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Bayern Munich: What’s their game plan?

Alankrith Shankar writes a detailed article of how we can expect Bayern Munich to set up in the 2017-18 season.

2016-17, was definitely not a major success for Bayern by any means. Club legend and captain, Philipp Lahm was retiring, along with another legendary footballer, Xabi Alonso, who also by the way has one of the classiest beards in the history of mankind. It definitely was not the ideal send-off that Bayern hoped to provide for these two legends. The Pokal was missed out to top off the unhappy night at Madrid in the Champions League Quarter Finals, which was the first time since 2011 that Bayern failed to make a semi-final in the Champions League. This highlights how much of a disappointment the season was for Bayern. In fact, when it happened in 2010-11, Bayern missed out to Inter Milan, the defending Champions. What Bayern did the following season in 2012 probably hurt them the most but it made them rise back from the ashes of defeat like a phoenix as Heynckes won the treble in 2012-13, unarguably the biggest achievement in the club’s illustrious, trophy laden history. Ever since, most Bayern fans have raised their targets and expectations from the club, such as the treble being their birth right. I would not be sorry for having such an expectation, especially now, hoping that the club would think with the same frame of mind to redeem themselves once again. The way they’ve been going about in the transfer market, strengthening the squad, not afraid of splurging the cash for players worth their salt, has provided Bayern fans definite hope to win the sixth champions league this season.

Last year Carlo took over a squad that had become more efficient under Pep Guardiola. A squad filled with individually brilliant players who played with a hint of lack of cohesion in the attack. What Ancelotti did was bind them together, by building upon the foundation laid by Pep and build on the dynamism in attack. A big factor that was highlighted in this process was the fact that Bayern were heavily reliant on the magic moments of Robert Lewandowski or Arjen Robben. There was a rather lacklustre season in front of goal for Thomas Muller, who struggled to find his feet in Carlo’s system until the twilight period of the season. Muller did rack up the assists and ended the season respectably, but there was a definite absence of creativity. Thiago was the main playmaker and the taxing nature of the job did show on Bayern’s football throughout the season. There was definitely a need to address this issue and Bayern prioritised this showing that they mean business with the quality of the signings.

The Investments

Until early July when James was confirmed, there was genuine interest from Bayern and imminent celebrations amongst fans regarding the signing of the Chilean, Alexis Sanchez. Fellow Chilean, Arturo Vidal had spoken to Sanchez regarding joining Bayern and was quite successful in his attempts. But Bayern representatives seem to have captured the better deal with the signing of a younger and equally talented individual in James, which confirmed that Bayern will not pay the unrealistic demands of Sanchez and are all stocked up in the attacking department. There was still a major Xabi Alonso sized void in the squad that required addressing. The German giants obviously do not believe Renato Sanches is ready yet to take up the responsibility. Having a great scout network across Europe, Bayern did manage to sign up the former French U21 captain, Corentin Tolisso from Lyon. Having played a wide array of positions for Lyon, he made a name for himself playing in a midfield pivot as the deep lying creative midfielder, scoring 14 goals in all competitions last season. Quite the goal scorer, yet he contributes quite less defensively. Ideally he would work well along with Vidal. Being a youngster, it is an aspect of his game that he can definitely improve. Much will be expected of the Frenchman who made his full international debut against Spain in March as he is now Bayern’s most expensive transfer, outshining Javi Martinez by a figure north of £1M.

With the loss of arguably the best right back in the world due to retirement and the constant reminders of the ritualistic injury plague of March that heavily affected the defenders last season, requiring Carlo to invent a magic potion to somehow field a back 4 against Madrid, brought to light that Bayern needed one more capable centre-back in the squad. Thankfully, by then they had already sealed the deal to sign-up young prospect, Niklas Sule who has been exceptionally leading the line for Hoffenheim. Sebastien Rudy was a surprise package. Still 26, possibly peaking in his football career, he will be a highly regarded squad member much like Rafinha. With 3 capable players for the right back spot, including Kimmich, it will be interesting to see how often there will be a rotation. From Kimmich’s recent exploits in the Confederations Cup in Russia and his comments of wanting more football, it makes for easy decision making who will occupy the spot regularly. Agreed that he is as capable a central midfielder, but in the already crowded midfield overflowing with quality, it would be hard to figure he’d play there especially now that the youngster is developing to be one of the best right backs in the game. Bayern have a very like-for-like replacement for Lahm in Kimmich, probably not as versatile but most definitely would not want to rue a missed opportunity. With preseason competitions underway too, Bayern are going to observe the left back spot closely as well. David Alaba had a drastic dip in form with respect to the standards he associates himself with and Juan Bernat seems to have found his way back, as evident in the Telekom cup. Though only a pre-season competition, it highlights an interesting competition for spaces in the defence line, which means the already stern and mean back-line will only get fiercer.

