As a longtime Borussia Dortmund fan, (since the days of Karl Heinz Riedle, Andy Möller and Stefan Reuter) I was eagerly anticipating Sunday’s match against Bayern Munich. After a dismal season last year, which resulted in beloved coach Jürgen Klopp’s departure, the new look BVB started the season on fire under former Mainz guru, Thomas Tuchel. If you were looking for the signs, well you would not have had to look any further than these tidbits. They won their first 5 matches and, although key players, such as the preternatural Marco Reus have yet to find their forms, Borussia appeared to be clicking. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the former AC Milan academy product, who struggled to get playing time and goals for years, until a couple of mildly successful seasons at French side Saint Etienne, started his third season with BVB scoring a goal in every game with 7 goals in 7 games and establishing a Bundesliga record in the process. The Mats Hummels (another one, who has been at the top of the wishlists of all EPL and La Liga clubs) anchored defense looked solid, and the midfield featured the duo of the rejuvenated Shinji Kagawa and transfer gossip darling Ilkay Gundogan pulling the strings masterfully. In addition, the mercurial „Armenian Kaka” Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who was rumored to leave the team last year, has regained his devastating form. So what could go wrong?
Well, Sunday’s „Der Klassiker” (which is a terribly forced name, trying to play upon the Spanish league’s “El Clasico” between Real Madrid and Barcelona) was nothing sort of a bloodbath, with Bayern emerging victorious 5 goals to 1. Before moving on to an analysis of Bayern’s dominance, let’s take a closer look at what happened in the match on Sunday.
The game began with a cynical foul by the otherwise brilliant David Alaba, as he took down the streaking Aubameyang for a very very fortunate yellow card just 4 minutes in. In an otherwise relatively sloppy 25 minute, the most notable chance fell to the lightning fast Douglas Costa, who after leaving Sokratis for dead, fired a shot from a bad angle that Bürki saved comfortably. Two minutes later, center back Jerome Boateng played an exquisite long ball some 65 yards that dropped behind CB Mats Hummels and right in front of the sprinting Thomas Müller (it helped, that left back, Lukasz Piszczek was for some unknown reason keeping him onside by 5 yards). The Borussia goalkeeper Bürki had to gamble and come out of his box in a desperate attempt to prevent Müller, who poked it past him with his toe and then fired into the empty net for 1-0.
10 minutes later, it was a textbook counter by FCB started from the edge of his own penalty area by the always excellent Philipp Lahm: He found Müller who galloped down the right side, before returning it to Lahm in the middle, who noticed Thiago making a delayed run on the left into the box, where he was brought down by Mkhitaryan as he cut the ball back. Müller’s PK made it 2-0.
Dortmund pulled one back just 2 minutes later, as Gündogan’s pass opened up the defense behind a poorly positioned Xabi Alonso. After a wide ball by Mkhitaryan, Gonzalo Castro played a delightful ball to the far post, where Aubameyang had beaten Javi Martinez (who fell asleep for a split second) for an easy tap in. 2-1. Dortmund, despite giving the ball away far too cheaply numerous times were in a decent position, to make something of the game in the 2nd half, one could hope.
Well, hope is, as they say, a fickle thing. The second half began with a goal, near identical to the 1st goal of the game. This time it was Alaba who played the long ball over the top, (current) best striker in the world (among mortals, i.e. players not named Cristiano or Leo), Robert Lewandowski beat Bender and Hummels in a foot race – while Bürki, perhaps understably afraid to come out of his goal, allowed Lewa to take a wonderful first touch 11 yards out- before pushing the ball under the onrushing keeper and into the net for 3-1.
Just a few minutes later, the Bayern center forward got another ball behind the defense, pulling Bürki out of his goal again, before playing it back to Müller, who put the ball on a silver platter to Götze, who then produced the miss of the season from 5 yards out. On 58 minutes, Bayern continued to pour it on with another sublime 4 touch counter attack. Lahm (1) started it on the right hand side, finding Müller in a lot of space, who quickly sent (2) Götze running down the flank. Recognizing, that Lewa has beaten his defender on the far side, the World Cup Final hero (Götze) played a beautiful one touch ball some 35 yards across the field, past the scrambling Bender (3) and into the path of the Polish striker, who calmly finished it off for the 4th touch of the attack, making it 4-1. A masterclass of a goal, that effectively meant game over.
After a chance for Douglas Costa that was denied by the Dortmund goalie, Mkhitaryan had a golden chance to make it 4-2, but scuffed his volley. At the 66 minute mark, after Götze cut in from the left side unguarded, Mkhitaryan sheepishly avoided challenging Thiago, who won a 50-50 ball against the struggly Piszczek, and Götze was there to make it 5-1 through a sea of BVB legs. Mkhitaryan tried to make up for it with an excellent move after a quick counter by Reus, but Neuer made a brilliant save to keep the score at 5-1. The score would not change and Bayern have outclassed BVB in the battle of the German giants.
The fallout from “der Klassiker” has been significant, with Bayern taking a 7 point lead after just 8 games on BVB, leading many fans and team CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke to conceding the Bundesliga title to FCB in OCTOBER (!!!). In other news, Roman Bürki, the former Freiburg goalkeeper signed over the summer, has earned a new nickname of Jumping Jack („der Hampelmann” ) after Sunday’s performance. OUCH!
