New Beginnings - Bayern Munich under Niko Kovac
Niko Kovac made a fascinating entry into the Allianz Arena during the summer of 2018. After being announced as the Manager of the club for the 2018-19 season in the month of April, Kovac’s Eintracht Frankfurt faced Bayern in the final of 2018 DFB Pokal. Frankfurt put in a spirited performance and emerged as the unlikely winners of the trophy, leaving a lukewarm experience for the Bayern supporters.
Bayern Munich were busy in the transfer season too as prominent players in Arturo Vidal, Sebastian Rudy and Juan Bernat were offloaded. Leon Goretzka, the tall central midfielder from Schalke who was running out his contract, was signed on as much-needed cover in the midfield. Serge Gnabry also returned from a loan spell at Hoffenheim and should be crucial given the latest setback for Coman in the season opener.
Bayern Munich’s domestic cabinet is littered with trophies but the European trophy keeps eluding them. There’s a sense that the club are in a luxurious limbo of sorts as their efforts to win the Champions League are not bearing fruit. Kovac seems to know a trick or two about knockout competitions (reaching the DFB Pokal finals in consecutive years and winning one of them) and that can make his time at Bayern very interesting.
Kovac setup two different formations in their two Bundesliga outings.
Thiago Alcantara and Javi Martinez slotted in the midfield of a 4-2-3-1 formation against an enthusiastic Hoffenheim side. It was more of a 4-1-1-3-1 as Thiago played slightly in front of Martinez when they were on the ball. Martinez was instrumental at not letting the opposition settle as he kept winning balls back in the midfield.
Away to Stuttgart, Bayern played a 4-3-3 with Thiago playing the holding midfielder role and Goretzka slotting in to play on ahead with Muller. This seemed sensible as the home side chose to retreat for a majority of the game which gave Thiago space and time to pick passes.
The forwards were dynamic in both the matches, exchanged positions frequently to avoid the man-mark. Muller, in particular, was ingenious as he cropped up across the wings and assisted in the box. Lewandowski had a handful of touches on the ball but registered goals in both the games, one of them being a clinical finish from 18 yards out.
On the Ball Play
Bayern likes to build it from the back when in possession. The first 2 Bundesliga matches led to unique situations in their applications.
Against Hoffenheim, the ball circulation was largely to lead the ball into the wings where the full-backs and wingers work together with Muller to move forward and create chances. Holding on to the possession in dangerous areas was difficult as the opponents were a better pressing side and the passing game was a little lethargic overall.
Bayern's centre-backs occasionally chose the aerial route as they sent out long balls either into the wings for the wingers to dribble or into the box to Lewandowski/Muller who exerted pressure on the opponents' centre-backs.
Stuttgart were more cautious in their ways and chose to sit back which meant Bayern had to deal with trouble-free pressing. This let Bayern box the opposition in their half and dictate the play. With two strong lines of defence, the ball circulation was majorly through the wings as Thiago dictated the tempo of the game along with the centre-backs who were exceptional at circulating the ball aerially into the wings.
The Wing Play
Bayern take the wing route majorly in the build up. They offer varieties of attack from those areas not only due to their wingers’ durability but also the flexibility of two exceptional full-backs they have in the line-up. This makes Bayern a complete package when all the four wing players are fit.
On the left wing, the intensity of Alaba and Ribery are a constant and they work together to open up opportunities for one another. When in space on the left wing, Ribery holds onto the ball and lets it go at just the right time for Alaba to make the overlapping run and send in accurate crosses for the forwards to feed upon.
Even more often, they work together for Ribery to reach the by-line inside the box and he backs himself to wrestle out of pressure and find a player in front of the goal. This also makes him prone to fouls, providing set-plays at dangerous areas or even penalties (that was the case with the second Bayern goal in the Hoffenheim game).
Kimmich on the right wing is a beacon of versatility. With the usual traits of a full-back in place, Kimmich is comfortable slotting into the midfield too which opens up options for Bayern without giving up on balance. He is also precise with his passing as he sends out accurate crosses into the box from the wings and curls in some reliable corner kicks.
Robben is famously known for his cutting-into-the-box play and creating space for himself or his teammates. He does not seem to have lost his touch. His lethal left-foot is still intact as he scored the third Bayern goal against Hoffenheim by running into space and taking a strong shot at goal.
The Muller Role
Muller’s role is special in the football world currently. As captivatingly explained in this video, he has an ability to find space and show up in areas where the ball seemingly would end up.
We see Muller being efficient as a midfielder/number 10 when he supports the wingers to circulate the ball better and interchanges positions with the forwards to neutralise man-marking. Muller has another dimension to his game.
Muller is excellent at presenting himself for a pass in awkward areas. Over this, he positions himself to lay-off the pass to the player in a more dangerous area, which is usually Lewandowski or anyone in the proximity of the goal. This does not come off every time but when it does, the opportunity is a good one.
When found in space in the middle of the pitch, which is often the case in the second half, Muller can pick out accurate passes to the onrushing forwards thereby leaving the opposition’s defensive shape disjointed. He also has a knack to show up in the box alongside Lewandowski, making it a nuisance for the rival centre-backs. He can either lay off the long ball to the forward or can take a shot on goal himself.
This versatility makes Muller a priceless asset when he is in form which seems to be the case in the first two games.
Off the Ball Play
Just like in possession, the first 2 games showed two different stories of defending for Bayern.
The Martinez Role
Against Hoffenheim, a team that likes to play their way into the match, Bayern faced a challenge to fight for the ball. Having midfield authority was necessary to tip the balance of the game.
Martinez was in his element in this setup. He slotted into the defensive midfield position with Thiago playing just ahead of him. He barged down on every ball that the opposition tried to play into the midfield and left no breathing space for them to pick relevant passes. This helped in wrestling away the authority that Hoffenheim tried to gain and thereby the overall chances were limited to a few.
The game was a good example of how Bayern would line up against teams that want to dominate with the ball and the influence that Martinez would bring to the balance of the team.
Cutting off Counters
Bayern can expect quite a few teams who choose to sit back and attack through counters. Not only does this situation demand patience going forward, but also a control over the opposition’s counters.
Stuttgart chose a similar template and tried to attack by passing the ball directly to the forwards who ran to the goal. Bayern were prepared for this and the centre-backs maintained their grip aerially as they intercepted the passes which helped to win the second balls.
Bayern were also alert to possible counters from corner situations and this can be observed in one such instance where Kimmich, Thiago and Ribery (three of the shortest in the team) ran back and cut off a dangerous situation and won the ball back for the team. This was an acknowledgement of the roles that the players were to play in these tricky situations and Bayern looked prepared.
Kovac has an exceptional team at his service and a clear goal of the Champions League to aim at. The coach has already showcased the possible systems Bayern can present. To sustain this over sustained periods of the season would be the key.
Keeping the key players in Muller, Martinez, Kimmich among others fit would be essential for the long haul.