What lessons do Bayern Munich need to learn from the Leverkusen loss?

When Thomas Müller blows his top like he did following the 3-0 defeat to Bayer Leverkusen, you know Bayern Munich have problems. Rarely has the club legend been seen so irate after a game and he certainly didn’t mince his words when criticising the performance. The defeat will be chastening, but what lessons in particular do the Rekordmeister need to learn from the debacle at the Bay Arena?

“To be honest, I’m p***ed off” Müller exploded when questioned after the match. “To quote Oliver Kahn: What I miss from us players are the balls in the game. We are showing significantly better approaches in training. It’s okay to feel pressure, but there needs to be energy and freedom. 

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“That’s missing in our game. We’re playing from A to B and C. Sometimes we have to speak about us players. It’s not just about the coach. We have many players of international calibre on the field. It’s also about a certain level of game intelligence. We need to step up.”

Müller certainly highlights certain weaknesses, but what lessons do Bayern need to take from this setback?  

1- The back three/ five didn’t work

The decision to fo with a back three with Sacha Boey and Noussair Mazrauoi as wing backs proved to be the wrong choice. The logic was probably that the two full backs could help combat the threat of Alejandro Grimaldo and Jeremie Frimpong (it turned out to be Josip Stanisic), but Leverkusen coach Xabi Alonso had second-guessed Thomas Tuchel and was prepared to counter Bayern’s move.

The build-up play from the three centre backs (Dayot Upamecano, Kim-Min Jae and Eric Dier) was too slow and they were a little careless in possession. Upamecano had a pass completion of 86.4% while Dier’s was 85.7%. The speedy Amine Adli and Nathan Tella were able to get in behind the back three with Florian Wirtz picking them out with his pinpoint passing. 

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Picking Sacha Boey to play on the left was a strange move when Bayern had the experienced Raphael Guerreiro available. The first goal came down that left side with Boey unaware of his positioning which is partly understandable seeing as he was playing out of position. 

2- Player confidence/ hunger needs to improve

Müller’s insistence after the match that the players needed to look at themselves is valid. It has been apparent for a while that the mentality of this Bayern squad is not as strong as it normally is and defeats to Eintracht Frankfurt and Werder Bremen have highlighted this.  This is not a new ‘Thomas Tuchel’ issue as there were signs last season under Julian Nagelsmann that all was not tickety boo at the Allianz Arena. 

Bayern were pushed extremely close by Borussia Dortmund last season, but the lessons of that scare don’t seem to have been learnt. Having won eleven Bundesliga titles on the trot, it must be difficult to motivate yourself to go again each year and the past two seasons have highlighted a chink in the Bayern mentality. Three Champions League exits at the quarter-final stage have not helped in this regard. 

Speaking prior to Saturday’s match former Bayern technical director Michael Reschke shone a light on this issue. “The self-confidence and ease with which Bayern dominated the league in the past cannot be seen at the moment. That was extreme during the time under Pep Guardiola, when all Bundesliga teams played with their backs to the wall against Bayern. 

“That’s no longer the case and there’s more focus on getting results. It’s a new and exciting quality, but not actually the one you expect from Bayern. It’s unusual for Bayern, but a great thing for the league because every match day promises excitement.”

3- Defending the counter attack needs work

Bayer Leverkusen’s strength this season has been their domination of the ball and their intensive passing game that makes teams work so very hard. They wear teams down by passing them to death and their relentless attacking play has brought results.

On Saturday, they seemingly abandoned this principle and allowed Bayern to have the possession (particularly in the opening stages). Rather than dominate possession, Leverkusen were intent on dominating the space and using the intelligence of Alejandro Grimaldo to combat the five-man back line deployed by Bayern. 

Grimaldo often moved more centrally allowing Piero Hincapie the space to move forward, while Florian Wirtz also came deeper centrally to give Leverkusen an overload in the middle against Pavlovic and Goretzka. Hincapie and Stanisic occupied the Bayern wing backs which allowed Adli and Tella to threaten the Bayern back three. 

The fact that Bayern only achieved an xG of 0.7 despite having an overall possession figure of 61% shows how Leverkusen cut the supply to Kane and strangled the Bayern attacking threat using intelligent use of space and timely pressing. Bayern struggled to contain the counter-attack in part due to Leverkusen forcing them into spaces they couldn’t be a danger from.  

4- The midfield two needs to be right

The Leroy Sané/ Harry Kane connection this season has seen the winger contribute twelve assists and the striker score 24 goals. The duo on Saturday were hugely insignificant as Leverkusen shut them out of the game. The absence of Joshua Kimmich in the starting XI was a big loss for Bayern and if he was fit to play, the question needs asking as to why he didn’t.

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Aleksandar Pavlovic and Leon Goretzka found themselves overloaded at times and were unable to be the link to Sané, Musiala and Kane. Thomas Müller spoke of game intelligence and Kimmich certainly has that in abundance.  Pavlovic and Goretzka have been praised for their partnership, but against the quality of Leverkusen’s tactics they fell short. The warning signs were there against Augsburg, against the Werkself the alarm was blaring. 

5- The summer/ winter transfer policy was not ideal

Bayern’s pursuit of Harry Kane dominated the summer transfer window and they got their man. The stunning results show they were right to go big on the English captain, but there is a feeling that they fell short in other areas. 

They didn’t sign one of Tuchel’s main targets in Joao Palhinha and also missed out on a few defensive targets. They signed Rapahel Guerreiro on a free from Dortmund, but then when Alphonso Davies is injured ahead of a key match, they don’t pick the Portuguese and pick a right back to play there instead!

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The fact that Josip Stanisic scored Leverkusen’s opener just rubbed salt in the wounds as Bayern were forced to spend some €30 million on Sacha Boey in the winter window just gone. The Croat hasn’t been a regular starter at the Bay Arena, and in retrospect would probably have gained more first-team action had he stayed at the Allianz Arena.

The signing of Eric Dier came about partly as a result of Bayern not being able to sign Nordi Mukiele or Ronald Araújo. There seems to be a split between what Thomas Tuchel wants and what the Bayern hierarchy are prepared to give him.  Kane has been a hit, Kim-Min Jae has been a hit, but yet the team performed at the level they did on Saturday.