Love. Love is back at Bayern. Pep, lovely Pep, was a good man, a clever man but… Well, he was cold. He said ‘I love you’ but he didn’t mean it. He just felt he should say it. He suits the icy blue of Manchester City. But Carlo. When Carlo says ‘I love you’ you know that he means it, and he doesn’t even need to say it, his eyebrow says all you need to know.
But love can be disappointing. Pep’s Bayern was far from perfect but Carlo’s, in this opening Bundesliga tie away to Schalke, lightly punctured the balloon of excitement. Or, maybe, at first it did, but by the time the game was over the puncture was mended, the familiarity of an eventually comfortable victory a warm embrace for the fans of the Munich club.
To begin with, a statement. This is not like the old one. This one is new. A starting 4-3-3 of dignified rigidity to cast away memories of left-backs, right-backs, fans, moose, and personifications of the theory of football playing at centre-back. Renato Sanches as part of the central midfield three was the only flash of flair amongst this.
Maybe it was an attempt at a lineage between the two managers, a nod to the practice of putting players into positions they wouldn’t normally occupy in a bid to ‘transform’ them. What Carlo has failed to realise about Pep’s ‘anyone can play at centre-back’ philosophy is that ‘anyone can play centre-back’ isn’t philosophy but, for 90% of the time, fact. For most centre-backs, 90% of their time is spent running backwards, for Pep’s centre-backs that time is spent standing still, passing, and poking the ball away from hungry, intrepid explorers who have somehow found their way into Pep territory. Their tackles are not battles, but mercy killings.
In central midfield, players actually have to do things, and Renato Sanches’ unfamiliarity with the role compounded the problems of Bayern’s rigidity. They struggled to make much progress through a competent Schalke. They had a hole of suffering in the centre of the field, an absence of meaning surrounded on one side by the central midfield three and on the other by the three forwards.
Every now and then, for the first 45-60 minutes, Bayern made the Schalke defence look troubled, but it was not often enough and with Höwedes, Naldo, Nastasic, and Baba Rahman this is not a back-line that is going to be overwhelmed easily. Schalke’s forwards helped by pressing from the front, but the truth is that for the first hour most of Bayern’s attacks were long balls into wide areas to Lewandowski/Müller, who would then cross or pull it back to Lewandowski/Müller (delete as applicable).
There were rocky periods – or rather moments, Bayern too strong to be on the back foot for any prolonged period of time. The best chance of the first 20 minutes was for Schalke, a nice cross met by a nice Goretzka header aimed at the bottom right corner, but it was cleared by a fortuitously positioned Bayern defender. On the left wing, Choupo-Moting tore through the side in the eighth minute, jinking marvellously past Lahm and Martinez on his journey into the box, before a bit of a poor shot choice and execution.
Half an hour later, Baba pulled a similar trick before passing the ball on to Konoplyanka (who’d milled over to the left side from his starting point on the right wing) who got to the byline and caused considerable trouble with his pull-back. These were times when you worried about Bayern, so fresh at the start of their new life and new relationship with lovely Carlo, players occasionally really too easy to dribble past.
A mix of Schalke’s high pressing and Pep’s absence, the absence of his structure, led to a couple of counters when they regained the ball high up the field and Bayern weren’t in positions where they could easily resist an attack. The lack of something, a reminder of the old…
The second half, particularly from around 55 minutes onwards, brought thought back to the present. In some ways, this was just following the regular narrative of games involving teams like Bayern. At the beginning, the smaller side is organised and pressing and makes the giants look scared and confused. But no-one is able to sustain that forever, and eventually the weaker side’s performance drops off through fatigue. Holes open, and to combat this the team drops back, unable to sustain a serious attacking threat alongside defensive stability.
Better movement amongst the Bayern midfield helped, Alaba joining attacking movements more from left-back. Vidal and Douglas Costa coming on for Alonso and Ribéry, with Sanches seemingly given more of a free role to drift over to the right and Müller moving more centrally, helped too.
Bayern now had four or five forwards in their attacks, where before they’d invariably had only two. The 74th minute ushered in a turning point, a new act in the grand play of this game. Alaba down the left, interchanging with Costa to free him again down the wing, put in a fantastic ball across the six-yard box with Bayern’s two forwards rapidly approaching the scene.
Alas, Müller’s boot was not quite long enough, and Lewandowski was arriving on the scene too quickly, agonisingly (for him; fans of Schalke, Dortmund, and the rest of Germany may have been relieved) ahead of the ball. He could only bounce it off a combination off leg-based body parts and the ball looped over the bar.
But Bayern, of course, got their breakthrough. A lovely through-ball to Lewandowski as he drifted from nowhere to the space between the right-back and the right centre-back freed the striker to side-foot it high into the net from just inside the box, past an approaching keeper.
Their second, in typical superclub fashion, was the patented 3v2 90+ minute break. Costa to Lewandowski to Kimmich to the bottom left corner.
Love wins out in the end.
FT Schalke 0 – Bayern 2 (Lewandowski 81′; Kimmich 92′)