Borussia Dortmund lead the table going into the March international break. But that was just one of the many “things you never thought you’d see” in Sunday night’s bingo card:
Bayer 04 Leverkusen played with strength, composure and efficiency to beat Bayern Munich 2-1.
– Everyone agreed that referee Tobias Steiler made two major decisions wrong, including Steiler himself. Inconsequential as it was, everyone also agreed that the VAR had made the two key decisions correctly. “They were my lifesaver,” Stiller exclaimed.
Bayern coach Julian Nagelsmann and captain Thomas Müller were brilliant in defeat, praising Xabi Alonso’s side as the better team and admitting they deserved to lose.
Leverkusen’s hard-tackling midfielder, Robert Andrich, was a key factor in the Pirlo-type playmaker’s role among the centre-backs.
Bayern’s sporting director, Hasan Salihamidzic, looked almost like his Serie A counterpart Sebastian Kehl in 2020, questioning the position of his players. “Rarely have I encountered less strength, mentality, aggression and power,” said the 46-year-old. “That’s not what Bayern Munich is about.”
The German champions will be able to restore normal order when Dortmund travel to Munich on April 1. And the last time Westphalia had a real chance of winning the title late in the season, in Niko Kovac’s first season (2018-2019), the challenge came to an abrupt end, with a 5-0 defeat at the Allianz Arena. This defeat was typical of Bayern’s ability to focus and raise their level of play, even amid much skepticism about the coach at the time, and in contrast to Dortmund’s chronic volatility after Klopp. But the tables are likely to turn this season. While Edin Terzic’s men destroyed 1.FC Koln despite major injury concerns to extend their impressive run into 2023 (nine wins in ten league matches), Bayern were “weak”, Nagelsmann said, lacking the necessary application at BayArena.
Although, first, a few words of appreciation for the local side. Leverkusen didn’t have much time to prepare for the game after Thursday’s successful Europa League trip to Ferencvaros, winning 2-0 in Hungary and reaching the quarter-finals. Only they and Bayern still feature in Europe’s seven Bundesliga internationals.
Despite their midweek efforts, Leverkusen’s frontline of Amine Adly, Florian Wirtz and Moussa Diary upset Bayern’s build so well that the visitors “could only string together two or three passes,” Nagelsmann said. Xabi Alonso’s clever ploy also succeeded in placing Andric between the centre-backs: Bayern’s unfortunate attempts to win the ball at the highest level were unable to cut off Andric’s midfield-breaking passes before the break.
Leverkusen’s transformation from relegation contenders to non-Champions League contenders under Alonso has been nothing short of remarkable. Some descent into the middle was unavoidable, given the quality of the squad, but getting a tough dressing room to play and fight in unison was quite a challenge. Alonso stepped up to him in style. His victory over his former team will count as a huge exclamation mark on his managerial resume.
Baer needed a little help from VAR when Steeler twice clearly fouled Adly (by Benjamin Pavard and Dayo Uppicano) for diving and yellow cards, only to be double-crossed by teammates at Cologne, the Bundesliga’s remote-watching station. Exequiel Palacios scored both pens to give Leverkusen the lead after Joshua Kimmich scored a deflected shot following Bayern’s only decent attacking move in the first half. The visitors did go a bit further in the end after a series of substitutions but had no complaints about being left empty-handed.
For Nagelsmann, questions still mount. Who sends his tactical schemes to Sport Bild? (They have published two pages from his playbook about the Bochum game this week.) And more importantly, how clueless was his team in a match players had previously described as a “must win”? Was it because there was no focus that they were such a non-attacking entity?
Blaming the players’ attitude, as countless Bayern coaches and officials have done over the decades, was somewhat of a relief after such an erratic performance. DAZN analyst Michael Ballack wasn’t the only observer to question the wisdom of Nagelsmann’s tactical choices. The 35-year-old dispatched Bayern Munich in an unseemly 5-1-2-2 system – out of possession – that was eliminated after all but ten minutes to the now-usual hybrid system of four players at the back. Ball and three in construction. The problem, Nagelsmann later explained, was that Cancelo didn’t seem to get the message. Instead of moving on to play as a number 10 on the right flank, the Portuguese continued to play deep, leaving Leroy Sane unsure where to go. The result was Leverkusen’s defence, with absolutely no pressure and a very deep backline. “It took us a long time to sort ourselves out,” Thomas Müller said after the final whistle.
Nagelsmann initially denied that the cross wires contributed to the defeat and cited poor statistics on offense and defense instead. “It doesn’t help some players to win zero-sum duels,” he said, in a slight exaggeration. Even the alarmingly ineffective Sadio Mane has won at least eleven players to one. But in the post-match press conference, Nagelsmann admitted that the Bayern organization, if you can call it that, played some role in the debacle. Not for the first time in this campaign, he will have to use his international break to think things through. With some players liking his possession-based style and others preferring a more direct style, the Bayern coach may not come up with a formula that everyone in the dressing room will support. But it would help if they all at least understood that.
At the other end of the scale, VfB Stuttgart could fall no further. The Swabians lost 1-0 at home to VfL Wolfsburg – former VfB player Omar Marmoush scored the winning goal – and worries are growing that Bruno Labbadia may not prove to be the ideal date for a relegation battle. Thomas Leitch does better at FC Bochum though: the 54-year-old’s ‘kick and dash’ style saw the RB Leipzig side suffer an impressive 7-0 defeat at the Union.
Bochum moved five points out of the relegation places with this emphatic win, and TSG Hoffenheim can also breathe a little easier again. Pellegrino Matarazzo celebrated his first three-pointer after five consecutive defeats, with a 3-1 victory over Hertha BSC (16th). Sandro Schwartz’s side was not up to the task.
A difficult rebuilding looms in Bundesliga 2.
(Top photo: Joachim Bywaletz/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)