowski, being on a dry spell for two months already (only one goal in six games), did not have a proper link in form of a player who could deliver him a decent ball. His role in FCB remains in question: is he supposed to be a Roy-Makaay-style pure goalscorer, a false, deep-lying number nine he used to be during his early days in Dortmund, a target-man like departed Mario Mandzukic – or someone else? Because whoever he is right now, it’s not working – and it’s not like other player are particularly willing to lift goalscoring burden from his shoulders either.
Regardless of their problems, Bayern has too much quality to not have some chances anyway. Diego Benaglio, yet another leading star of the Friday night, has made six important saves out of which the one made at 71th minute – to Robben’s powerful freekick – was worth several big-screen replays. When he finally conceded one, it was hardly his fault: he dived to collect a loose ball in the penalty area, but Naldo, so far fautless, overcommitted to his task this time and tried to make a clearance that eventually fell to Bernat, who tapped it in. It was the only hole in Wolfsburg’s centre-back performance, as he played responsibly this time, ending the game with 4 tackles, intercepting Robben’s dangerous run in 20th minute, blocking several shots and bossing the defence under pressure. His team came extremely close to ending Bayern’s streak of 12 games with at least one goal scored and although that did not come to happen, Wolves’ backline has vastly improved their previously awkward reputation (only 8 clean sheets in 34 games this season – including friendlies).
Does this result create a brand new race in Bundesliga? Sadly, no. Bayern remains firmly in a drivers’ seat and they will be seeking a revenge to this defeat tomorrow, in a home game to the other top German side, Schalke. Their fixtures are comfortable: not many more potentially tough games to come and not much of catching-up being done by the rest of the pack. Their main concern, however, is the Champions League. In that competition, Shakhtar seems like a minor obstacle: but what’s going to happen later? It’s been proven many times this season that while Real Madrid’s been deadly on the counterattack for a long time, sides like Barcelona or Chelsea or even PSG are steadily improving on that department too. And if Munich’s defenders really need to push so far forward to make Guardiola’s tactics work – they better have the pace to track back once the ball is knocked past them – because guys like Neymar, Hazard, Bale or Lucas are going to chase those passes like cheetahs. It can easily get awful. Maybe it’s time for less extravaganza?