What's wrong with Bayern and is there a title race?
The gap at the top of the Bundesliga down to just four points.
I was planning to write something about the Bundesliga’s most ridiculous soap opera this week but Hertha BSC and Felix Magath will have to wait. Bayern Munich might be broken and Dortmund may have stumbled across something to play for.
We are all desperate for a Bundesliga title race. So it was a real shame five weeks ago when Bayern Munich, in mid-February, were nine points clear at the top and closing in on a tenth consecutive league title.
At that stage Bayern had dropped just 11 points all season, picking up 52 from the 63 available. And they had already played away games against Dortmund (2nd), Leverkusen (3rd) and Union Berlin (4th), and had faced Köln (6th), RB Leipzig (7th) and bogey side Borussia Mönchengladbach both home and away.
It did not look like there were too many more games where points could be dropped but football is full of surprises. Five matches later, Bayern have dropped seven points and the gap at the top of the table is down to just four points with eight games to go.
Until the game against RB Leipzig, a 3-2 win in February, Bayern had spent 600 of 1800 minutes this season 2+ goals ahead. They have spent a grand total 9 minutes of 2+ ahead in the five games since, and all of those came against 18th-place Greuther Fürth.
Because Bayern look bad? Or Dortmund have improved? It’s a bit of both, sort of.
Bayern remain the league’s most dangerous attack, Dortmund are up there as ever, but a glance at the numbers makes it feel like the sides have swapped defences over the past five matches.
Even before then the Bayern backline wasn’t as solid as the Julian Nagelsmann Leipzig side that had the league’s best defence last season, but they’ve been awful in recent weeks. The vertical, high-tempo, full throttle counter-pressing approach and shift to a move obvious three-man defence isn’t working, not without the Road Runner-like pace of Alphonso Davies at left-back.
Bayern are constantly open on the break and the midfield hasn’t adjusted to provide the backline with enough attention. When you take risks in the build-up to get as many players forward as possible, you can’t keep losing the ball in front of your defenders.
Teams have clocked onto it and they’re happy to play chicken with the Bayern midfielders as they push up, knowing a turnover could leave them 1-v-1 against the Bayern defence at worst. And those turnovers, whether they’ve been down to loose touches or lost challenges, have been happening more frequently. This is needless high risk/high reward pass for Niklas Süle to attempt:
He gets it slightly wrong and Bayern have a horrible counter to defend.
The same is true of a loose touch in tight spaces in midfield, when so many players are ahead of the ball.
And Bayern won the game above. That was the 3-2 win over RB Leipzig, the final game before the 10 February cut-off in those stats I shared earlier and the game with the highest xG have conceded all season.
They got away with it, or shot their way out of it, in that one. They haven’t managed to do that so often in the league since and they have continued to lose the ball in incredibly dangerous areas, sparking counter-attacks that carry huge threat.
This high-risk approach is seen in the opposition half, too. Counter-attacks that start there at least start an extra 40 or 50 yards from the Bayern goal but they can still lead to huge chances. A big issue has been the midfield, usually Joshua Kimmich and Jamal Musiala in the absence of Leon Goretzka, just pushing too far upfield and being beaten as they try to counter-press.
The position below is much more conservative.
Eight, Bayern have lost the ball and both players are high upfield, counter-pressing aggressively. That’s fine with just two Leverkusen players out of the shot up against three Bayern defenders.
And it works too, Bayern win the ball … only for Musiala to lose it again on the edge of the area. Instead of protecting the space in front of the defence, Kimmich goes wide, where Benjamin Pavard already is, and Leverkusen are three against two if left-back Mitchel Bakker gets the pass into space right.
It’s become common for both of the midfielders to be dragged either wide or upfield in these situations.
In this scene Thomas Müller is circled, since he’s deeper than Musiala, and Kimmich (circled, left) needlessly presses a loose ball he’s unlikely to win.
Two quick passes and Kimmich has been dragged wide and Müller has barely moved to cover the centre of the pitch, leaving a chasm in front of the Bayern defence for Leverkusen to charge into.
Again, against Hoffenheim, Bayern aren’t in too much trouble as Leroy Sané is about to lose the ball, Kimmich and Musiala are both close enough to support the defence.
But both move so far wide as Hoffenheim come forward. A run into the channel drags Niklas Süle across as well and Benjamin Pavard is left with four Hoffenheim players and an entire side of the pitch to defend. (Image below should say 4, not C!)
The Hoffenheim goal came from a similar situation, with Kimmich losing the ball on the flank and Bayern defending that side of the pitch with six bodies and being exposed by a ‘switch’ of play into the centre.
It looks bad. And it could get worse. Dayot Upamecano has been poor lately — he was subbed at half-time in the 4-2 defeat to Bochum and stray passes in that game and against Bayer Leverkusen almost led to goals — but is now going to be at the heart of everything Bayern do defensively after Dortmund-bound Süle pulled up in training on Thursday.
Thursday got worse still as Benjamin Pavard tested positive for coronavirus. And there are doubts surrounding Robert Lewandowski, who twisted his knee in training on Tuesday and could miss Saturday’s visit of Union Berlin.
So, is there a title race?
Well, Dortmund need to keep winning. They weirdly kept just two clean sheets in the first 22 Bundesliga games of the season and have since kept four in five games. Even more strangely, two of those have come with a makeshift back four of Felix Passlack, Emre Can, Marin Pongračić and Nico Schulz. Dortmund’s last few games have seen them really struggle to create chances but that can partly be explained by the absences of fit-again Erling Haaland, the not-quite-fit-again Marco Reus, and the COVID-positive Raphaël Guerreiro.
The fact they are managing to play more conservatively and grind out results (their last two games have ended 1-0, their only 1-0 wins of the season) bodes well if you think they will keep a similar approach when more talented players return.
Ultimately, just eight games to go puts us squarely in ‘shit happens’ territory. Both teams have pretty friendly fixture lists. It really could come down to the game in Munich (a fixture, it must be said, Dortmund never enjoy) and some dumb luck. If either side loses a key player, or a regular player too many, to injuries and just has one or two bad days, there really isn’t much time to make up for it anymore.
Will Bayern return to dominating games without the leakiness and can Dortmund keep winning? Because, right now, we actually can’t discount a really unlikely title race going to the wire.