Extracting the Returns

Now that Bayern have made their investments in the transfer market, they will rely on Carlo Ancelotti to get the best returns for them. An experienced candidate like Carlo, who has got the players he desired in the market, will be looking to streamline the attack and fluidity that was lacking in Bayern last season. Last season, Bayern found their variety again rather than being single minded in attack. Bayern returned to playing the forward and dynamic football that won them the treble under Heynckes. In 2012-13, Bayern scored a total of 64 goals from open play, another 17 from set pieces and 9 through counter attacks. This variety is what made them impossible to stop. This variety was definitely missing under Pep as Bayern scored a negligible amount of goals through set pieces or counters. Enter Carlo, an immediate spike in fluidity and variety. Bayern were back to scoring in every situation. Last season, Bayern scored 57 goals from open play, 16 converted set pieces and 10 from counter attacks. You can draw the similarities. They had gotten much better too. Believe it or not, they were keeping the ball much more than they did under Pep – 65% in comparison to the 60% under Pep on average over 3 seasons. More goals, more possession, they were effectively playing much better systematically and statistically speaking. No wonder the fans were expecting another Champions League and extremely confident of beating Real Madrid until the injuries to Lewandowski and Hummels flared up just prior to the first leg. Quoting Bayern Central, there is enough evidence that proves that there is a shift back to Heynckesism (apparently, this is a word now). The signings show that the club is well prepared to embrace the new era.

Bayern Munich 2.0 – System and Squad Analysis

Carlo has done wonders in just one season. It may be hard for the generic viewer to identify these changes but there is statistical evidence to show that Bayern are playing much better and cohesive football, an aspect that proved to be a vital weakness under Pep Guardiola. There are very few arguments that can state otherwise that Pep has a system that is flawless. Agreed that it worked at Barcelona, yet, there are quite a handful of players with the brilliance of Messi who would make any system work. Coupled with the collective brilliance of Xavi, Iniesta and Puyol, there was nothing stopping Pep’s Barcelona. Unfortunately for Guardiola, he has not found that sort of nucleus elsewhere. The man’s tried everything while literally trying to fathom why his system is not working. Right from spending millions at both Munich and Manchester to hilariously blaming the doctors and identifying questionable targets. But Carlo Ancelloti has found a way to play the possession philosophy in a more direct and organised manner, which would be potent against teams that sit back, defend deep and hit you on the counter. Last season Bayern had a staggering collective contribution of 72% to their chances from the wings, which is similar to the quotient under Pep – 69%. The difference under Carlo was that the conversion of these chances have been much higher. Almost half of these chances have been converted from the wings while, the central figure of goal scoring was Robert Lewandowski, who not only converted the chances from the wings but also got the middle of the pitch into play. Bayern were now a team attacking from all sides, evident from the games against Arsenal in the Champions League and the home victory against RB Leipzig, which in my opinion was the most complete performance for Bayern in all their games last season.

A major improvement that Carlo brought back was the defending. Under Guardiola, Bayern were mostly clueless against counter attacks. In Pep’s first season, none other than Carlo himself handpicked and undid Guardiola’s system with set pieces and fast counters. The feat was repeated by Barcelona in the following season, with Leo Messi creating the most embarrassing moment in Boateng’s career. But with Carlo, there has been much better organisation at the back, which meant the players were defending and ready to stop any counters. Arturo Vidal and Lahm were unquestionably some of the biggest contributors to this along with the usual suspect – sweeper keeper genius, Manuel Neuer. But the player who was standout was Mats Hummels. His last ditch effort to stop Frankfurt’s Branimir Hrgota, who did everything right to even beat the brilliant Neuer, unfortunately could do nothing to evade the tackle of the season from Mats Hummels.

