Climbing up: David Alaba is quickly becoming the most important player in Munich.
37 goals scored in the last 10 games. Only 3 goals conceded. Match outcomes: 8 victories, 2 draws, zero defeats. Confident advance to the Champions League quarterfinal after a relentless trashing of the strongest Ukrainian team. An overwhelming lead in a domestic league – and that’s even despite a shocking 1-4 loss to their main rivals this season, who still keep chasing the first place without the slightest chance of succeeding. Strikingly good performances from all players, including those who only participate in squad rotation system only as the second-choice footballers. Tactical flexibility so great that it allows the manager to freely field three or four men at the back; play with the wingers or skip it completely; send out two regular strikers or choose the Spanish system with the number 10 midfielder being the most advanced attacking asset. Other than that: 5/2 bookmakers’ odds for winning the most prestigious European club trophy, placing the team ahead of any other competitor out there, including Barcelona and Real Madrid. This is Bayern Munich AD 2015 for you: the side, which loses so rarely that they hit the headlines every time it happens. And after just five such occurrences this season it may as well not happen again.
All that goes on while fitness problems keep concerning them. Against Werder Bremen, it weren’t just the usual long-term casualties of Thiago Alcantara and Javi Martinez that bugged Pep Guardiola; two other essential players were unavailable, as Arjen Robben limped off the pitch just 19 minutes into the game against Shakhtar with a trapped nerve, while Franck Ribéry sustained a twisted ankle just 40 minutes after Robben’s misfortune. Another missing player was Xabi Alonso, suspended for his yellow card received in a 3-1 away win over Hannover; at the same time, Guardiola gave a chance to Pepe Reina in goal for the first time this season. This didn’t stop the German titleholders from piling up the massive 69% of possession all the way through the game, take 13 shots to Werder’s 6, register 86% pass success and, most importantly, score four goals without conceding a single one. Funnily enough, it’s been actually a minor decline of Bayern’s form against the team from Bremen – the last time they played, the Bavarians won 6-0 with 76% possession, 19 shots and not even a single attempt from their rivals! Do we really need more evidence for the domination of the team from Munich?
Werder managed to survive for 24 minutes, but we all knew what was coming. After a quiet start and rather resilient defending, the home team finally cracked when their own throw-in on Bayern’s half was intercepted and the festival of one-touch, counterattacking passes finished with Mueller being sent forward by Lewandowski’s through ball. German top class striker utterly failed his one-on-one attempt against Raphael Wolf only to collect the rebound couple seconds later and take a perfect, curling shot from the edge of the penalty area. It was one of the few interesting moments of a boring game in which the visitors happily passed around on the opposition’s half but not really attempted to score unless the chance was decent enough. As Rafinha and Bernat both pushed very far and wide, having a lot of the ball and comfortably switching the play to the other side of the pitch if needed, Bayern’s play strictly mimicked the previous creations of Guardiola he’s made back then in Barcelona. Benatia and Boateng left alone deep at the back, Pepe Reina making one important sweeper-keeper tackle, the central cooperation of Schweinsteiger, Rode and Alaba, the interchangeability of players: all that screamed ‘Catalonia’ out there.
Apparently, Bayern’s set-pieces are not far from Barcelona’s standards either. After leaving the likes of Messi, Dani Alves and Iniesta behind, Pep seemed to be forced to take over a team with lesser spot-kick executors. Not so: just few seconds before the end of the first half, Götze was fouled after a lengthy dribble and the visitors had a free-kick chance from a decent position. Mueller ran over the ball, leaving it to David Alaba, who curled it perfectly on his left foot towards the top-right corner. The wall stood no chance and neither did Wolf. It’s been an excellent strike from the player who’s on the best way to replace Philipp Lahm as the most versatile FCB’s player – he’s already been doing great job regardless whether he’s been played as a left-back, central midfielder, or as a centre-back. This time, by scoring only his third goal of the season, he managed to pretty much wrap up the game in Bayern’s favour. Statistically, they could not toss away the win anymore: before the Werder game, they played 46 matches this season and only six of them saw Bavarians conceding more than once, while they preserved clean sheets no less than 28 times – yet another tidbit that underlines the most successful era in club’s history.
And it’s not the first time when Alaba impressed with a beautiful free kick:
After securing a commanding lead, the visitors had enough time left to complete another task they were presented with recently – to help Robert Lewandowski out with regaining his goalscoring confidence. The Pole, whose February efforts were widely criticized by the press, played an important role in providing the lead for his team, but just as many times before, he’s been fairly isolated upfront by Guardiola’s tactics and did not really manage to unleash his dynamic potential. As for being a part of possession-heavy team, 36 touches taken by him in Bremen were not too impressive either. No wonder that the better times for him came when Alaba has decided to make a quick break through the middle of the pitch, dribbled past couple of rivals from his own half and provided Mueller with a decent pass over the top of Werder’s defensive lines. Once Lewandowski saw his teammate getting on the end of the ball, he promptly followed, eventually putting it into the back of the empty net as the goalkeeper misjudged his chances to stop Mueller. It was a fast, attacking piece of business – exactly the same kind of move Robert championed for years in Dortmund; exactly the same they pulled off in 91st minute to score the fourth goal as well.
