By Peter Vice @ViceytheSS
Wins for Bayern and Dortmund leave the two prime contenders for the Meisterschale tied on 49 points atop the table. Down at the bottom, Schalke, Bochum, Hoffenheim, and Stuttgart are all equal on 19 points apiece.
Our weekly comprehensive recap feature here on Bulinews is here to break all nine fixtures down again for our readers as usual. This week’s installment contains draw-ups for Leipzig, Schalke, Freiburg, and Köln.
The ultra-detailed “tactical focus” section lends insight into the Bayern’s latest form ahead of the Champions’ League showdown on Wednesday with analysis of the FCB’s 2-1 win over Stuttgart.
|Thomas Müller.||Photo: Steffen Prößdorf, CC BY-SA 4.0|
Bundesliga Tactical Banter: Round 23
The Bremen Backslide
A very intense game at the WWK-Arena saw what appears to be a pair of “stable in mid-table” sides solidify their status as teams headed for a bunch of meaningless dead-rubbers. Augsburg’s form in the new calendar year maintains the win-loss pattern. Enrico Maaßen’s Fuggerstädter have now won four and lost four in their eight 2023 league fixtures. No such thing as a streak for the FCA. The Bavarian Swabians have lost, won, lost, won, lost, won, lost, and won. No figuring this team out. Maaßen just keeps them traveling forward on a bumpy road.
Some sympathy for Bremen is in oder here. Ole Werner’s Hanseaten followed up last week’s supreme performance with another class act worthy of a win. The attacking front-four of Jens Stage, Niklas Schmidt, Marvin Ducksch, and Niclas Füllkrug all looked strong once again. Wingbacks Leonardo Bittencourt and Anthony attained solid penetration up the flanks and sent in their fair share of useful crosses. Truthfully, the only SV actor to regress was Christian Groß. The regular sweeper had to move to the back-three to deputize for the ill Milos Veljkovic and made too many mistakes.
Bremen’s young captain Marco Friedl aptly summed it up when he declared that the northerners essentially defeated themselves. The city-caters murdered Augsburg xG wise by well over a 2:1 ratio. The two FCA goals came courtesy of defensive lapses at the beginning of each half. Schmidt and Ducksch spurned gilt-edged chances. Augsburg keeper Rafal Gikiewicz was hot when he needed to be. Maaßen also shored up his wobbly defensive ranks early by taking off the again error prone Renato Veiga and replacing him with Maximilian Bauer.
The latter did just enough to keep the SV out of the back of the net with his defending of crosses late on. Everything coalesced for the southern hosts. Pivotal plays, clinical finishing, and a healthy dose of luck. So it came to pass that Bremen’s hopes for a sensational run at Europe ended with a whimper. Maintaining the class in their first season back in the top flight is, naturally, no small feat. Something about the way in which this season has unfolded nevertheless leaves one thinking that a greater opportunity was lost.
The Hertha Backdraft
It’s back down to earth for Sandro Schwarz’s “alte Dame” after what was a fairly fluky win against Augsburg last week. It honestly wasn’t difficult to predict that one of the fastest teams in the league up the flanks, Leverkusen, would make mincemeat out of Hertha’s back-three. A Bayer 3-4-3 staked heavily with Jeremie Frimpong and Moussa Diaby on the right ensured that lumbering left-sided wingback Marvin Plattenhardt and left-center CB Marc Oliver Kempf had a very bad day indeed. Essentially a slaughter in the Sunday early kickoff.
Every actor in Schwarz’s back-three (Filip Uremovic and Agustin Rogel started alongside Kempf) got their turn to exhibit nightmarishly poor marking. As hard as it may be to believe, it could have been much, much worse. Surging Leverkusen striker Sardar Azmoun could have a brace inside of 20 minutes were it not for an incredible save from BSC keeper Oliver Christensen. Diaby could have completed a brace were it not for the crossbar. Frimpong did complete a scorer-point brace despite only playing for 30 minutes.
Ugh. No real scoring threat from the capital city Charlottenburg side all evening after an early missed chance from Marco Richter. The goal – from newly reinserted starter Dodi Lukebakio – came from the penalty spot. That accounted for 0.75 of Hertha’s 0.93 recorded xG. The attack, naturally, happens to be the least of Schwarz’s worries right now. Somehow he has to figure out how to slap some pants on this porous defense. The West Berliners lie just one point above the relegation pack and the goal differential situation is reaching code red.
An Entertaining Capper
We all sort of knew that we were in for a weird one at the Volkswagen Arena in Sunday’s late kickoff when, shortly after kickoff, it became apparent that the VW-ground-crew didn’t set one of the goals properly. Typical Wolfsburg. Someone forgot to take the measurements. In a hilarious scene, Frankfurt keeper Kevin Trapp had compensate for the mistake by doing pull ups on the crossbar until the the post sank back down into the post-hole. It would have been fitting enough to dock the hosts off a tally for that miscue.
Proceedings got stranger still with a cracker of a first half during which all four goals in the 2-2 draw were scored. The Lower Saxon “Autostädter” took the early lead 10 minutes in when Omar Marmoush rounded a potentially mentally distracted Trapp. Eintracht then took the lead back with two tallies in a span of four minutes. Both the 22nd-minute 1-1 (Randal Kolo Muani) and the 26th-minute 2-1 (Evan N’dicka) featured brilliant finishes, not to mention brilliant crosses from suppliers Aurelio Buta and Sebastian Rode.
Wolfsburg fought back exceedingly hard in search of an equalizer, finally getting it in the form of a Yannick Gerhardt finish of a Patrick Wimmer free-kick in the 43rd. Gerhardt, who supplied the assist on the first-goal, was definitely the man-of-the-match. The affair went to sleep for a while in the second half before the 28-year-old shook it awake again with some stinging efforts after the hour mark. That’s really all one can say about this one. A point doesn’t do either team much good in the fading quest for Europe.
