With defensive linchpin Jerome Boateng plagued by injury, Alankrith Shankar looks at the various options at Guardiola’s disposal.
Not the ideal start to the last 6 months with the club that Pep Guardiola would have hoped for. Ever since he took over at the club, the Spaniard has very rarely enjoyed having a fully fit pool of centre backs at his disposal. Holger Badstuber and Javi Martinez experienced their long woeful periods at the doctor’s clinic and the 35M Euros blown over Moroccan, Mehdi Benatia has so far proven to be quite an exorbitant fee for a player who makes 15-20 appearances a season and can’t maintain fitness levels that are required of a footballer playing as one of the significant members of Bayern Munich’s defensive unit.
The one player that Pep could always count on as a defensive solution during his spell, is the once inconsistent, Jerome Boateng. The German was known for erratic decision making and lapses in concentration, but ever since the latter half of Jupp Heynckes’ treble winning season, Boateng has become a pivotal player in Bayern’s backline, rarely showcasing his old self and transformed into one of the best ball playing centre backs in European and World football. In Dante, Boateng found the perfect partner to compliment his attacking instincts. Pep noticed the strengths and was absolutely thrilled to have such a player at his disposal. Not only was he capable of joining the counter attacks, he also started the build-up plays due to his ball playing and excellent vision. It was no secret that Pep is a huge fan of Dante, but it was quite visible to a lot of fans that the Brazilian was quite past his prime and not the same player who signed from Borussia Monchengladbach under Jupp and helped them achieve the treble. Dante had become too error prone in his final season at Bayern and it was Jerome Boateng along with Neuer who quite often covered the glaring mistakes that the Brazilian made and prevented many goal scoring opportunities that could have resulted. To put things in perspective, Bayern went nearly 60 games undefeated when Boateng started.
Such is the influence of Boateng. You could argue against the fact citing that Bayern rarely face quality opposition in the Bundesliga, but the 60 games included matches in the Champions League as well. Even if he did miss some of the games against the big teams, 60 games is a LOT. His partnership with Hummels in the World Cup quarters, semis and finals was one of the main reasons as to why Germany are the current World Champions. Now when a player who provides such a huge impact gets himself nearly 3 months of rest in hospital beds, the club does have to hit the panic button a little bit, no?
But the club that we are talking about is Bayern Munich. They have handled the situation quite peculiarly. They have expressed their discontent at the loss of Boateng, but haven’t made any advances regarding a signing to bolster the lacking defensive unit. The time for Bayern to usually hit the panic button under Pep Guardiola is when they draw a Spanish side in the Champions League. Not just any side, but a side which knows very well how to easily dismantle Bayern Munich and knock them out. If we go by previous season records, its 2 in 2 against the 2 big guns of Spanish football. But this time, it seems like it is the turn of the Italians to serve Pep the knock-out blow. Allegri’s Juventus are turning it on in the Serie A and are playing captivating attacking football. The force from Turin will require some major defensive tactical brilliance to stop and with one of the best centre backs in the world injured for both the fixtures, Bayern have a lot of head scratching to do, especially when their return to competitive football after a grueling and cold winter break was a lackluster win at Hamburg.
With the visit to Turin about a fortnight away, what are the choices ahead for the Germans to make? Almost any decision they make comes with an alarming negative consequence. The most obvious choice that anyone who is even remotely aware of the concept of the transfer window and the spending power that Bayern possess, will shout out, “Why is this even such a perplexing question? Just buy your worries away”…
While it seems like a very viable option for Bayern to buy themselves out of this misery by spending a figure north of 30 million euros and transferring Boateng’s travel itinerary to the new signing, there are quite a few complications involved in this. Firstly, this is not FIFA Career mode, where in you even unrealistically sign Cristiano Ronaldo from Real Madrid by just offering the right sum and wages nor are Bayern’s hierarchy like a spoilt brat who spills out their wealth on the shiniest object in the store whenever possible. There is a method to the madness that is a transfer, especially when you need the player desperately for a Champions League knock out game. Recently, Bayern were linked with Shkodran Mustafi. The German is quite similar to Boateng in playing style, but sadly is cup tied after making the appearance for Valencia against Monaco in the qualifiers. Therefore, though Mustafi would be an excellent signing and could probably go on to become the Kohinoor diamond of Bayern’s defensive crown someday, but unfortunately January 2016 is quite not the correct time. Maybe Carlo has the player on his wish list when he takes over in the summer. Diego Godin who is also an option falls under the same situation. There are very few players who would actually fit the requirement criteria to replace Jerome Boateng for the second half of the season and then go on to form a formidable partnership with the German once he returns. Arguably, buying themselves out of misery is clearly not the best option.
