The last time we checked in with Bayern Munich, the German champions had dominated their first three matches of the Bundesliga campaign and showed no signs of slowing down. Five matches later and they have not only made good on that, they have somehow improved. In both their Bundesliga and Champions League campaigns they have appeared invincible. They have defeated their five German opponents by an aggregate 13-2, and that includes their two dominating 5-1 performances over the last two second place finishers, Borussia Dortmund and Wolfsburg, respectively. Meanwhile, continentally, they travelled to Greece and defeated Olympiakos 3-0 and throttled Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb 5-0 in Munich. Quite simply, Bayern is playing the best soccer in the world right now.
I could gladly talk about how Bayern has done this and about extoll the virtues of manager Pep Guardiola and the various players who have been so incredible. That’s boring. Let’s talk about a problem Bayern faces.
Bayern is not a perfect team, and they have had one noticeable flaw this year. They are incredibly susceptible to being caught with their pants down on the counter-attack. It is understandable; they spend so much time possessing the ball and playing the ball in the attacking third that they find themselves flat-footed when they are forced to return to their third. If they have the time to get settled, they look better, but on fast breaks, they lose their shape and put Manuel Neuer in tough situations.
Neuer, of course, is still the world’s best goalkeeper and that does mitigate this problem. A team with as good a defense on paper as Bayern, though, should not be so frequently forcing their star keeper to make difficult saves. Neuer is human, and if he keeps being forced to make acrobatic saves, he will eventually err. A perfect example of how this can be problematic occurred while Bayern was still down 1-0 against Wolfsburg. In the 38th minute, a Xabi Alonso corner found the hands of Wolfsburg keeper Diego Benaglio. Benaglio then sent the ball just past the halfway point, which is where we inexplicably find Neuer, acting as sweeper. Neuer ends up attempting a terrible sliding tackle on the Wolfsburg side and only by the grace of God does a Josuha Guilavogui long strike not find the back of the empty net.
It is easy to write this play off as a mental mistake by Neuer, and it is. What is important here is why he makes that mental mistake, because players of Neuer’s quality do not do that of their own volition. The reason he makes this mistake is that from his unique vantage he can see that Bayern will be outnumbered and he will be vulnerable in the net if he does not act as sweeper. They have begun to lose their shape and they are already undeveloped on the wings. Bayern has a ton of great defenders and it is possible, if not probable, that the likes of Philipp Lahm and David Alaba would have recovered and been able to stop the mounting Wolfsburg attack. That is not a guarantee, of course, and Neuer knows this. In a way, he may have saved a goal – by creating a very unique type of chaos in the middle of the field, we end up seeing a very low percentage shot rather than a strategic run of play from the Wolfsburg offense.
That play was an outlier no doubt, but it shows that Bayern is vulnerable on the counter attack and will surrender opportunities while focusing on the attack. With Neuer in the net and the offense scoring at an incredible click, this may end up not being a problem at all. Neither of those is given, though, and should one falter, Bayern will need to make sure their defense is airtight, especially as the season progresses and injuries inevitably mount.
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