At least one can label it “weird, wild, and fun”.
The “Spiegel Specials”: Round 23
Dortmund-Leipzig (0:3, 2:1)
An immensely significant result in the Bundesliga’s blockbuster “Friday Night Special”. Back in the Hin-Runde, we were discussing a “Dortmund Debacle” in the round six “tactical focus” section. As if the title of that column’s feature doesn’t serve to underscore just how much things have changed, the writer pinned most of the blame for the 0-3 humiliation Dortmund incurred against former head-coach Marco Rose on ineffective play from German international Julian Brandt, particularly on set-pieces. Ahem. So much for the long-term implications of that observation.
There remains quite a bit to like about the latest BVB display after Edin Terzic’s men delivered their tenth consecutive competitive victory. Despite the fact that RB attacking flurries at the beginning, middle, and end enabled the Saxons to win the xG battle (Leipzig 2.4 to Dortmund’s 1.43), a win for the home side felt fully deserved. While Dortmund (as conceded by captain Marco Reus) had trouble maintaining possession consistently, so much spoke for the Westphalian hosts in the round’s “curtain raiser”.
The “Terzic Engine”
Operating comfortably in the head-coach’s 4-1-4-1 in use since play resumed after the winter break, Jude Bellingham and Salih Özcan worked as the rotating eights this time. Reus moved out to the left-wing opposite Julian Brandt in place of Jamie Bynoe-Gittens. Central defenders Nico Schlotterbeck and Niklas Süle kept the back-ranks compact and made several scoreline-preserving interventions, particularly in the late going. Fullbacks Julian Ryerson and Marius Wolf ensured that the hosts regularly generated chances over the wings.
Though it is true that the 20th-minute awarded penalty that enabled die Schwarzgelben to take the lead was a bit soft (RB keeper Janis Blaswich’s contact on Reus came after the BVB skipper lost his balance) and that Blaswich didn’t cut a fine figure tracking the deflected Emré Can shot on the 2-0 in the 39th, Leipzig’s play in the first half rendered the half-time lead an appropriate set of circumstances. Terzic’s constellation worked their opponents well at virtually every position. The German Red Bulls couldn’t sustain their press off the ball and couldn’t complete builds on it.
Before getting to the specifics of Leipzig’s play, one has to credit the flexible Can for another great game dropping back to help the BVB center-backs both in breaking up play and getting the attack started. The importance of Can’s current role in the system cannot be understated. The former German national team starter won almost all of his direct duels and completed easily better than 90 percent of his passes. There’s also the matter of – having to do without first-choice-keeper Gregor Kobel on short notice – Alexander Meyer stepped into the breach to make several monster saves.
Meyer and Can frequently came to the rescue against this:
Lineup—RB Leipzig—Match 23 (4-2-2-2)
Rose tried to get the old high-octane 4-2-2-2 rolling again, without much success one might add. The early stages of the latest encounter almost served as the complete antithesis of what we saw from the venomous and voracious RB press last week. So many components of this constellation malfunctioned. In each specific case, the breakdowns can be attributed to Rose’s coaching decisions. We’ll examine each in turn.
Nkunku’s lack of acuity
In what was the French star’s first start since returning from his November ACL tear, the 25-year-old displayed signs of rust and hesitancy. The striker’s timing proved off on almost every touch. He arrived late to both promising offensive spaces and direct duels. There were far too many turnovers and stray passes. Nkunku was the first of five Leipzig players to get booked on the day. A general sense of sloppiness filtered through the team.
Nkunku’s return being something of a landmark event for Leipzig and the league in general meant that his return was rushed. The inherent risk that comes with a hasty comeback manifested itself here. Nkunku ended up re-injuring himself. In commenting on the situation, Rose openly admitted that he brought his leading goalscorer back too soon; a decision that will surely haunt the RB gaffer in the coming weeks.
Neither Emil Forsberg nor Dominik Szoboszlai turned in a particularly good match. The two wide players struggled with their positioning off the ball. A a result, the RB counter-game truly suffered. The Saxons couldn’t establish the transition game throughout the opening 45. Perhaps only two worthwhile counters were executed just prior to Dortmund’s second goal. Running through the confused Forsberg, they quickly fizzled out.
A return to the 4-2-2-2 simply doesn’t work for this team. It could conceivably succeed against different opposition, but Szoboszlai and Forsberg didn’t begin with the requisite space to adequately contest the movements of BVB fullbacks Julian Ryerson and Marius Wolf. Forsberg notably had great difficulty working against the latter. Wolf executed well over 15 successful sprints past the Swede. It was often an ugly scene.
The German national team defender – in a close battle with his Nationalmannschaft colleague David Raum for a place in the starting XI – had a defensively shaky match just behind Forsberg. Halstenberg committed three fouls in the first half and was also among the five RB actors booked. The 31-year-old also missed his team’s best chance to equalize in the 35th. Rose should have probably yanked him at the half.
When Raum finally did come on in the 61st, Leipzig’s game improved dramatically The strong finish that enabled Rose’s men to pump up the xG stats and win the possession battle commenced. Raum proved instrumental in orchestrating the RB pull-back goal in the 74th. Forsberg, with some useful support behind him, was a completely changed player. Rose’s “difficult to accept” outcome had much to do with the choice to start Halstenberg.
Prognosis: A two-horse race?
The season is by no means over for the German Red Bulls. Much can happen in 11 match days. Being seven points adrift of top-spot still doesn’t bode particularly well at this stage of the campaign. The Saxons encounter an exceedingly soft schedule over the next two months, but will still need the top two title contenders to drop points if they hope to catch up in the race for the Meisterschale. Title hopes slip away.