Tactically, it was another flawless performance, and not without a reason: after all, in this department, Bayern is easily the most ephemeral side in world’s top-class football. With nearly 70% of possession in the bag, they’ve scored two critical goals on counterattacks; with Lewandowski serving the role of a striker, it’s Thomas Mueller, often considered a winger or even a central midfielder, who’s got the most clinical finishing ability around these days, as he scored 12 goals this season and two of them were extracted out of just three shots he took on Werder’s goal. In the absence of Ribéry down the left wing and with Götze searching his way through the middle, Juan Bernat, the man expected to be a left-back, played no different than a winger would. Still, there’s more: Guardiola goes as far as to questioning the role of centre-backs in modern football. After finding himself on the advantageous end of the fastest sending off in CL’s history, Pep managed to utilize his back two’s offensive capabilities to demolish the rivals in a spectacular fashion. And it wasn’t just sweepers bagging the header attempts after set pieces or scoring through the long shots; Boateng tapped the ball in from the centre-forward position while Badstuber finished an open play chance from the middle of the box just like any competent striker would.
In view of that, anyone who faces Bayern has to first solve the impossible question of how to mark such opposition. Guardiola’s player are insanely efficient at flooding the set marking zones with multiple players at once, always gaining the strength of numbers on small areas of the pitch where ball is about to be delivered. On the other hand, pure man-marking against them is straight-up suicidal: as long as they’ve got this much of possession, they can physically wear down the hardest working, most athletic players by the virtue of forcing them to fruitlessly chase the ball. Therefore, it probably has to be the mixture of both; zonal marking of the front three followed by the intense tracking back by the defensive midfielders. But even if that works, there’s still more than enough individual quality amongst Bayern players to deliver the damage. By now, everyone knows that Robben and Ribery prefer individual runs and like to cut on their other feet while arriving into the middle of the penalty area; however, their legs are usually to quick to deal with anyway. With Chelsea out of the window, there are literally no teams in Champions League that are solid enough down the wings to stop the Robbery’s rampage – crazy, considering that the two have a combined age of 63 and are going to be off the grid soon.
Just a day-to-day stuff: Guardiola masterminding the future.
But Pep is far from relying on those strengths only; in fact, his aim is to create the most well-rounded team in the history of the game. In order to achieve that in Munich, he is pushing pragmatism to the limits with fundamentals like “Those who keep the ball are resting, those who chase it get exhausted” and “If you win the ball 50 meters higher up, that’s 50 meters less for you to get through and score”. Those are reasonable assumptions – but it goes further than that. In Pep’s eyes, passing isn’t just a tool designed to stretch the opponents’ defences and score; it has a function of organizing his own team better by bringing Bayern players where they belong at a given time. Such organization is centred around the inevitable loss of possession, as it already anticipates the necessity of pressurizing the other team once they recover the ball. In a way, Guardiola is like a chess player thinking multiple moves and therefore, preparing for the worst thing that can happen long before it happens. Which is also precisely why his team, on a Neutral’s Fan Scale, is often rated between boring and unwatchable. Bayern avoids risks and manages their effort so that they can save the energy for another day – exactly what a professional team needs in the era of insanely packed game calendars.
There is, however, one player out there who hardly concerns himself with how many games he has to appear in or how exhausted he’s going to be after all the running he makes. Arjen Robben. The Dutchman is a phenomenon even bigger than Cristiano Ronaldo or Leo Messi. While the two greatest players of our times made a journey from the flank to the middle of the pitch, Robben remains a devoted winger, even despite being older than both of his most famous contemporaries. At the age of 31, way past the usual footballing prime for an attacking player, he’s already approaching his landmarks from the previous season with 19 goals and 8 assists in all 2014-15 competitions – just one less goal and four assists away from 2013-14 achievements with solid two months of footballing still to spare. Guardiola recently admitted that without Arjen, the team “does not have the necessary quality in one-on-one play”. Robben himself, added, clearly pointing at his managers’ style of rotating the first eleven: “I need this constant rhythm, I grow stronger and my flow comes from playing all of the time”. Seemingly, those two have decisively sorted out the conflicts between them that reportedly occurred a year ago, when Pep kept annoying his best player with late-night calls regarding new tactical solution. Or perhaps Robben just grew accustomed to Guardiola’s footballing insanity…