A Seven Nation Army – Bayern’s dominance
Goals per game3.5
Shots per game19.1
Tackles per game14.9
Dribbles per game15.4
Those are just a few of the eye popping numbers for Bayern this year. (courtesy of www.whoscored.com).
- 8 wins out of 8 Bundesliga matches, 28 goals scored, 4 conceded for a goal difference of +24.
- A stunning 23 goals came from open play, with 4 penalties and the lone goal from a set piece. Boring, Chelsea, this is not.
- 2 wins out of 2 matches in the UEFA Champions League by a combined 8-0 margin.
- 650 short passes with a 90% effectiveness
- 19 shots per game!
Those numbers, while painting a pretty picture do not tell the whole story, so let’s break them down, in seven steps, discussing 7 key contributors for FCB this year.
General Pep Guardiola (Catalonia) is the controversial former Barcelona manager, who depending on who you ask, is either, the greatest manager in the game, or a luckbox, who happened to coach generational talents, like Messi and Iniesta, or Lahm and Lewandowski. The famous mastermind of the tiki-taka, has taken his fair share of (unfair) criticism after switching to Bayern from Barca in 2013. On a sidenote, the word tiki-taka has rather unfairly become an insult in world soccer, seemingly referring to a game, in which a dominant team simply gets unlucky and fails to score. (see most Barcelona games prior to Neymar and Suarez arriving)
Despite comfortably winning the Bundesliga in both of this first two seasons, and putting 6 and 7 goals past teams like Roma, FC Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk, many fans and critics blamed him for losing twice to Real Madrid in the UCL semifinals, 1-0 and 4-0 respectively, as well as crashing out of the German Cup, before succumbing to a historically great Barcelona side in the UCL final of 2014/15. He has had his fair share of run-ins with players (jettisoning Mario Mandzukic, for not fitting his style, and famously flipping out at new signing Arturo Vidal’s positioning in a preseason game) and coaches – refusing to shake the hands of MLS All-Star team coach Caleb Porter, after some rough tackling in the 2014 MLS All-Star game.
Pep has always been famous for discovering and nurturing young players at FC Barcelona, where he started as the B team’s coach and brought (to everyone’s surprise) the likes of Sergio Busquets to the first team. In true form, Guardiola continued this tradition at Bayern, giving youngsters like 17 year old Gianluca Gaudino a start in the Cup final, or playing inexperienced players like Sebastian Rode over World Cup winner and former Real Madrid and Liverpool star Xabi Alonso last year.
Going into the 2015/2016 season, there were several major questions raised for Pep. Will he stay at Bayern, or would he accept a job at Manchester City? Would he be able to shed the „Messi made me great” moniker? Sure, the Bundesliga is a piece of cake, but could he win the UCL? What’s going to happen with the often injured, maybe past their primes duo of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery?
Well, some of the answers to those questions have been answered in a rather demonstrative way by Bayern’s exquisite start as evidenced by the aforementioned numbers. The coach has so far avoided any controversy, but has managed to completely reinvent Bayern’s style.
In the past 2 seasons, Bayern has tried to play a hybrid version of Barcelona’s possession soccer, with two excellent wingers in Robben and Ribery alongside a quality center forward in Lewandowski and the always pesky Thomas Müller. If one believes the argument of his critics, it is something like this: Pep tried and learned the hard way, that Phillip Lahm („the most intelligent player I have ever met- according to Guardiola) is not Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso is not Sergio Busquets, and noone is Leo Messi. Injuries to super LB David Alaba, midfield dynamo Thiago, wingers Robben and Ribery (especially down the stretch last year) and a shaky back four (hello, Dante) and his stubborn refusal to compromise in key situations (like the semifinal against Real Madrid) could also be blamed for ultimately coming up short. One can imagine the angst and disappointment he felt for not being able to solve this riddle. So Bayern decided to bring in some new players at the request of Guardiola: most notably Shakhtar and Brazil winger Douglas Costa for 30 million Euros and box to box midfielder extraordinaire Arturo Vidal for 37 million Euros. In a seemingly insignificant move, the team also took 19 year old French winger Kingsley Coman from Juventus on loan on August 30th of 2015. To everyone’s surprise 20 year old Joshua Kimmich, who was playing for RB Leipzig in the 3rd division 18 months ago (!!!) was brought in in January for 7 million. Needless to say, that by September he was starting in place of Xabi Alonso in the Champions League win against Dinamo Zagreb and put on a magnificent display. Just for fun, he currently has a 94.4% passing accuracy. Typical Guardiola.
Previously, I had stated that Guardiola has reinvented Bayern’s style, now let’s look at Pep’s Seven Nation Army since„everyone knows about it, from the Queen of England to the hounds of hell”.