The manner in which RB put Dortmund to the sword in the final stages suggests that Rose’s squad can run the table over Gladbach, Bochum, Mainz, Hertha, Augsburg, Leverkusen, and Hoffenheim before we arrive at the end of April. Even in the best case scenario, however, being seven points out entering the final four match days isn’t really good enough.
Looks like we’ve Bayern and Dortmund chasing the dream for now.
Bochum-Schalke (1:3, 0:2)
Yeooouch. This one has got to sting for the VfL faithful. Schalke’s September win over their relegation rivals led to long-time trainer Thomas Reis getting axed. Reis has now returned to the Vonovia Ruhrstadion to help Schalke to the double over their Revier competitors. To add some serious insult to this injury, Reis’ Königsblauen accomplished the unthinkable. Schalke have (insanely) lifted themselves off last place….directly at Bochum’s expense. Yeouch. This one hurts.
Where has it all gone wrong for Bochum? A team that showed such great promise when play resumed a few weeks back has suddenly taken a total nosedive. Five straight losses have followed the zenith of that amazing 5-2 win over Hoffenheim in round 19. Thomas Letsch’s charges have only scored one goal in 450 minutes of football since then, and that one came from the spot in the Pokal. Yikes. A solid team seemingly comfortable in a solid set of tactics has now completely fallen apart.
The topic of Letsch’s overly complicated tactical tinkering remains a complex one; something perhaps better served in a later column. It suffices to say for now that this brutally important relegation six-pointer was the first time the VfL trainer returned his squad to a more rigid 4-2-3-1 since the Hoffenheim victory. Letsch hoped to get ahead of his counterpart, who usually rolls with that precise formation. Instead, it was Reis staying one step ahead of Letsch with something novel.
Lineup—Schalke 04—Match 23 (4-1-4-1)
One could easily label this a 5-4-1 as it did behave as such at times, especially during the first half. The actual football produced – admitted candidly by Reis in his post-match interview – came up short in most areas. Bochum retained clear advantages in possession, the midfield duel rate, and (most importantly in an optical sense) the passing quote. Schalke’s build-up play, generally running through sweeper Eder Balanta, was decidedly ugly.
The Königsblauen received a fluky, flunky, and clunky gift in the form of Manuel Riemann’s slapstick own-goal at the stroke of halftime. No one watching felt as if die Knappen deserved to head into the tunnel with the lead. This allowed the constellation to work in the manner Reis had initially intended, with Balanta helping the already remarkably strong CB duo of Maya Yoshida and Moritz Jenz snap the center shut.
Reis made the first play at a tactical adjustment by introducing left-slanted midfielder (and sometimes defender) Tobias Mohr for Balanta at the hour-mark. The early move heralded a shift over to a constellation that – while still geared toward clogging up the midfield – moved Rodrigo Zalazar central with the aim of placing the Uruguayan in charge of running the counter strikes.
Lineup—Schalke 04—61st minute (3-5-2)
This functioned very well. The nicely laid central axes absorbed the Bochum pressure easily. Zalazar discovered that the counters could effectively run themselves. Many of the S04 sorties forced the hosts into tactical fouls as Zalazar opened up loads of space. The sequence leading to the 2-0 in the 79th began with the later subbed on Simon Terodde (for Frey) forcing Riemann to concede a corner off a nicely headed Cedric Brunner cross.
Bülter scored on the ensuing set-piece.
Prognosis: Danke, Schalke!
Never in the 60-year-history of the Bundesliga has the relegation race been so close at this late stage in the season. Schalke’s win, combined with the losses from Stuttgart and Hoffenheim, leaves four times tied at 19 points on the bottom. Something like this was completely unforeseeable at the beginning of the new calendar year. It’s all thanks to the fact that Schalke are – with four draws and two wins – undefeated in the 2022/23 “Rückrunde”.
How about that? Dortmund are the only other team not to incur a defeat since the league officially passed its halfway point. We even get to watch the two remaining unbeaten teams duke it out next weekend in this year’s second edition of the famed “großes Revierderby”. A Schalke win obviously seems unlikely, but can’t be ruled out with the BVB attack noticeably cooling off ahead of what will be a big test.
Pretty much impossible to forecast which of these four clubs will occupy the three relegation spots when all is said and done. One can nevertheless say that things are looking especially bad for Bochum. The league’s new last placed side must contend with a minus-32 goal differential tie-breaker. This is eight goals off Schalke and twenty tallies away from Stuttgart and Hoffenheim.
To make matters infinitely worse, the VfL Fan-Kurve has completely turned on this team. In addition to unfurling needlessly antagonistic banners pointed at Reis this weekend, the VfL faithful booed their team off the pitch and flipped off the squad when they came to face them after the full-time whistle. Riemann, Letsch, Philipp Förster, and Keven Schlotterbeck have all spoken out against the treatment.
Oh, this is not looking good at all.
Gladbach-Freiburg (0:0, 0:0)
Duh. Is there a law that states that this fixture must be underwhelming? Two 0-0 draws from these two teams from which we should deservedly expect better. They did, in point of fact, give us much more in preceding seasons. Who could forget the four-goal-thriller back in December of 2020 or the six-goal shootout last Spring? Well. The two meetings this year proved absolutely forgettable. Drat.
Freiburg were again totally flat against the BMG. One can’t fall back on the “Europa League” excuse this time either. On second thought, perhaps one can. SCF trainer Christian Streich may have wished to play his cards a little closer to the vest ahead of Thursday’s historic encounter with the mighty Juventus Turin. The Breisgauer tactics were nevertheless inexplicable. Streich didn’t seem to know what cards he wished to play at all.
