The Favorites: Bayern Munich
Carlo Ancelotti is in for Pep and it might remind some of when Pep came in for Jupp Heynckes 3 years ago. Bayern were coming off a triple when Pep came in to some mutters about how could he improve anything? Well, he improved basically every aspect of Bayern's play each season and last year it was nearly overwhelming soccer at times. Everything you could imagine Bayern dominated at. They faced full boxes all season and still had the 3rd-lowest shot blocked rate in the league and somehow were able to shoot against a league average number of defenders in the box. They pushed players forward in possession more than anyone in Europe, yet were nearly impossible to counter against. They were able to get plenty of defenders back and pressure shooters, which was their rivals Dortmund big weakness. High press, crossing skill, completing dangerous passes, on and on and on they were the best in the league. It was getting to be a little too much really, for probably 12-15 opponents in the league there was almost no point in watching because you knew how the script would play out. That's what I'm personally most looking forward to with Ancelotti. I don't see how he can take Bayern to a higher level, but for neutrals at least it promises different plot lines. You can only watch The Godfather so many times before Michael saying Tessio was always smarter no longer has emotional resonance, you know what I mean? A good example of the changing plot comes in comparing Pep's last competitive game vs Ancelotti's first, both against Dortmund. Pep went out with 70% possession in the Cup final while Dortmund wound up with 56% in the Super Cup, which I imagine would be a high against Pep. I think this change in managers gives us a real chance at Bayern dropping enough points for real drama throughout the season.
Key Pass Leaders
In: Mats Hummels 38m (Dortmund), Renato Sanches 35m (Benfica)
Out: Mario Gotze, Pierre-Emile Höjbjerg, Sebastian Rode, Mehdi Benatia
One Big Strength: They close in on you in numbers to play the final ball at close range, where passes are much more accurate. Their average vertical passing distance in the final 30 yards was 9.1 yards, no other team had lower than 11.5. This helped them lead the league in deep completion rate at 44.6%. The fact they have so many players forward allows for unpredictability in where the ball comes from. No player was in the top 8 in Key Passes but Thomas Müller was 9th and Costa/Lahm/Vidal were 15-17th.
One Weakness: It's basically impossible to find a statistical weakness for them last season. Their shots were of just slightly above average quality so we'll go with that. More minutes for Robbery should solve that, though as always that remains something you can't count on.
Key Passing Combos
Thiago-Ribéry (86 connections in 512 minutes)
When Bayern got a bit bogged down and looked ordinary under Pep it was always when Robben and Ribéry were out. 2 years ago they looked just like a good Bundesliga team without those two, last year was a bit better as they bought two good replacements in Costa and Coman. This year we've all heard about Ribéry being happier with Ancelloti but we've also seen a Robben injury. Let's take a closer look at the 4 main wing options that are so crucial to Bayern's dominance.
Arjen Robben-The Robben to Müller connection mentioned above was devastating even though the two only played ~900 minutes together on the season. Basically you could count on Robben finding Müller over 4 times per game in the final 30 yards, just an insane number. A look at how they worked together in 2 games, I always find it nice to have a mental image of a statistical truth even if you discount some of this because it was against Stuttgart.
Robben was 2nd in the league in shots + KPs per 90 as well. I suspect his early baldness has made people about 25% more likely to assume he's no longer elite. If he gets underestimated on superficial things, at least he's got a conversation starter with Larry David next time he's in LA.
Franck Ribéry-He led the league in key passes per 90. Both these guys sometimes slip from the radar (for good reason when it comes to injuries) but when they are on the field, they are still two of the best players in the world. A bigger chunk of minutes from Robbery would be the best argument for Bayern to just continue on rolling without Pep. Combines being one of the most aggressive forward passers in the league with a completion percentage above 80%.
