Bayern Munich emerge as a true Champions League contender

By Sam Planting | March 6, 2020

Bayern Munich emerge as a true Champions League contender

Let’s talk about the elephant in the Bundesliga title chase room. Bayern München have been good lately. Very, very good. With every first-leg fixture of the Champions League in the books, Der Rekordmeister look like one of the favorites to win the whole darn tournament. How has Bayern — who, mind you, fired their manager in November — transformed into not only the clear Bundesliga title favorite but a Champions League contender as well? Diving into the Statsbomb data shows five significant developments.

Flick has brought back the all-out press

First things first. Let’s remind ourselves that Bayern weren’t bad under the guidance of former manager Niko Kovač. Just… not as good as they've been since Hansi Flick took over.

Comparing the defensive radar of Bayern-with-Kovač in 2019–20 to that of Bayern-with-Flick, there's a clear difference: Bayern have become a much more proactive squad on the defensive side of the ball.

In fact, Flick’s well-oiled press is now downright spectacular. This is the defensive activity map of an active team. The front five in Flick’s 4-1-4-1 formation when out of possession hounds the opposing build-up from the back.

Neuer now seems… fine?

You know what helps, when you opt for an out-and-out hard-pressing defending style? Having an athletic, dependable sweeper-keeper. What helps even more? When said sweeper-keeper regains his world-class form after a horrid, injury-riddled spell that lasted well over a year.

Bayern’s ‘new’ backline under Flick is quite good at forcing the opposition into sub-optimal shots, and Neuer has kept his end of the deal since early November.

Build-up experts spend more time on the ball since their position shifts

The best news for Bayern ever since Flick arrived? That midfield magician Thiago Alcántara has not picked up yet another injury. The Spanish passing specialist has played excellently in recent weeks. Thiago’s splendid form has something to do with his new partner on the defensive side of midfield. Flick’s decision to turn Joshua Kimmich from a full-back — one in a class by himself (with perhaps some room for Trent Alexander-Arnold) — into a full-time sechser (defensive midfielder) was a stupendous choice. Kimmich’s positional awareness, versatility on the ball and tireless work rate gel really well with Thiago’s specific world-class abilities as a silky-smooth ball carrier and passing metronome. 

Bayern’s makeshift backline has also played well of late. David Alaba is now forced to play in a central role, with Niklas Süle out for the season and record summer signing Lucas Hernández slowly recovering from injury. The Austrian is not a Süle-like physical presence, but uses his agility and A-plus closing speed to compensate for his lack of size and brute strength. More importantly, Alaba is class in the build-up. The Austrian all-arounder’s passing ability and ball control give Bayern’s build-up play a truly trustworthy and creative outlet.

Alaba's new role frees up space for sensational full-back prospect

And when things start going your way, they sometimes really go your way. Like, semi-accidentally finding out that an attacking-talent-turned-emergency-defender turns out to be a downright sensational full-back.

Phonzie not only has an amazing backstory (excellently profiled by Joshua Kloke and Raphael Honigstein for the Athletic in December), but also wows with his overall skillset. The Canadian teenager has the dribbling skills that you’d expect from a Bayern winger, the iron lungs of a modern-day wing-back and truly impressive tactical and positional awareness for someone his age.

Lewandowski’s excellent right-hand man

Bayern’s only valid complaint right now is the absence of striker Robert Lewandowski. The Polish striker, the world’s best pure nine for quite some time now, is having the best season of his career, but will be sidelined for a few weeks. I wrote about Lewandowski’s (temporary) succession in last week’s Bundesliga Digest, which you can read here.

But even without Lewandowski, and in addition to the excellent form Thomas Müller has displayed ever since Flick took over, Bayern still have another world-class attacker. Because if we zoom out a little bit, we’d see 2019–20 as the season where Serge Gnabry took the jump from ‘very good player’ to ‘legit star’.

Gnabry breaking out means Bayern won't be lacking for goals as they wait for their superstar centre forward to return. And when he does, they're poised not only to pull away at the top of the Bundesliga, but to challenge deep in the Champions League as well.