Lineup—SC Freiburg—Match 23 (3-3-2-2)
Ermmmm….not sure what the hemorrhaging hell this was supposed to be. There might have been a more coherent plan in place had lead-striker Michael Greogritsch not been taken ill. Ritsu Doan – subbed off last week for unspecified reasons possibly related to being sick as well – could have also brought some balance to this schematic. Maybe Streich had a plan that just happened to have a couple of holes torn in it.
What we witnessed genuinely lacked anything resembling balance. Manu Koné, Ramy Bensebaini, and Alassane Plea had a field day with the unprotected right. The Schwarzwaldverein found themselves continually stymied on the overstocked left. Overall play improved considerably after Doan and younger Merlin Röhl replaced Roland Sallai and Maximilian Eggestein in the 78th.
Vincenzo Grifo received an axial partner in the form of Röhl on the right. Doan helped draw additional coverage up top. Lukas Kübler and Kiliann Sildillia then took advantage of the extra space to run some useful underlaps on the half-right. With a very brief man advantage in the final few minutes, the Badeners nearly pulled out a late victory on what wold have been a splendid inaugural Bundesliga goal from Röhl.
Prognosis: Aberrant Tactics
After notable absences (Gregoritsch, Doan, and captain Christian Günter last week) forced Streich into some zany-looking constellations over the past two league rounds, the SCF gaffer should be able to get this team back into the 4-4-2 service-striker-set he wants to use in time for the showdown with the Serie A giants later this week. The recent draws against Leverkusen and Gladbach disrupted his plans. Now it’s back to basics.
As strange as it sounds, one actually fancies the team’s chances against Juve. The 4-4-2 has proven ability. Even if Gregoritsch can’t recover from what is now reported to be a potentially wicked case of strep-throat, Woo-Yeong Jeong or perhaps Sallai again could operate in the short-striker pocket. Doan isn’t a bad choice for the slot either provided he’s healthy.
So long as the failed experiments to involve Eggestein offensively and leave Grifo without a counterpart come to an end, all can rather easily click back into place again. Some winnable fixtures against Hoffenheim and Mainz might even see the Breisgauer make the UEL semis and finish March in the top four. Title-contention may be over for them, but Freiburg can still head into the break on a high.
The “Burning Questions”: Round 23
When will Köln score another goal?
Lord only knows. The statistics remain pretty damning. The latest blanking means that the cathedral city side has failed to score in five of its eight 2023 fixtures. As we were discussing last week, die Geißböcke suffer from serious quality problems up front. Trainer Steffen Baumgart just can’t seem to locate the solutions. None of the previous tactical switch-ups he’s tried before this season are producing anything.
We’ll give Köln a second consecutive draw-up this week in order to straightforwardly compare and contrast two failed systems. Baumgart went with three changes during his “homecoming” trip to East Berlin. Recovered actors Benno Schmitz and Florian Kainz took the place of Kingsley Schindler and Matthias Olesen. The ineffective Davie Selke also made way for Eric Martel.
Lineup—FC Köln—Match 23 (4-2-3-1)
Tsk, tsk, tsk. After last week’s failure, Baumgart went back to his old “deep six” set-up. The problem here – a fairly obvious one as it turns out – concerns the fact that leading performer Ellyes Skhiri gets handcuffed buried on the deep axis. A fact broached last week bears repeating. Skhiri has scored five of Köln’s 11 goals in the current calendar year term. One can’t hope to accomplish much whilst shackling one’s most reliable scoring threat.
Though the Domstädter did generate their fair share of chances in this one (and Timo Hübers’ point about the Union pitch being in deplorable condition has some merit) the team honestly only delivered 15 minutes – between the 60th and 75th – of top-level attacking football. Most of the rest of the play was characterized by broken builds and hopeful long-hits. Creativity on the combos proved virtually non-existent.
Shades of the dark and cold 2021 winter under the Markus Gisdol regime begin to sink in. Back then, the former Effzeh trainer didn’t even have a lead striker. Baumgart, in principle, has two in the form of Selke and Steffen Tigges. Sargis Adamyan can play as the target man, but is better suited to the second axis. That’s it. Where will the goals come from on a team drilled to crack through the flanks and cross in?
Lord only knows.
Why are Mainz so damned good?
Time to gush over FSV trainer Bo Svensson’s keen eye for in-form talent yet again. The Rheinhessen are riding high after achieving their fourth consecutive win; a narrow 1-0 win over Hoffenheim on Saturday afternoon. At first glance, this was merely a rather dull grind-it-out victory over a totally inept team. Though it is true that FSV-TSG had its lull points, the low-scoring affair was actually exciting and entertaining for all of us observers. Furthermore, closer inspection reveals that Svensson made all the right moves.
Unchanged in terms of both tactics and personnel from last week, the team on the field justified Svensson’s faith in them. Danny da Costa – still starting ahead of captain Silvan Widmer – produced an absolute master-class of a performance. The back-three, anchored by veteran Stefan Bell, moved almost perfectly in unison against the Sinsheimer rushes. Bell was a beast on both sides of the ball all afternoon. It was his shot that produced the 1-0 in the 33rd. Leandro Barreiro blasted home the easy rebound.
When the back-line wasn’t called upon to halt Hoffenheim’s progress, it was tenacious midfielder Dominik “hard” Kohr breaking up TSG play for the Pfälzer. It came as a huge surprise to see Svensson take Kohr off at the half in favor of Anton Stach. As the Mainz passing flow settled in, however, one could tell that it was all part of a well-designed plan to get a “conductor” into the match and keep things under control. Widmer and Aymen Barkok were introduced later with specific instructions on how to keep the rhythm on the side of the Palatinate hosts.
