Bayern Munich’s injury woes will test an already suspect defense
Yes, of course. Even with the frantic, delightfully-messy start to the Bundesliga, with a mere two points separating the first nine teams in the league table, Bayern München remain heavy favorites to win their eighth domestic title in a row.
Yes, of course. Even with a shaky Champions League performance at Olympiakos Piraeus on Tuesday, Bayern have essentially qualified for the knock-out stages of the world’s biggest club tournament despite having played just three group games.
Yes, of course. Robert Lewandowski might, at age 31, be the world’s most prolific out-and-out central striker, and seems well on his way to have a career year, with 18 goals scored in his first 13 official outings in the 2019/20 season.
Yes, of course. It is impressive that Bayern have basically groomed the two ideal replacements for the succession of the famed Robbéry duo in-house, with the awesome development of Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman.
Yes, of course. Thiago Alcántara, when healthy, can be counted amongst the footballing world’s very elite central midfielders. The same can be said for the fullback duo of Joshua Kimmich and David Alaba.
Sure, Bayern do some things right. No, scratch that. They do a lot of things right. This type of consistent dominance does just, like poof, ‘happen’. But - I know you were sensing there was going to be a ‘but’ - Bayern also seem to be a little bit of trouble. Maybe even a lot, I dare say.
Injuries are the devil, also in Munich
After conceding two goals in each of their last three games - against Paderborn (3-2 win), Hoffenheim (1-2 loss) and Augsburg (2-2); by no definition a murderer’s row of potent offenses, if we’re being honest - Bayern have now conceded 42 goals against in their first 42 Bundesliga games under the guidance of Niko Kovac.
In the six title-winning seasons before last year, Bayern on average conceded 21 goals per league season - in other words, they get scored on once every 90 minutes in the Kovac-era, while they lasted about 146 minutes between conceded goals on average in the title-winning years between 2013 and 2018. The defense just hasn’t been up to Bayern’s own lofty standards, this past year-plus. Nor has Manuel Neuer, who has conceded more than seven goals more than an average keeper might be expected to given the shots he’s faced.
So it’s an especially bad time for a double whammy of very-bad-news, with Niklas Süle, the only fully-proven centre back that Kovac seems to always trust, set to miss the remainder of the entire season with a devastating ACL injury, and record signing Lucas Hernández being out until at least January 2020 with a nasty-looking ankle injury.
A ‘pressing’ situation
The season before Kovac arrived, Bayern were a pressing machine under Jupp Heynckes, now not so much. The defensive regression that Der Rekordmeister has been going through under Kovac, cannot be simply fully ascribed to (former) backline standouts like Jérôme Boateng, Mats Hummels, Javi Martínez and Manuel Neuer becoming older and more vulnerable.
The press, and Gegenpressing, of the frontlines is just not getting home like it used to. Which is odd, seeing that Bayern basically traded in two wingers in their mid-30s in Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry for two in their early-to-mid-20s in Gnabry and Coman.
Kovac’s frequent exclusion of Raumdeuter extraordinaire Thomas Müller seems to play a role in Bayern’s issue with a declining high-press. Philippe Coutinho has looked decisively better in Munich as a 10 than he ever did in a Barça kit in Camp Nou, but ever since the Brazilian’s left the guidance of Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool, he is nowhere near the defensive contributor that Müller is. If we look at them on the midfielder radar (so we can compare their defensive work even though neither of them are really pure midfielders) it is clear that while Coutinho does much more creative work with the ball, it's Müller that puts in the hard defensive yards.
It seems weird to talk about the defensive value of the central attacking midfielders at Bayern. Because, y’know, Bayern typically have the ball, like, a lot of the time. But with Lewandowski up top, two rapidly-developing but still somewhat young and excitable wingers in Gnabry and Coman, and a pass-first maestro in Thiago at one of the two deeper-lying spots in midfield, a weird amount of defensive responsibility comes down to this attacking position in the lineup.
But when it comes to defensive responsibility, no one has more right to complain about a tough workload than the third central midfielder. Kimmich seems to be the perfect player for this tactics-heavy, high-intensity role, but given the injuries in the backline, it seems likely he’ll be stuck at fullback for the foreseeable future. And, since he views Leon Goretzka as more of an attacking option, that boils Kovac’s choices down to two: Javi Martínez and Corentin Tolisso. An interesting conundrum, seeing that the two Sechser (‘6s’) deploy very different styles from one another.
Javi Martínez’ style is that of a seasoned veteran. The 31-year old Basque is a veteran now, but to be fair, his age has just recently caught up to his preferred style. Martínez has never been a speedster, and has to rely on intelligent positioning and pure physical strength to be of value to Bayern as a ball-winner and defensive counterweight in midfield.
Tolisso is much more of the roving type in this midfield role. It’s hard to know what his best position is, he was pretty awesome in a much more attacking role as a youngster at Olympique Lyon, but in one of the healthier spells of his recent career, the Frenchman has looked good at times in Bayern’s midfield this season. But the fact that Kovac’s squad had conceded six goals in 430 minutes wherein Tolisso and Thiago shared defensive duties this year, doesn’t bolster all that much confidence.
Running out of dudes in the backline
So let’s check in on Bayern’s depth chart for the positions in the back four, now that Süle and Hernández are out for sustained periods of time. We have an aging Boateng, Kimmich - who’s future as a world-conquering central mid is being held hostage by his dominance as a right-back - a sometimes-off-looking Alaba, summer signing Benjamin Pavard, and… And, yeah, that’s about it. Academy talent Lars Lukas Mai (19) is on his way back from injury, and if Kovac really wants to roll the dice, he can try out Martínez as a centre back - which is a bigger gamble than it used to be, with the Basque losing whatever speed he had in the past few years.
This is not ideal, in many ways. First off, when a team has ambitions of winning the Champions League, four legitimate options for defensive spots is… yikes. Secondly, two former superstars from this foursome just aren’t up to their absurdly-high levels of years past. Boateng’s vulnerability to counter-attacks was on display on multiple occasions last year, with the former best centre back in the world lacking some of his otherworldly athleticism and reaction speed that he used to combined with his (still awesome) passing skills.
But while Boateng’s (and Hummels’) regression to human form was fully under the microscope, left-back David Alaba also has been going through an extended dip in form (though it's a testament to what a high level he's consistently played at over the years, that an Alaba dip still looks better than most mere mortal's best form), which could have something to do with the fact that the 27-year old Austrian has already appeared in 461 senior matches for club and country in his career.
The absence of Süle and Hernández throws a wrench in Bayern’s project of ‘going young’ with the squad.
In the nine league games remaining until the winter break, Bayern still have to face six of the eight teams that are surrounding them in this weird bunch between first and ninth place. Against the two ‘legit’ teams Bayern have faced in the league, they looked really solid in one outing (0-3 win at Schalke 04) and mixed a great half of football with a worrisome one in the other (1-1 at RB Leipzig). With the defensive rotation stretched extremely thin, there is a realistic chance that Bayern are not atop the league standings come winter break. Which makes it very interesting to see what will happen then, in regards to potential new signings, but also the job security of Kovac.