All of the above was mainly possible due to the formation shift under Carlo. Pep preferred playing the highline 4-2-3-1 with the sweeper keeper. Carlo preferred playing the Christmas tree formation of 4-3-2-1 or the 4-3-3, including the highline tactic and sweeper keeper. This helped in achieving the tight cohesive dynamism that was missing whereas under Pep, the 4-2-3-1 was mostly working due to the individual brilliance of each player, achieved thanks to the coaching of the Catalan. With the new investments made, Carlo would look to keep the nucleus of his tactics the same. Realistically, there is much less to be changed than to work on developing and improving what already exists. The important time period is the initial stages of hard work of incorporating the new players in the ideal positions to work with his system. The key positions that need to be occupied due to the changes are the right back and the central midfield spot. No arguments that the best option for RB is Kimmich and it was confirmed by Carlo at the end of last season as well, labelling him the natural heir with an illustrious career ahead. Whether Tolisso will live upto the big price tag is still a big question mark but there is definite initial responsibility of covering for Xabi Alonso – an unreplaceable pawn on Carlo’s chess board. An interesting scheme of things would be the number of games Niklas Sule racks under his belt. With Boateng, Hummels and Martinez as the senior members of the CB pecking order, where exactly Sule fits will be a question answered at the end of the season.

Another prominent question that always has been raised since Muller’s dip in form has been, ‘Does Muller have space in Carlo’s System’. With the recent signing of James, this throws a brighter spotlight on the issue. Of course, James is a creative player who can play on the wings, he did so at Monaco and under Carlo at Madrid but the player himself prefers to play through the middle. With the ousting of Douglas Costa, it is evident that Carlo intends to use James on the flanks. Probably signalling the gracious phasing out of Franck Ribery. Which means Muller plays the free role behind the striker in a 4-3-3. But with Carlo suggesting that there are no guarantees for any player and they all have to work hard in training to effect a place in the starting XI means, Muller is no exception. Same goes for James as pointed by Carlo that he is not here to replace Muller. Carlo suggested James was not brought in to replace anyone, he was got in to add to the quality that Bayern possess. ‘We have a lot of competition and this is good for the team. He has no guarantee to play. If he deserves to play he will play. If not, he will go on the bench’. Carlo also went on to suggest that James will likely play on the flanks or be rotated with Vidal, Tolisso or Alcantara. But where does this leave Kingsley Coman and Renato Sanches? Coman is probably going to get his game time fighting for places amongst the 4 winger wolf pack of Bayern but Sanches is clearly not in the plans of Carlo at the moment. The Portuguese is definitely one for the future and Bayern rejecting the offer from AC Milan to loan with option to buy clause shows that he is in the plans for the future. The player seems determined to fight for a place at Bayern but the sensible thing would be to go out on loan and come back developed as a footballer ready to fill the boots of expectation set by Bayern.

The only worrying aspect from the transfer window is that Bayern still trust Muller to play as a back-up forward to Lewandowski in the moments of peril. Going in to the season without a replacement for Lewandowski is a gamble which saw them fumble against Madrid and the champions seem to be adamant on using the same tactic. Astounding how they bolstered every other department but not the attack. As a Bayern fan myself, I can only hope this tactic does not come to back to bite us in the crucial stages of the season. A speculative reason for this decision could be due to the rise in stock of the youth academy graduate – Franck Evina, who has been lighting up the pre-season with spectacular performances. Dubbed as the Bavarian hulk, Evina has been consistent amongst the youth team players and looks like he is destined to be promoted to the first team this season.  Still, he is only 17, at this time, it is too much to ask for.  At this stage of his career to be a backup striker for Lewandowski is a big mistake.

Probable Line-Up

Depending on the situation and opponent, Carlo would choose between a 4-3-2-1 and a 4-3-3 but the trend shows Carlo prefers a 4-3-3 at Bayern. The sweeper keeper Neuer is going to have the usual suspects in Kimmich, Boateng and Hummels in front of him. Alaba still edges Bernat in terms of class and capabilities but if he does not buck up soon, Bernat may see his stock rise higher. The trio in midfield will be Tolisso – Thiago – Vidal who will be taxed in forming the bridge between defence and attack, ensuring the fluidity and cohesiveness are intact, while being crucial in winning the possession back when lost. The attack trio would be Robben on the right when fit along with James on the left with Muller playing a free role through the middle, right behind Lewandowski who leads the line. Carlo is a fan of rotation, so we will see Ribery and Coman get their games as well from time to time. This team on paper reads destined to win a record 6th Bundesliga on the trot, the Pokal and probably reach the finals of the Champions League – a feat that has evaded them since the Wembley appearance in May 2013. There’s a lot of expectations on Carlo and the investments he has made. There is definite hope that the Italian will deliver the returns he has promised. There is a definite buzz amongst Bayern fans, there is a confidence factor amongst the squad. One that a million fans around the world and I hope is transferred on to the field.

Alankrith Shankar

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