Bayern ended the first half of 2017-18 in a position that would have been ludicrous to think about in September. Jupp Heynckes’ return to the club brought back five things that were missing from the team.
When Pep Guardiola left Bayern, there were more than a few opinions about it. Some people bemoaned the departure of a tactical genius. Many of us thought that Pep hadn’t quite achieved what he wanted for the club, and believed he could have stayed longer. Some others welcomed the change, arguing that the price for Guardiola’s game was too steep in terms of injuries and the identity of the club.
The club chose Carlo Ancelotti to succeed Guardiola. This presented a drastic change for the team and the players. While Guardiola is known to obsess over most every tactical detail, Ancelotti prefers a relaxed approach. Guardiola is a football romantic that loves to experiment with different positional schemes and switches players around. Ancelotti likes sticking to tried-and-tested methods. Perhaps more crucially for Bayern, Guardiola builds for the future and gives young players chances. The Italian relies mostly on veteran players with an established reputation.
Neither of these philosophies is inherently wrong. But to go from one to the other in the span of a single summer is a shock for players. Indeed, Bayern’s players mostly enjoyed working with Guardiola. Many of them saw their game improve exponentially under the Catalan. There were issues, like a couple of deep injury crises. However, the underpinnings that Guardiola built were important and yielded many benefits. Ancelotti seemed a bit too lax in comparison.
The end of last season left a bittersweet taste in our collective mouth. Bayern won the Bundesliga, but in less spectacular fashion than in previous years. Exits from the DFB-Pokal and the Champions League deprived Bayern of further silverware. Worse still, the fans were asking questions about the team’s game. Bayern looked tired, lacklustre and far beneath the levels achieved under Herr Pep. However, the club dismissed this and gave Ancelotti a vow of confidence.
We know what happened then.
The return of Jupp
After the September debacle in Paris, Bayern was in turmoil. Willy Sagnol stepped in for a single match that also ended without a victory. When the club announced the return of Heynckes, we might as well have heard about the second coming. The old man came back to restore order in die Roten‘s dressing room. His no-bollocks tactics and attitude presented themselves as the antidote to reverse the downward spiral.
Back then, our editor-in-chief said that we could only really ask that Heynckes right the ship. Namely, that meant “[making] the team contend for the Bundesliga and retain a Champions League spot”. Anything else would be a juicy bonus. If you think about it rationally today, that should still be the bar by which Jupp is judged. However, the change has been so drastic in the three-odd months since Jupp IV started, the juicy bonuses might not be so far-fetched.
Five key changes explain this.
This comes first and foremost. We heard much complaining about Ancelotti’s disinterest in tactics. The Italian tried to make a 4-3-3 work for most of his tenure, to no avail. Jupp came in and (mostly) got rid of it. Straight on, he reverted to his beloved 4-2-3-1. Javi Martínez went back to the central midfield position that made him great, and away from the central defence. James Rodríguez has built an interesting relationship with Thomas Müller. They take turns to flood the right or the space behind the striker and wreak havoc in defensive schemes from the opposition.
Jupp’s tactics brought versatility as well. Bayern have played with a 4-3-3 and 4-1-4-1 since Osram returned, displaying a wide array of tactical weapons. This sort of versatility and flexibility is what brought PSG and Borussia Dortmund down. Indeed, adaptability remains a hallmark of a good team, and Bayern looks more than capable of employing it.
But most of all, Jupp’s tactical solidity comes in stark contrast to what looked like a lack of ideas from Ancelotti. Four years in retirement only widened his head for schemes and shapes.
A few players struggled to perform under Carlo Ancelotti’s one-year-plus tenure. Thomas Müller and Sven Ulreich, for instance, had less-than-satisfying seasons in 2016-17.
Both of these players saw a welcome resurgence in form. Ulreich rose to the job of filling in for Manuel Neuer, attaining solid performances and adding security to an already sturdy defence. Müller returned to his oddball style of play. He is once again finding space where there isn’t any, to assist and create chances for teammates. His goalscoring prowess also seems to be back on the rise.
As I mentioned before, Javi Martínez’s return to the midfield is synonymous to Bayern enjoying the best of him again. His performances as central defender were not bad, but there were noticeable drawbacks to playing him there. Indeed, he looks as if he never lost a step in the middle.
Under Guardiola, die Roten played an intense game. There was a ton of movement off the ball, and pressure on opposing teams was extremely high. Ancelotti retained some of these elements, but eased on the physical front. Bayern could still comfortably hold the opposition in the attacking third, but were more vulnerable to counterpressure. You could attribute this to a multitude of factors, ranging from tactical choices to the reported lack of intensity in training. Whatever caused it, the result was that Bayern could be easily and consistently overrun in the physical front.
Jupp partly took care of this with the tactical tweaks I mentioned before. However, simply mucking about with a team’s formation doesn’t rectify the problem on its own. The players must also have the stamina to deploy the tactics solidly and consistently throughout most of the ninety minutes of a game, if not its entirety. Heynckes’ policy in this respect is simply to demand more of players in training. Arturo Vidal embodied the application and yield of the solution. The Chilean looked woefully distant from his energetic, steadfast self. The manager acknowledged as much in press conferences, publicly laying a burden on the player to get back on track. A couple of months later, Vidal has risen above the dip in form, regaining his status as a box-to-box juggernaut.
I wrote a piece discussing the possibility that certain players made Ancelotti’s bed for him back in October. A rotten relationship with the manager will almost invariably lead to an attitude problem in a football club. The question lies on the extent of it, rather than its existence.
Bayern’s plight was a two-pronged one. Against smaller teams, the team often gave the impression that they thought they would win games on the sole basis of being Bayern. Rather paradoxically, the predicament was completely reversed when the opposite number was of a better calibre. We saw the epitome of this in Paris. Die Roten looked like they thought that being inferior to PSG was a foregone conclusion.
As before, Jupp offered a simple solution to a complex problem. Hard work and no concessions. Heynckes guarantees no player a starting place. He doses praise and almost always includes a caveat. There is no such thing as perfection, but Bayern now strives for it regardless. Both Jupp and the players leave room for reflection and criticism. The badge is no longer the warrantor of victory.
One crucial difference between the games against PSG lay in how Bayern took their chances. In Paris, they squandered every last one. In München, they were implacable and ruthless. We know that not every game will be a rout. A team earns some of the most important results through one-goal margins and workmanlike displays. If you couple a solid defence with an efficient attack, you will attain such results. It’s as simple as that.
The road ahead
Saying that Bayern are on track to repeat the coup of 2012-13 is steering clear from the truth. There is much room for improvement in pretty much every area of play. However, there is one key difference: you can point to this as part of the normal flow of form of a season. The team is no longer plagued by fundamental issues that hinder its chances to improve and get to the end of the season in the form required to contend for titles.
That alone means that Jupp Heynckes has indeed achieved the goal he was brought for. May it continue in the second half the season. More importantly, I hope that whoever is handed the wheel in the summer is already taking note of what is being done.