Vogt overjoyed, Hummels inconsolable. Hoffenheim have just done it.
Something happened on Tuesday. After 21 victories and two draws, Bayern Munich have finally lost a football match. It happened for the first time in 132 days, when Carlo Ancelotti’s lads unexpectedly fell 2-3 to FC Rostov – but it wasn’t just about the final result. For only the third time this season, FCB have ended the game without a single goal – a feat pretty much unthinkable these days, as The Red Army from Allianz Arena already have scored 112 goals in 42 competitive matches this season. On Tuesday, Julian Nagelsmann and company have actually devised a masterplan to stop this brutal trail of destruction from the Bundesliga leaders – the leaders so powerful and scary that they’ve only eight winless games since August; the quota powerful enough to yield them a 13-point, domestic lead.
Step 1: Central Deadlock
“After one minute 20 [seconds] you could see our plan. I thought, ‘It’s not possible that out plan works that well’. It’s mad.” – Julian Nagelsmann, talking about his ideas for Bayern.
One of the keys to Bayern’s persistent success in the modern era was the attacking, modern formation focused on not just overloading the wings but also on exerting constant pressure on the middle of the pitch, especially right in front of their opponents’ final third, where the majority of loose balls and other teams’ interceptions is going to happen. This was a central part of Pep Guardiola’s philosophy and didn’t change that much under Ancelotti – after all, for a team that claims the vast majority of possession in all of it’s games, using your players to win the ball back immediately where they lose it seems like a fantastic concept. This idea is not without drawbacks, though; and on Tuesday, Bayern faced this:
Just look how dense this formation is. Not only Hoffenheim are dropping to five-at-the-back formation while the opponent builds their slow, positional play – they’re also plopping both Rudy (6) and Amiri (13) just 3-4 metres in front of the centre-backs. Their role is to pick up whatever’s left of the inevitable duels in the penalty area (if Bayern decide to cross the ball) or intercept through balls (if the opponent prefers to play through the middle). In such setup, the role of Demirbay (18) and Kramarić (27) is to protect Rudy and Amiri from the immediate pressure after reclaiming the ball and providing an instant, nearby link of play that could unleash the counterattacking potential of the entire team.
And this is the picture of what happened just 20 seconds later. After not finding a better solution, Alaba finally crossed the ball, aiming at Lewandowski. It’s been cleared out sideways by Vogt; picked up by Süle; played forward, away from Bayern’s pressure and claimed by Kramarić; laid off to Amiri; passed forward to retreating Wagner; laid off again to the right flank. The crown in this passing jewel was Toljan’s through ball to sprinting Amiri – the pass that absolutely should have been converted by the German-Afghan midfielder, as he messed up his one-on-one finish against Ulreich. That was just the first in a long line of venomous attacking build-ups the hosts unveiled in the own half against the champions.
Step 2: Wings, Wings, Wings
As the standard, defensive full-backs have been dead and buried on the highest level for the last ten to fifteen years, the urgent need to explore that void remained mysteriously unaddressed. Staring with José Mourinho and his Porto, the managers have become more and more confident that leaving the voids in-behind their wing-backs was a budget price for the privilege of further congesting the midfield by dumping the wingers’ tasks on wide defenders. What’s the worst that could come out of it anyway – the crosses? But they’re bound to be inaccurate and picked up by the centre-backs. Individual raids by the wingers? Only if there are teams that can afford to give no defensive tasks to some of their players against an outfit of Bayern’s calibre (spoiler: there aren’t many such sides). So – why not?
Perhaps this is the answer? We’ve got not two, not three, not four but FIVE players involved in the attacking build-up down the wing. Since Hoffenheim have no intention to switch the possession with long passes to the other flank (which is too slow of a process anyway), Bayern players should be responding by swarming the sector with the ball in it. At the moment, however, only Vidal is making the right decision; he exercises his roaming privilege to get more involved. Renato Sanches and Xabi Alonso could be doing the same but the deeply rooted, tactical discipline they’ve learnt prevents them from that. After all, they don’t know: maybe the hosts have the long passes in their arsenal too?