Douglas Costa-I think if he was on Wolfsburg or Werder Bremen he would be criticized constantly for being selfish, trying 1-on-1 moves too much, and playing the low-percentage cross instead of circulating the ball. Even at Bayern he gets criticized sometimes for this, but it's a good example of players not being static ratings. At Bayern he has more space, more passing options, and a coach who encouraged attacking dribbles and his team pouncing on unsuccessful crosses. He was a bit wasteful with the ball but would still terrorize opponent defenses several times a game. I'd put him easily 4th on the Bayern wide players list but still scares opponents.
Kingsley Coman-He's not near the Robbery level yet but shows signs at just 20 of being a player in that mold. His passing is excellent and he was clearly trusted by Pep to break down a defense (his 8.2 dribbles per 90 only trailed Ribéry's insane 10.7). The shots and KP's were nowhere near Robbery levels and he's not as forward looking as the other 3 wide men (passes go 1.6 yards closer to goal, Ribéry 4 yards closer for example) but he does have an eye for shot quality (17.5 yards on average, a bit closer than both Robben and Ribéry and much closer than Costa's 24.5).
Coman also has an ability to get involved that Costa doesn't seem to have. Ribéry, Robben and Coman all received 27+ passes per 90 in the final third while Costa was down around 20 in the Müller range.
A big question will be if there is room for both Vidal and Thiago in the Bayern midfield this season. Both were in the top 10 for most tackles per 90 last season, and would be right near the top if possession-adjusted. If you put any stock into tackle success rates, Thiago was behind only Lars Bender as he won 77% of his tackles. Both are strong at winning the ball back and both are great passers but there are slight differences here. Both occupied similar spots to play their passes but Vidal was more conservative as their maps show:
Thiago finds attackers a good bit more than Vidal does (thickness of arrow represents share of total passes). The Thiago-Ribéry connection looks to be one that should be played together as much as possible. In 512 minutes, Thiago completed 86 passes to Ribéry, including a ridiculous 30 against Werder Bremen in March. Flipping through the clips it seemed pretty clear Thiago's first instinct when he got the ball was to look for Ribéry and the two worked excellently together.
Vidal doesn't show signs of developing any forward connection like that so if there's only room for one, I'd go with Thiago. Ideally they learn to play together with Vidal a bit more withdrawn so Alonso's aging legs don't become a worry in big games. Xabi Alonso is still going strong at 34 and Renato Sanches at age 19 offer other options.
An attack that could fit Lewandowski, Thiago, Robben, Müller, and Ribéry with Lahm/Alaba/Vidal also on the pitch feels like the only lineup in the world that can match up with Barcelona.
Making the Trench Run Down Bayern's Left
David Alaba was pretty bad in the Euros. It sort of felt like your cool friend who usually plays with the older kids coming back and deciding he can do whatever he wants, like play attacking midfield. Turns out he's not suited for attacking midfield quite yet. Subbed off with 30 minutes to play against Portugal was a bad way to remember his summer. Now he's back and should quickly erase those memories with high level performances. Should we worry at all that he was 50th (out of 52) in interceptions and 52th in tackles among center backs? Probably not, Boateng was 50th in tackles and 38th in interceptions. There's just not many chances for the Bayern backline to rack up defensive counting stats.
If there is one thing he should worry about it's how teams seemed to target the left side last year when on the attack.
It was rare for opponents to get the ball in the middle of the Bayern side of the pitch but when they did it was 50% more likely for the ball to be played to Bayern's left side. No team had a greater share of key passes allowed come from their left (20 more than right). Again these are still small numbers in total, but always know your weaknesses. Alaba presumably will be out there more this season and should be aware this is where opponents tried the trench run last year.
Good (for Bayern) Season: A little less possession doesn't hurt anyone and Bayern cruise to a title, blooding in Coman, Hummels, and Sanches and set the league scarily toward the PSG route.
Good (for neutrals) Season: Less possession means more goals allowed, more variance, and more upsets. We find out Mats Hummels can be beaten on the break, even at Bayern, and Robbery get injured again. They don't win title and sit in 3rd place for at least a while.