- Douglas Costa – Brazil – LW, 25 years old – has 5 assists in the Bundesliga, although some sites have credited him with 11 assists in 11 games this year. Having toiled in relative obscurity in Ukraine for 5 years, the 25 year old has taken the Bundesliga and Europe by storm. Due to his sublime technique and a combination of speed and power, Costa has been unplayable on the left wing, delivering crosses at an alarming rate, while also completing over 3 dribbles per game. His array of stepovers and inside out cuts, remind me of early Cristiano Ronaldo, when Sir Alex still believed him to be a winger with the caveat, that Costa is looking to cross the ball to two of his favorite targets, Thomas Müller and Robert Lewandowski.
- Thiago Alcantara – Spain 24 years old– CM. The former Barcelona academy product, already has 3 assists in 2 UCL games this year, and he averages 98.5 passes per game. Son of WC 1994 winner Mazinho, Thiago is finally coming into his own at age 24 this season, after some frustrating years in Barcelona, where he couldn’t get playing time behind the trio of Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta (well, to be fair, noone should) followed by a long injury spell in his first season. He is the lynchpin that holds together Bayern, putting in an impressive amount of defensive work, while playing a number of key passes. (the 5th goal against BVB is an excellent example). He is also a better option than the cumbersome Xabi Alonso, as he is able to play short and long, and has the stamina to make devastating forward runs on and off the ball. One can only hope, that he stays healthy. Perhaps, now that his brother Rafinha (of FC Barcelona) is out for the year, the injury gods have decided that this really might be his lucky year.
- Thomas Müller 26 years old– Germany – F –has 10 goals this year, and is up to his usual „tricks” of running incredibly hard into space, looking very awkward and playing genius football. He can score and generate all kinds of goals as evidenced by his play on the weekend against Dortmund, where he started 2 attacks, leading to goals, as well as finishing a breakaway and a PK for good measure. For more, on the criminally underrated Müller, this article is recommended.
- Robert Lewandowski 27, years old– Poland – CF – 12 goals 5.1 shots per game. At this point, everyone is familiar with Lewa, who most notably scored 5 goals in 10 minutes against Wolfsburg, who promptly smashed their controllers against the wall and stormed out of the room in disgust. Oh, wait that was a real game?!. The Polish striker, who was almost signed by the mighty Blackburn Rovers were it not for the Icelandic volcano ash, has always been a deadly finisher just ask Pepe and Real Madrid. The big difference this year is that in Guardiola’s new system he is the centerpiece of the attack, as he can get on the end of every cross coming from Costa and Coman, or Müller. And we all know, what happens when he gets on the end of those.
- David Alaba 23 years old– Austria – LB – doesn’t have any stats that will blow you away, but his size, speed and technical ability make him the ideal left back of the day. He can do a little bit of everything, attack, defend, shoot and does it at a blistering space. If you don’t think the LB position is important, then just take a look at the mess that Louis Van Gaal (get better, Luke Shaw), Luis Enrique (forced to play the overmatched Mathieu, due to Jordi Alba’s injury) and Rafa Benitez (the next time Marcelo contributes to defense will be his first). It’s not a coincidence, Bayern crashed out of the German Cup on April 28th and lost the UCL final (June 6th) after, the injury to Alaba last April.
- Arturo Vidal 28 years old– Chile – CM -. For years, the Chilean midfielder has been heralded as the best box to box player in the game, so many saw his signing for Bayern as a huge coup. After his Copa America victory, Vidal has taken a tad longer to fit into Guardiola’s system, but has been a workhorse in the Bundesliga with a 91% passing accuracy and 1 goal so far in 6 matches. With the return of a healthy Javi Martinez, the emergence of young Joshua Kimmich, Thiago’s development and the craftiness of Xabi Alonso, two things are clear: Pep definitely has a ton of options in the center of midfield, and Vidal has his work cut out for him.
- Kingsley Coman 19 years old– France – RM – 7 million from Juventus. Admittedly, very few of us have heard of former Juve winger Coman, who turned 19 in June and his signing raised a few eyebrows. So far, in 4 games he has 3 assists in the Bundesliga and UCL combined and his speed and dribbling ability is causing all kinds of problems for opponents. While, it’s unlikely that he will feature regularly for Bayern once Robben and Ribery come back (or even without those 2) he is both a luxury for and a credit to Guardiola.
If you’re scoring at home, these 7 players are 24.5 years old on average, which means that most of them will likely get better. Yikes!
In the end, perhaps, it is a bit of a combination of injury health (Thiago, Alaba, Javi Martinez) “luck” (Robben, Ribery), and coaching, but it appears that Guardiola and Bayern have stumbled upon a new identity. In this style, unlike in previous years, where Robben and Ribery would dribble inside from the wing and more often than not try to shoot, the attack flows inside out, to the wing, where Kingsley Coman (or Götze/Müller) and Douglas Costa are always looking for Lewandowski and Müller in the box. And they would be wise to do so in the future.
Of course, just one day after the thrashing of Dortmund, news broke that Bayern Munich’s honorary President Kaiser Franz Beckenbauer has urged Guardiola to decide quickly on his future. Maybe, instead of Seven Nation Army the following song „Demons” by Imagine Dragons would be more accurate for Guardiola, particularly this part:
“When you feel my heat
Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide
Don’t get too close
It’s dark inside
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide”