FC Bayern may easily run away with the Bundesliga title, but if they want more silverware, they have to fix midfield and defensive vulnerabilities such as the ones on display against Schalke.
At the moment, 4-1-4-1 with a single midfield pivot, plus James Rodríguez and Thomas Müller as central attacking midfielders, seems to be the formation of choice. Peter Hermann stepped in as our legendary coach Jupp Heynckes was at home with the flu, and he kept that lineup intact.
In the last hour before the match, I had a question. Why use this attacking-minded formation against a Schalke side that is more dangerous than, say, Mainz? The first 50 minutes unfortunately confirmed my fears with a soft midfield.
It started in the first minute! Joshua Kimmich too a risk when he went forward (highlighted). He could not win the one-on-one battle, leaving an opening behind him. The Royal Blues surged with Leon Goretzka and Daniel Caligiuri exchanging passes. This created a chance, but Sven Ulreich reliably saved the shot.
Schalke’s pressing game
Dominico Tedesco, who coaches Saturday’s visitors, used an aggressive pressing strategy to put that midfield and defence under pressure. It worked for long spells.
Near 4:50, the way Schalke went forward not only forced Jérôme Boateng to make a long aerial pass to get rid of that pressure. It also contributed to a giant hole between midfield in the attack, making it hard to link everyone up.
Around 9:28, that pressing game caused a turnover. Ribéry had four guys around him and very little help. He lost the ball and Arturo Vidal (on the right) had to come forward and make a rough tackle to stop the surge.
Those match dynamics and giveaways gave us lots of back and forth between the two teams. That is perfectly entertaining, of course, but coaches and paranoid fans such as me will cringe.
Schalke were able to keep up the pressure until around the 60th minute. Bayern had no clear solution even early in the second half. That led to further giveaways such as the one Mats Hummels has to make here. Either he clears the ball while losing his footing or watches Franco Di Santo take it forward. Goretzka is on the receiving end to start a new drive.
James supports Vidal
Going back in time, thanks to the Bayern Central Time Machine, we see that James Rodríguez does his part to try and stabilise that midfield. At 21:44, Schalke’s pressure is too much for Vidal and Jérôme Boateng to handle. James comes back and helps Boa to get the ball out of Bayern’s first third.
Say hi to Christoph Metzelder.
The Colombian keeps doing this, almost acting as a central midfield second pivot alongside Vidal. Almost because he is not a natural. More players have to track back as Schalke holds a high line of defence, with an attacking mindset.
Unfortunately, Vidal’s instincts tend to bring him further up the pitch than he can afford in a 4-1-4-1. Case in point? See below. He joins the attack, the ball gets turned around and Schalke surge. The defence is disorganised and it concedes the Di Santo goal.
What I saw past the 50-minute mark was far more encouraging. With a 2:1 lead, FC Bayern put on an increasingly mature display. More players tracked back to contain Schalke’s attack, with a decisive contribution from offensive midfielders.
At 53:19, you have Thomas Müller chasing his man, who has to make a bad pass. Vidal recuperates the ball.
In the 81st minute, Hermann subbed James out and Javi in. For the first time in the match, the central midfield has a defensive-minded guy. Arjen Robben, Thomas Müller and Kingsley Coman were also at work to play a game of containment.
The defensive shift in the second half made the game “boring” to some, but I am happy to dismiss their criticism. My favourite sports cliché is that “defence wins championships”. It does not apply equally to every sport. More often than not, a better balance between offence and defence is the holy grail.
On the other hand, I believe that “defence wins championships” does apply in football. You can easily get beaten or blown out of the park in the Champions League if your defence is not solid, independently of the strength of your offence. I could easily bring up a few painful Bavarian experiences from the past to support the argument.
With the Bundesliga in FC Bayern’s back pocket, the team will set its sights on Champions League glory. To win that title, it will need a better defence.