Only three seconds have passed. Eventually, the ball was won back by Vidal and transported instantly to Alonso, who gave it to Robben. The Dutchman, in the middle of one of his least famous performances, is instantly swarmed by three opponents. In the next twelve seconds, he’ll be forced to pass backwards to Rafinha, see his teammate falling prey to a tackle, lose a scramble with Zuber and be reduced to watching the following Hoffenheim’s build-up:
Wagner (14), Amiri (18) and Kramarić (27) are all involved in this short-passing antics while Demirbay (13, in the middle) assumes the centre-forward position in order to receive the final product of this clever bit of cooperation. Eventually, the makeshift striker has wasted the chance against prolific Ulreich, missing out on an opportunity to pretty much kill the game. Note: at 36 percent possession, lower pass completion and only 14 shots to Bayern’s 21, Julian Nagelsmann’s side has produced at least three, golden one-on-ones that went begging. At the same time, Ancelotti’s lads provided exactly zero.
Funnily enough, even though Hoffenheim’s strategy wasn’t based on crossing, they’ve scored the winning goal through Hummels’ poor clearance of a… cross. Which was, in itself, very poor too. Seems that even the irony was on their side on Tuesday.
Step 3: Milking the Frustration
Perhaps some of the above tricks would not be possible without the visitors’ apathy that soon converted into visible irritation. In particular, it haunted Renato Sanches. The young Portuguese midfielder from the start to finish looked like a foreign object put into his team’s engine. His first, terrible pass in the own half came after just 180 seconds and it didn’t get much better until the end of his rather pathetic shift. The kid wasted ten of 52 passes he’s attempted, got dispossessed twice and was close to producing two TSG goals with his awful attempts to hold onto the ball. Carlo Ancelotti remained patient until the 72th minute, when the lad got tackled by Rudy in a position in which a professional should never, ever concede possession. Still lots to prove for that young man; still, lots to learn…
What am I doing here? Sanches is still miles away from properly fitting into this Bayern side.
The same can be told about Kingsley Coman. His occasional bursts of pace were enough to create a few chances, but overall, his performance was way below the level expected from a new, young hope that’s supposed to take over the responsibilities once belonging to Franck Ribéry. In a 18-minute long cameo, the veteran Frenchman has created about as many disruption as the ex-Juventus player, who’d rather leave the ball for Alaba to cross it, instead of taking some responsibility himself. This time, believe the gossip: even if Die Roten are not interested in a massive, jaw-dropping bid for Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco, there are many reasons why a summer move for Atlético winger would make a lot of sense.
Step 4: Lucky Breaks
No need to sugarcoat it: the hosts needed a little bit of luck to help them. Especially in the second half, when their legs got heavier from chasing the ball all the time. At least two Lewandowski’s shots from that late part of the game could’ve easily snuck into the back of the net; instead, they went marginally wide.The Pole was even less fortunate in the first half, when his situational shot from Coman’s cross resulted with hitting the upright. Near the end, he got so mad by his little failures and by Vogt’s airtight marking, he put a stamp on his guardian angel’s foot and deservedly saw a yellow card.
Also: the hosts had Oliver Baumann. One of the unsung heroes of this match (the others were: persistent runner Amiri and defensively flawless Toljan), TSG goalie had nearly perfect performance with five saves, two claimed crosses and impeccable reflexes. The stoppage-time acrobatics performed in order to parry Lewandowski’s strike were top-notch – and so was his effort to stop Ribery’s rampage. “Beating Bayern is like a drug” – said overjoyed Nagelsmann during the press conference. Well: if it’s that way, Baumann has to be locked up and prosecuted for dealing illegal substances.
And, for the final word: the average players’ position for both teams on Tuesday. Gives you a good glimpse inside the amounts of pressure, determination and luck the hosts needed to bear in order to hold that 1-0 result intact: