The 2015-16 Bundesliga campaign kicked off over the weekend and I covered that in our post at the end of last week. The best league in the world did not fail to deliver goals or excitement over the weekend as the defending champions, Bayern Munich, hosted the faltering "dinosaurs" of Hamburg SV.
The dinosaurs of Hamburg earned that nickname for being the only team to not be demoted from the top tier of German soccer, the Bundesliga, over the 52 seasons completed. However, they have been a mess over the past few years and last year they only survived because they barely won a playoff with the third best team in 2.Bundesliga, the second level of German soccer. Playing in the lower level of German soccer means a lot of things are lost: they wouldn't have the same TV shares they can grab from being in the top tier, they cannot find their way into any meaningful European competition and they take a major financial hit. Most clubs that find promotion are soon after relegated back to the lower levels of competition, but the financial boon of their time playing in the Bundesliga helps those teams improve their financial situation.
HSV was both fortunate and unlucky to draw Bayern on Matchday 1 to kick off the new season. They were always going to lose this match and it is better to face a side like Bayern with your whole season ahead of you than to have to face them on the last day of the season with some type of match implications for the future of your club. But, it isn't all great if you lose to start off your new season. Getting run out of the arena on the very first day of the season doesn't set a great tone for how you want things to play out.
Hamburg got run out of the arena. Bayern did a number of things to ensure victory, namely have a vastly superior squad, filled with confidence and benefiting from the fantastic resources and coaching that only a club like Bayern Munich can boast.
Bayern looked about even with their opponents over the course of the first half hour of the match. The visitors put a shot in on Manuel Neuer before I saw much from Bayern, but the pressure and possession that Munich coach Pep Guardiola worships was there from the start. Part of the challenge is doing something with that possession. There were moments where headers from Arjen Robben went just wide or Thomas Muller was short in his vision and overplayed passes to the wing instead of crossing to a streaking teammate. Also, there was a lot of Jerome Boateng doing 2010 Boateng things. 2010 Boateng things are not good things. A lazy backpass that was intercepted caused Alonso to step up and take an early yellow card to prevent the break for Hamburg.
Eventually, Bayern found the net. From a well-earned foul, Alonso placed a free kick on the back post were Mehdi Benatia scored a "Well, hey, that wasn't my head, but it did hit my body and slide past a frozen Rene Adler" goal that makes me strangely enjoy watching Benatia on free kicks. It was last season that he scored a strange, but great, 180-degree header off of a free kick. This time, he slightly misjudged the trajectory and basically whiffed on the headed, the ball instead finding his shoulder. 1-0, Bayern.
And that is where this story gets all too familiar. Bayern, under Guardiola, strangle a game when they have the lead. They definitely look for pressure, but they are content to hold possession and try the defense instead of challenging it. Which is probably smart, because Guardiola pushes his team high up the field, leaving the backline very open to counterattacks. Bayern is still one of the three best teams in the world, but when they play Dortmund or, potentially, Real Madrid or Barcelona in the Champions League, I would not consider them favorites.
That caveat aside, Hamburg is no Barcelona. They are not even Dortmund. Bayern continued to exert pressure and Hamburg held. Things changed in the second half, a formula that Bayern has perfected. After pressure and containing for the first half of play and finding a breakthrough, they settle in and turn the screws over the remainder of the match. The stark contrast in level of skill between the two sides was apparent, more in how Bayern feared no threat from Hamburg than in any other facet of the match.
The pile-on started early in the second half, a long ball played into the Hamburg box was headed directly back to the center of the box by a Hamburg defender. His valiant attempt at defense rewarded by the ball falling to the feet of Robert Lewandowski who slotted home for Bayern, 2-0.
Hamburg then opted to sub on Ivica Olic, a former Bayern striker, in the hopes of fighting back into the match. That did not work. The work from new Bayern winger Douglas Costa was simply too much for Hamburg to cope with over the course of the full 90 minutes. His pace is simply dynamite, explosive from the first step and able to keep his work rate at a high level of output over the course of an entire match, his young legs (24-years-old) haven't seen the miles and injuries of those like the ones that are attached to Franck Ribery.
Costa found Muller for goal number three, impossibly chasing down and saving a ball along the touchline, then the endline, finally coming off of the outside of Costa's dangerous left foot, finding the head of goal-hunter Muller, 3-0.
Muller found another goal, using some deft footwork in a tight situation to apply the exact angle on a shot that looked like he was about to overrun the ball under the force of his own body's momentum, getting by goalkeeper Adler and the extended leg of a sliding Hamburg defender, 4-0.
The match was settled at this point, Bayern was cruising to a big victory on their home pitch to start the season, while Hamburg was torn apart and setting a much more somber tone for their upcoming campaign. However, Douglas Costa continued to push and was rewarded with the exclamation on victory, after a confusing sequence where no whistle blew, Costa received the ball and fired an unlikely left-footed curler that somehow evaded the outstretched hand of Adler, 5-0.
Bayern has a lot of work ahead them, as a top club in European soccer, they will have their sites set much higher than simply challenging for the Bundesliga title, a title they have won in three consecutive season leading into this year. The mantra is Champions League victory and nothing less. The good news is that several things are pointing in the right direction.
First, Bayern nailed their offseason signings. Bringing in Arturo Vidal was absolutely necessary given the age of Alonso and the departure of Schweinsteiger. Yes, there are always other options, but when you are Bayern, why would you look to bring in a player who isn't ready for the level of competition the Reds are expected to be at every year. And then there is Douglas Costa. Keeping in mind that it was only one match, the small sample size of Costa was enough to forget that we don't have a healthy Ribery. If this form becomes the normal level that he can operate at, Ribery will suddenly become a great second option, nothing more would be required of him. Health is also important, but neither player gives reason for any great concern at this point.
Second, Bayern is still really good at playing Pep's way. I'm not a fan of it and I never will be, but Guardiola has this team beating on all of the teams that they are supposed to be. The limitation to this is also an issue, Bayern beats all inferior teams, but has struggled mightily under Pep when playing teams that are their equal or better. Still, the control and possession of Bayern was top class, even with two new Bayern players in the starting 11, and the return of Robben, who had not played a Bundesliga match since March.
Third, the people who are paid to score goals, scored goals. Thomas Muller is a fantastic character. Often, when he misses a scoring chance, he sits on the grass, demonstrably shaking his head and slamming the grass in frustration. When he converts, he shakes his head with his tongue hanging out of his mouth. He converted twice on Friday, both were fantastic finishes. Robert Lewandowski is a talented scorer like few others in the world of football, but he seemingly was not able to live up to expectations last year. Was it due to joining a new team and trying to find his fit, or maybe it was the Guardiola system, robbing him of his ability to act in a way that lends to his goal scoring ability? Maybe, it was just the way a season works out when the goal seems smaller, you end up with your back to the goal more than you would like, or luck simply fell the other way. But on the first day of the season, both Lewandowski and Muller produced goals. Combine those efforts with the new terror of pairing Costa and Robben as wing players and you have a whole new beast to unleash.
Two very small notes: late in this match, Boateng could be found sending in a ball from the wing, just inside the box. seeing a centerback so wide and so deep against an opponent is almost startling. Speaking of backs, Lahm coming out in the 72nd minutes was a bit strange, though it could be a good thing. Get a little run for some of our deserving and talented bench players while giving the captain some rest for the long, long run that will be the 2015-16 season.
by Daniel Coughlin (@xvanwilderx)