Bayern entered week three of the new season in second place, trailing Dortmund on goal differential, facing their first strong test in the form of Bayer Leverkusen. Last season, Leverkusen finished in fourth place which qualified them for the 2015-16 Champions League, which I wrote about last week.
The match represented a big test for the champion Munich side, they won just three matches against the other teams who finished in the league's top four last season. They had three draws and four losses to go with those three wins. The Bayern dichotomy under Pep Guardiola is incredible. They absolutely walked over every team outside of the top four, save Dortmund - a team that massively underperformed and will be a top four finisher this season. But, they cannot beat the top sides consistently. A problem that followed them to the Champions League, where they have suffered some serious setbacks after winning the CL in 2013.
Bayern is a step above all other teams in Germany and the have absolutely dominated Leverkusen over the course of their past 28 meetings in Munich, losing just once of those matches. Shockingly, their matchup on Saturday was no different, Leverkusen was completely unable to impose their will on the game.
Heading into the match, the most notable feature for Bayern was that they featured no centerback for this game due to suspension (Boateng) and injury (Benatia, Badstuber). Instead, they played three at the back, David Alaba handling the most "central" role on paper, though it quickly became clear that he would be heavily involved in all aspects of the match while Alonso became the rooted man at the back of the formation. The Alonso positioning was a great revelation, I don't really value his speed or acclimation to the German game, and while his skill is the least diminished of all his characteristics, even that fails to impress me. That may be due to the Bayern team being as strong as it is, and also the very restricted way in which players work under Guardiola in relationship to their assignments.
The partnership between Alaba and Bernat was big for the Reds. Bernat sent 21 passes to Alaba, more than any other combination on the afternoon, while Alaba sent 14 in return. And it only makes sense as the hottest new name in the Bundesliga, Douglas Costa, is the man playing further up that flank in the offensive position.
The change in lineup and positioning was accompanied by a strange combination. While Bayern tend to pass the ball to death, often attempting four times the amount of passes that their opponents do, the opening goal on the afternoon was the results of a well-placed long ball.
Alaba stood out at the back line, playing an absolutely fantastic match. His stat line - 4-for-4 on headed clearances, 6-for-6 total clearances, 2 blocks, 10 ball recoveries - was excellent. Alaba has long stood out as a highly skilled player with a great deal of versatility either out wide on the back line or pushing forward, playing a wing position in attack, even playing in an advanced central midfielder role. As the changing of the guard continues at Bayern, Alaba will need to be better utilized. He needs to be made to feel more valuable and integral to the future of Bayern. There was a spell about two years ago where it seemed like we might lose Alaba, given his preference for playing in attack. Glad to see that the waters are more calm on that front.
Thomas Muller continued his goal-scoring tear this season. He netted twice, once from open play and another from the penalty spot. That brings his total to five goals through three games. I don't think anyone expects Muller to put up Ronald or Messi goal numbers, but his hot start to the season will help carry the team forward while Lewandowski, Robben, Costa, Gotze and the rest of this bunch get sorted out. Robben did get a goal on the weekend, hitting a penalty home.
Speaking of Alaba and changing the guard, the situation with Franck Ribery seems very uncertain at this point and makes the addition of Costa even more perfect. No one can match his speed on the Bayern squad, especially not a healthy wrong-side-of-30-years-old Ribery. Adding to their depth, Bayern also acquired the services of Kingsley Conan, the young French U21 international. It is a two-year loan with an option to purchase for 21 million euros at the expiration in 2017.
But not everything was inbound at the end of the transfer window. Prior to kickoff against Leverkusen, Bayern said farewell to fan favorite Claudio Pizarro. The Peruvian played nine total season with Bayern, split into different spells with the club. He scored often and was probably one of the most mild mannered and easily liked players to ever wear Red. Dante is also out. And good for him. The Brazilian CB was destroyed in the World Cup semi-final against Germany in 2014 and never seemed to recover mentally. The move away from Bayern might give him the opportunity to up his form on what will likely be his final Bundesliga deal, being another player whose age is catching up with him. A solid defender will be a good addition for Wolfsburg. They will need a player with as much skill and experience in their quest for the Champions League.
The only other notes that jumped out from the Saturday match:
Bayern - 65.6 possession, 86.2 pass completion. I think we are seeing not that Guardiola's system was so magnificent, but that teams are changing the way they play against Bayern. Leverkusen is one of very few teams in the Bundesliga that are built to challenge the Munich side, but they seemed to not be anything that resembled themselves. Partly, that must be due to having a mid-week match. But, it has to be more than just that. This isn't something unique to Bayern. Joachim Low, the German National Team head coach, has made similar tactical blunders in big matches. Changing your tactics based on a perception of your opponents creates an advantage by taking your team out of your style of play before even stepping on the pitch.
Neuer - 9-for-9 on goal kicks. Random, but fantastic stat. Leverkusen was just 4-for-8 on goal kicks. Having a keeper who can hit his targets downfield, or simply sending out wide to one of his defenders guarantees possession, whereas Leverkusen never established that coming out of the back line.
Now, we're going into the international break...
by Daniel Coughlin (@xvanwilderx)