A trainer who knows all the specifics about his players.
That’s why Mainz are on the rise.
Weekly Tactical Focus: “It’s Müller time”
League watchers didn’t expect too many surprises in this Saturday evening’s “Top Spiel”. Bayern-Stuttgart? True, there weren’t many takers for a game shaping up to be a total mismatch on paper. The columnist ultimately opted for it partially due to the fact that many of the 15:30s ended up being low-scoring affairs. There was still much to be said for keeping VfB-FCB in reserve. Despite the fact that the final scoreline might yield a predictable result, there existed the potential for many important talking points contained therein.
One does need to lend Bayern as much in-depth examination as possible as we prepare to enter the season’s stretch run. It looks to be the case that this year’s title race will go right down to the wire. Every FCB fixture takes on enormous relevance now. The detailed state of Julian Nagelsmann’s tactics and a close look at the form of all of his players require very close looks from week-to-week. It also didn’t constitute a terrible idea to take the deep dive into Bayern ahead of Wednesday’s massive second-leg UCL fixture against PSG.
Stuttgart furnished us with some surprises in this one. For starters, the state of the pitch at the Mercedes Benz Arena counted as something of an interesting twist. The Württemberg grass is usually notoriously beaten to hell at this time of year. When visiting Stuttgart as Leipzig’s head-coach in the Winter of 2021, Nagelsmann famously quipped that he had planted a bunch of potatoes in it. On a shockingly lush playing surface, Stuttgart managed to shock Bayern early with a disciplined and forceful press. Great start from the Swabians before the inevitable occurred.
Those curious as Bayern’s latest form heading into the PSG showdown should first know that pretty much everyone in red played remarkably well. Matthjis de Ligt saved his team with a vital clearance off the line before scoring the vital 1-0 himself. Leon Goretzka turned in a fabulous box-to-box shift. Alphonso Davies looked spritely and lively in what was an interesting and effective tactical assignment for him. Some mistakes aside, Joshua Kimmich, Jamal Musiala, Dayot Upamecano, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and even Josip Stanisic all appeared on the right level.
The big story of this one remains German football legend (and unrivaled Bavarian goofball) Thomas Müller. Now a firm part of Nagelsmann’s plans after his 3,498th late-career resurgence, the 33-year-old proved himself timeless once again. Despite the fact that he’s noticeably slower these days, Müller demonstrated how he can still swing a match with just a few intelligent touches. It was Müller who closed this one out with the perfect touch. Afterwards, when asked about the milestones and records he keeps racking up, Müller gave the perfect post-match interview.
No need to cite irrelevant xG this week.
We’ll dive straight in.
Lineup—Bayern München—Match 23 (4-2-3-1)
Don’t let the apparent return to the classic Bayern 4-2-3-1 fool you. Nagelsmann has to get some nuance in no matter what. Last week’s 4-2-3-1 morphed into a 3-1-4-2 on the ball. Müller worked as a second lead-striker in that set-up. The latest version resembled a 3-2-4-1 in attack. Davies oftentimes functioned as a straight left-winger. The common thread from the Union match saw Musiala tuck in underneath again.
Müller’s positional assignent
Much like Musiala, it looked to be fairly free-flowing. The legend popped up on the right more often times than not. This probably had little to do with any instructions from Nagelsmann. For the most part, the famous “Raumdeuter” (“space interpreter”) got his chance to be the “Raumdeuter”. Beautiful stuff from Müller here. Perfect touches. An insane escape rate. Crisp passing. Top-notch sprints. He drove the win.
A slight dip for Coman
If there were any negatives to report, one of German football’s most in-form attackers had a bit of a quiet day at the office. The Frenchman got his touches in, yet couldn’t involve himself as much with so much action going down Davies’ side. Ideas outside the box were also frequently lacking. Nagelsmann openly stated that “the vast majority” of his starters would also play against PSG. Coman might be one dropped.
The Cannstatter opening
As has been noted above and will be noted below, the heavy underdogs rode a heavy press to a surprisingly strong start. VfB trainer Bruno Labbadia didn’t make any drastic tactical changes, but clearly had his lads well prepared to give it their all in the opening phases. Many positives to note from the 5-4-1/4-1-4-1.
Lineup—VfB Stuttgart—Match 23 (5-4-1)
Having to do without the suspended Borna Sosa, Labbadia could at least benefit from the fact that Hiroki Ito was fit in time to fill in at left-back. Dan-Axel Zagadou took Sosa’s spot in the XI and, along with Ito, played very well. Ito’s Japanese compatriots Wataru Endo and Genki Haraguchi also delivered impactful performances. Gil Dias – perhaps incorrectly substituted off at halftime – put in some nice work against Davies.
Had de Ligt not cleared Kostas Mavropanos’ effort off the line in the 37th, we might even be discussing a radically different result. Naturally, this hypothetical doesn’t account for the massive gap in quality that (as expected) was on display here. The Swabians can take some heart from this showing, but still face a tough road ahead.
Match Flow: 1st to 12th minute
With a great midfield ball-win, Endo nearly pushed through central in the first minute. After the VfB press quickly won a second ball back, Waldemar Anton and Silas went for the rightward cycle in the same minute. Chris Führich even got a chance to break through on the left before sixty seconds had elapsed. Anton did get through into some space in the 2nd. De Ligt and Davies recovered in time to take the ball off him. Endo won the ball back again after a quick goal-kick. Yann Sommer had to come out to diffuse Silas.