That leaves Bayern hunting for reinforcements amongst the players at their disposal currently. Mehdi Benatia and Rafinha are out injured and probably not going to recover in time for Bayern’s Tryst at Turin. Here is a classic example which would even back my previous point as to why Bayern should not buy their misery out. Benatia was signed to back up the injury of Javi Martinez. 35 Million Euros Bayern spent on the Moroccan and there has barely been any return on investment. Benatia has probably become best buddies with the all the doctors in Munich, having injured himself in 8 different muscle regions so far at the club. As much as you want to pity with the player, it goes to show that spending wisely is what needs to be done especially when you need a player in a certain area of the pitch real bad (Manchester United are probably rejoicing on dodging this bullet). Rafinha is more of a right back, but if he does become available for the game, then Bayern could do some reshuffling and field quite a strong line up defensively. Javi Martinez is the only fully fit centre back like player available for Pep as injury prone Holger Badstuber has earned himself a suspension. Javi is the club’s record signing and is a wonderful CDM but is not all that comfortable leading Bayern’s defensive line. But he does not have a choice unless Rafinha resumes training as soon as possible.
With the given resources, I see Pep ruing the sale of Dante to Wolfsburg. But with Juan Bernat returning to first team training and the versatile man, David Alaba, there are quite a few possibilities ahead for the Spaniard regarding his line up, not just for the games against Juventus but for the complete mess of a situation the club is in until Boateng the savior makes his return.
Firstly, for the game v Juventus, Pep is going to pray none of his defensive options suffer even as much as a minor bruise. With only 2 completely fit CBs at his disposal till the return a frail Benatia in March, Pep would probably shift to a 3 man backline for good. To put things in to perspective again, out of the 2 options available currently, one is not confident of leading the line, while the other is injury prone (wow, Bayern really need to sign some fit defenders from the oncoming summer window).
In order to build Javi’s confidence while also not losing out another CB in the process, a 3 man backline is the safest option.
When Pep chooses to go with Javi Martinez as his main CB, the 3 man backline should be made of a proper RB and LB. If I were Pep, I would partner Phillipp Lahm and David Alaba with Martinez. The former German captain is known for calming presence on his team mates and his shifting of positions to RB in the World Cup proved to be a real catalyst for Germany. This backline also seems much more comforting and solid. If only Badstuber were available for the game, then it would have been a pretty strong 4 man defensive unit to break down for Juventus.
When Pep prefers to rest Javi and play with Badstuber to lead the back line, then Rafinha, Holger and Bernat should make up the backline. Badstuber is known for his passing range. He may not quite fit the sweeper CB role due to his sluggishness but with the pressing possession football that Bayern play and with the abilities of Neuer as a sweeper and the pace of the wing backs, Badstuber’s sluggishness should not be that much a problem, especially in the Bundesliga.
Rotation is the key. Pep has to manage to keep both his options fit through the next 3 weeks, especially Javi as he may be the player to lead the defensive line. If all fails, then Pep is left with no choice other than plugging the hole with Austrian, David Alaba. It would be a 3 man backline consisting of either of Lahm/Rafinha and Bernat in the wingback roles. I don’t like the sound of 3 wingbacks playing in a makeshift 3 man backline. Juventus would probably beg to differ. I can imagine Marchisio and Dybala taking full advantage of that defense and exploiting loads of free space that they will exploit.
It is going to be a tough 2 months ahead until Bayern have at least 2 proper fit CBs at their disposal. This even taxes the workload of the Central midfielders, Alonso and Vidal. Both have to be super tight regarding their shielding and this restricts their influence up the pitch and for a box-box midfielder like Vidal , that’s a huge loss. Before the injury of Boateng, Bayern were quite formidable contenders for a CL final berth if not the trophy itself, but now it seems like Juventus are going to win the tie quite comfortably if Pep does not make some smart tactical changes. Hopefully the stubborn Spaniard who caused the humiliation against Madrid does not choose to make another final appearance in front of the Bayern faithful. We’ve had enough of that to last a lifetime. There are quite a few of us Bayern fans who are happy that Pep is leaving and is being replaced by Carlo, but we’d like to see him leave on a high. 3 big weeks ahead for Pep, probably even career defining to prove to the critics that he is not completely over rated. The current situation is arguably even bigger than the injury crisis that Bayern faced last season with just 16 fit players. Now there is not a proper CB who is capable of leading the line and it is all down to once again Bayern winning a football match on the tactical nous that a lot of Guardiola fanatics proudly defend. The next 3 weeks are going to not only define and back Pep’s tactical capabilities as a manager, but also define forever the emotions that Bayern fans would have towards the Spaniard as it is clearly focal point for the club this season and the fans and players alike would not want to go out of the Champions League without reaching the semis once again.
Written by Alankrith Shankar