Bayern couldn’t play out of the back to save their lives through most of the 3rd. Endo and Haraguchi kept the pressure on and a prolonged series of sloppy passes and giveaways ensued. Musiala finally broke free a bit off an Anton throw-in at the end of the 3rd. Atakan Karazor put the brakes on the attempted counter. After some more forced FCB retreats in the 4th, Davies finally located a roundabout lane on the left. Coman couldn’t pick up the Canadian’s cross properly.
Loads of turnovers following the subsequent Anton long-throw. Kimmich lost the ball twice, thankfully at least maintaining the focus to tackle away from a forward rushing Mavropanos. Stuttgart bow-arced a bit through the 5th before switching out wide to Führich on the left. Führich skirted past Stanisic with a neat little dribble and ran to the baseline. Sommer stepped up just in time to gobble up Führich’s intended cutback for Haraguchi. Davies got pushed all the way back by Dias in the 6th.
Via a bow-arc, de Ligt was eventually able to reach Müller out wide right. Müller crossed in immediately. The Swabian hosts had great difficulty clearing and Bayern remained outside the edge of the area through the 7th. Kimmich and Musiala eventually managed to put Choupo through, but the FCB striker was well offside. A long vertical in Führich’s direction in the 8th wasn’t any good. Davies did better with a switch takedown, cutback, and deft switch back over to Coman seconds later.
The FCB Frenchman’s diagonal was intercepted. The hosts took their time setting up their next charge in the 9th. The time allowed Bayern to establish their own press. Stanisic wrestled the ball back. Coman arrived on the rush, coming close to teasing a clever ball in for Goretzka in the box. FCB combos finally began to exhibit some fluidity in the 10th. Davies, de Ligt, and Stanisic passed it around a bit before hitting Müller in an advanced position on the half-right. Endo cleared the “legend’s” cutback.
Kimmich, Upamecano, and de Ligt couldn’t keep their back-build clean in the 11th. Endo stepped into the breach and tried unleash Silas on a quick counter. Stanisic track-covered the still a little slow looking Congolese attacker, shutting down the chance with a precision tackle that he did have adequate time to think about. The Bavarians would show the first signs of establishing themselves firmly in the 12th. Goretzka, Coman, and Musiala got an optically sound sortie rolling.
Stanisic entered on the right and sent a nicely-threaded diagonal into the box. Stuttgart again had trouble clearing. Kimmich went for one of his newly trademarked “laser-face” efforts when the ball squirted out to him outside the box. VfB keeper Bredlow stood little chance of catching the tomahawk and spilled the rebound. Somehow, Anton got in front of three lurking FCB attackers to clear away. Davies was the closest to the ball. In any even, Bayern had made their statement.
Match Flow: 12th to 37th minute
Davies broke through again on the left in the 13th. Musiala tagged along this time, giving us all a show with some of his ultra-fancy-footwork once cutting inside to the box. No joke. The über-talented German phenom danced his way past four Stuttgart markers before getting a close-range-effort. As is often the case when Musiala does such things, he had his eyes focused on his feet rather than the net. Zagadou deflected the 20-year-old’s shot over to Bredlow.
One could see that the Stuttgart energy levels were faltering a bit on the next significant sequence. A giveaway from the deep-working Choupo accorded the Swabians a chance to counter. Dias, Endo, and Haraguchi were nevertheless too slow on the breakaway. De Ligt and Davies were more than quick enough to scamper back and close ranks together. The Cannstatter went for the slower-roll build in the 16th. Dias ended up (artfully at least) dance-dribbling all the way back. Anton then got easily shut down by Davies.
Anton kept endeavoring and earned a throw-in up the pitch in the 17th. An interesting play resulted. Ito decided to have a go after de Ligt cleared Anton’s long throw. The makeshift left-back actually came tantalizingly close to a spectacular goal, just missing the far right corner from over 25 meters out! Bayern saw multiple rightward cycles repelled in the 17th and 18th. The Bavarians eventually found success once again on the left via Davies and Musiala.
The Canadian went on another fine run to the baseline and cut back dangerously for Goretzka. The German national team midfielder might have taken a touch instead of hitting a snapshot first-time. Bredlow handled the 16-meter-range shot at the beginning of the 19th. Stuttgart threw extra markers over to stop more pesky Musiala-Davies cycles on the FCB left over the course of the rest of the minute. Dias and Anton worked a neat cycle on their own right in the 20th.
Müller stopped the final square for Endo with an excellent tackle. Zagadou and Ito switched over to Dias’ direction again before the minute was out. The Portuguese attacker ran out of space thanks to the alert double coverage of de Ligt and Davies. Stanisic and Coman ran the net FCB charge in the 21st. After the ball worked its way over to Davies via Kimmich and a cool-touch hold-up from Choupo, the Canadian expertly drew all the Stuttgart coverage with an in-cutting run.
Davies did so well that Coman found himself wide open on the right. Bredlow was again called into action when Goretzka headed Coman’s outstanding delivery straight at him from five meters out. A great save from the VfB net-minder, who tipped over the crossbar for a corner. Kimmich’s 22nd-minute service had some bite to it. Führich fortunately rose highest to clear. Ebb-and-flow on the FCB left through the duration of the minute. Musiala and Dias both got stopped on sprints.
Anton tried to break out of the pattern by switching over to Führich. Stanisic again didn’t have to work too terribly hard to outpace the VfB attacker. An intricate FCB build in the 24th ended with Ito stopping a serviceable Coman square into the box. Stanisic had an attempted counter involving Silas well handled. Bayern went down the left again in the 25th with a Upamecano-Musiala-Davies cycle. Dias, Endo, and Karazor halted it with horde defending. Müller kept the play alive and played Musiala through.
The German youngster committed an offensive foul on Endo. Bredlow sought to take some air out of the game by setting up the 26th-minute free-kick. Stuttgart – noticeably losing momentum – couldn’t find a way past the FCB ranks through the 27th. Endo, Silas, Ito, and Führich all got closed down on rushes. Bayern finally got the ball back when Dias fouled Musiala. The multiple stoppages slowed the flow down further. The VfB defensive ranks still functioned well enough, repelling attempts by Davies and Kimmich to hit targets in the box in the 28th.
Davies and Musiala tried again in the 29th. Dias tackled out against Musiala on a play that should have absolutely been ruled a corner for Bayern. Match official Christian Dingert – who actually had a very quiet game and issued no bookings in this one – saw no need to overrule his linesman in this case. Bayern were awarded a corner in the 30th. Davies blew past the slipping Anton and rapidly tiring Dias. Mavropanos cleared the Canadian’s cross in off his shoulder.
Upamecano latched onto Kimmich’s 31st-minute service, but could only shot over at full stretch from a tight angle. Musiala, Davies, Kimmich, Coman, and Stanisic all worked it around nicely in the 32nd. Some quality defending from Karazor cleared Stanisic’s cross into the box. A counter chance for the VfB emerged. Führich found himself once again in possession. Once again, however, the Castrop-Rauxel native simply wasn’t fast enough. De Ligt and Goretzka boxed him out.
Führich at least dug out a throw and an appreciate round from the home-town crowd. Nothing came of the 33rd-minute dead ball. The VfB ranks instead had to stop an FCB quick-strike counter involving Coman and Müller on the FCB right. Karazor came away with the ball and went on a long carry. Stanisic resorted to a foul this time and the Württembergers received a free-kick from about 30 meters on their outside left. Goretzka disrupted Ito’s 34th-minute service. The hosts would nevertheless get another throw on the right.
Labbadia actually took some time to shout a few instructions in the ears of his troops prior to throw-in. Something premeditated was clearly coming. The VfB trainer could only hang his head in confusion and shame after the 35th-minute throw went awry, however. Anton, Endo, and Silas were supposed to produce something; something other than Anton getting caught well offside, that is. Endo nevertheless remained alert and took the ball back following a poor goal kick from Sommer.
Endo ultimately lost the ball, but Kimmich couldn’t hang onto it either. Dias took the ball off the FCB midfielder and aimed for Silas on the half-right. Silas’ final effort from about four meters wasn’t especially threatening, but Sommer played it safe by touching the ball (headed wide of the mark) out for a corner. This set-piece brought us to what would become the game’s defining moment. Ito whipped in a 37th-minute service that Sommer totally misjudged.
Mavropanos headed towards at completely unguarded net. De Ligt – demonstrating remarkable cool – ran back to hook a surefire goal off the line. The ball remained loose for several frantic seconds. Endo tried to get it back on target. By that time, Sommer was able to touch away. The totally frazzled Bayern ranks had to scurry out for another throw, which came to nothing. Interesting to note that we did come close to watching Stuttgart take a not entirely undeserved lead.
Match Flow: 37th minute to half-time
Close-to-scoring is never good enough against Bayern. If anything, poking this slumbering bear proves most problematic. Nagelsmann’s men took the close-call as a wake-up-call and it was pretty much all FCB from this point out. Ito had to be on his toes to diffuse a dangerous Davies cross in the 38th. Davies and Musiala continued to wreak havoc on the left throughout the minute. Kimmich inadvertently dampened the sequence by skying a ball kicked out to him over.
Upemecano, Coman, and Musisla pressed forward again in the 39th. This time all the hustle and bustle led to a ball squirting out to De Ligt in the second ranks. The Dutch defender went ahead and tried his luck from distance. Bredlow couldn’t see de Ligt’s effort very well as he was screened by Mavropanos. The VfB Greek defender also seemed to shy away from the shot too readily. In any event, Bredlow cut a poor figure on the Bayern 1-0 at the beginning of the 40th.
Not much the hosts could do after this devastating blow shortly before the half. Dias, Haraguchi, and Dias had neither the spring in their step nor the ideas in their head to do anything on the next VfB rush. Kimmich paced himself and the rest of his team through the 41st. Davies produced a tame header that proved easier prey for Bredlow. An attempted quick-start counter from the VfB backstop went nowhere as Zagadou and Ito went around in circles in the 42nd.
The Swabians finally got the ball upfield in the 43rd. Führich got a step ahead of Stanisic for once. Endo one-touched Führich’s pass over to Haraguchi, who saw a shot blocked. Dias rose high to head the rebound over to Silas. Kimmich was on hand to deflect the Congolese attacker’s effort out for a corner. Ito’s 44th-minute service bounced around a bit. Dias and Haraguchi couldn’t do anything with their random touches. Anton eventually sent a diagonal past everyone.
Nothing much doing from either side in the final minute of action. Coman and Anton cycles got stuck on their respective side. Referee Dingert appropriately blew the whistle without any extra time. It was at least a fair play match featuring some resilience from the long-shots. As the teams headed into the tunnel, one still had the feeling that Stuttgart weren’t going to last very long in the second 45. At his Friday presser, Labbadia called last week’s defeat at Schalke “a disaster that happened at the worst possible time.”
Something similar transpired here.
Match Flow: 46th to 61st minute
Labbadia elected to roll the dice somewhat at the half, replacing the overall solid Dias with the more agile Tanguy Coulibaly. The first few minutes after the restart offered us little other than a chance to comment on the pyro displays of German ultras. The Stuttgarter fan-block in the Cannstatter Kurve treated us to a very nice (and safe) display. The Bayern ultras brought more smoke with them. As Alphonso Davies prepared a throw-in during the 46th, a firecracker boom from the FCB traveling support section left him shaken.
Replays confirmed that nothing detonated in Davies’ vicinity. It was merely the proximity of the noise that led the Canadian to duck for cover on the the FCB left touchline. Match official Dingert kept up his very well officiated performance by blowing play dead and inviting Davies to come to the center of the pitch and collect his nerves a bit. We were back underway but the 47th. Musiala and Goretzka did an excellent job locating Coman. Ito supplied the monster stop.
Some more careful FCB bow-arcs in the 48th. Davies eventually whirled away and sent a ball over to the underlapping Müller. Zagadou got a quality tackle away in out for a corner. Bredlow punched Kimmich’s 49th-minute service away. A counter channel via Silas didn’t work. Musiala grabbed the ball and made a nuisance out of himself with another long dribble. It took the entire VfB back line to separate him from the ball. Bayern strolled in possession through the 50th before Ito stopped Coman again.
Both Zagadou and Karazor had to intervene to stop the suddenly much more active Coman in the 51st. Coulibaly’s first involvement came after a broken FCB charge on their right in the 52nd. The subbed on VfB Frenchman tried to triangle up with the help of Endo, Haraguchi, and Silas. It fizzled out. Mavropanos did well to grab control of the ball off an Anton throw in the 53rd. The Greek defender then regrettably gave the ball right back to his opponents with a misplaced pass.
Goretzka sparked the FCB counter. Some nice work from Stanisic gave Coman another chance. The FCB Frenchman cut inside well and attempted to reach Choupo. Bayern’s lead-striker couldn’t hold the ball up well in this particular case, but Coman got another bite of the cherry after Choupo missed the touch. Bredlow ultimately held a pretty tame deflected Coman effort. Bayern remained dominant nonetheless. Kimmich, Choupo, and Müller executed the next approach well in the 54th.
Müller began to show signs that he was ready to make the difference in this one. Coman and Stanisic handled all the hard work on the right. Müller needed only touch to cut back perfectly for Musiala. Karazor saved the day and a certain 2-0 by getting a boot in. Stuttgart tried to establish some rhythm with multiple safer possession recycles in the 55th. This led to nothing more than Bayern getting the ball back and killing off the rest of the minute with their own slow-roll build.
Nagelsmann’s champions finally went forward again toward the end of the 56th. Davies, Musiala, Coman, and Müller all supplied their sparkle to what was a very high quality attacking sequence. Müller very nearly had Choupo all set up. Mavropanos put out the fire for his team this time with the vital touch away fro, the FCB striker. It really didn’t look as if it would be very long now. The Swabians were somehow able to get the ball to Silas after a ragged build in the 57th. Silas tried to outmuscle Upamecano, unsurprisingly failing to do so.
Another VfB charge in the 58th saw Führich hold off Stanisic long enough to get the ball over to Anton. The makeshift Stuttgart fullback – looking quite gassed at this point – took way too long on the ball, however, and de Ligt was able to block the shot out for a corner. Upamecano handled Ito’s 59th-minute service easily enough. Davies and Coman then easily beat Führich to the second ball and the counter was on. Coman turned on the turbo. Musiala broke free. Haraguchi furnished the heroic tackle to stop Musiala’s square for Müller.
The sight of Serge Gnabry, Leroy Sané, and Sadio Mané preparing to enter in from the sidelines filled one with dread when it came to the prospects for the hosts. This affair was rapidly getting out of their control. The exhausted back VfB ranks could realistically have only so many more precision tackles left in them. Haraguchi’s latest bit of heroism resulted in a 60th-minute corner. Kimmich’s service had a wonderful shape to it. Only Mavropanos’ brave header away kept it from the throng of FCB bodies.
The record champs seemed in no hurry to get the subs – bonafide starters on any other team – onto the pitch. Bayern calmly bow-arced around for much of the 61st. Kimmich, Musiala, and Goretzka eventually swung a ball out wide right to Coman. The FCB Frenchman hit Musiala central. Musiala furthered for Müller, who instinctively supplied a sublime and positively gorgeous touch over to Choupo on his right. Choupo had an easy finish on the 61st minute 2-0.
That’s what Thomas Müller can do.
We were all but done here.
Match Flow: 61st minute to full-time
The subs poured on. Gnabry, Sané, and Mané replaced Choupo, Musiala, and Coman. The last player’s above-mentioned dip might not matter in the context of his strong finish and extra bit of rest. The Bavarians immediately reformatted into a protective shape. Even if there was some excitement towards the end, the columnist had no regrets about declaring a “lid” here.
Lineup—Bayern München—64th minute (4-3-3)
Not sure if it was Nagelsmann’s plan to switch into “administrative mode” with the triple substitution. In any event, he was gifted the chance to lock it down and tell his players to conserve energy ahead of PSG on Wednesday. That’s precisely what the record champs did. The deflated hosts didn’t even really try until Tiago Tomas and Juan Jose Perea took advantage of non-existent marking on the 1-2 in the 88th. They barely tried even after that. Coulibaly’s header wide came during the only worthwhile attack at 90+3.
No real need to make the xG stats (Bayern 1.9, Stuttgart 0.64) a bookend this week. The German giants dealt with some resistance before ultimately doing what they had to do. Time to move onto the tough relegation dogfight for the hosts. Time to move onto PSG for the mostly superior guests. Will they take care of PSG at the Allianz on Wednesday? When it’s “Müller Time”, it’s “Müller Time”. Nagelsmann has his best XI and his biggest X-factor clicking.
So long as Müller sticks with his implied tradition of wearing his trusty sporting briefs, all should be well. Bayern live on to fight on all three fronts. One can even consider them slight favorites to take the triple again this year. The explainable losses lie behind Nagelsmann in his sophomore year. Something not-so-simply explainable could always lie ahead. That nevertheless seems about as likely as Müller switching to baggy boxer briefs at this point.
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