Defensively, Bayern Munich were all over the place in their 1-1 Champions League draw with Ajax at the Allianz Arena. After going 1-0 up thanks to a Mats Hummels header, Bayern invited Ajax right back into the match. Bayern frankly could have easily conceded more than one goal had it not been for several heroic saves by Manuel Neuer.
Bayern can consider themselves lucky to escape the encounter with a 1-1 draw. They just looked far too unconvincing at the back.
Dealing with direct long-balls
It’s an age-old tactic in football, but it is still effective in the right circumstances; the long, direct ball. Although Ajax didn’t necessarily set out to play the long-ball game against Bayern, they utilized it when the right moment came. It’s so often the case that teams come to the Allianz Arena and set up defensive blocks to absorb all of the pressure Bayern put on them, waiting for their chances to surge forward; Ajax were able to do far more than that.
Ajax knew that they could rely on the pace of their forwards and midfielders against the center-back pairing of Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng, who don’t boast particularly fast top speeds. A recent SportBild article revealed that this was a tactic that Niko Kovac himself used in the DFB-Pokal final when he was still Eintracht Frankfurt manager. Knowing that his attacking players were much quicker than Hummels, Kovac had urged Kevin-Prince Boateng to play long balls to Ante Rebic on Hummels’s side of the pitch.
Against Ajax, both Hummels and Boateng struggled to cope with the amount of direct balls that were played forward, especially as both Joshua Kimmich and David Alaba press high up the pitch in the second half. Identifying this Achilles heel and working on spatial awareness in both the defense and midfield is an absolute must for Bayern moving forward. We will perhaps soon see Niklas Sule become a bonafide starter at center-back.
Covering open spaces
Ajax’s goal highlighted just how poor Bayern were defending and covering open spaces. For the goal, Noussair Mazraoui was allowed to dribble right through Franck Ribery, David Alaba, and Javi Martinez before exchanging a lovely give-and-go with Dušan Tadić to give himself a few yards of space to slot home his left-footed effort.
When Boateng stepped up to close down Tadić, Hummels was sent wide to track Donny van de Beek’s diagonal run, which left wide open space behind Boateng. Alaba was caught trying to catch up to Mazraoui, but he was one or two steps behind, so there was little he could do at that point.
Goal Ajax form Noussair Mazraoui. 1-1
— World Football (@goooooooools) October 2, 2018
Ajax’s runs throughout the match highlighted just how out of sorts Bayern’s defense was. The normal cohesion of the back line just wasn’t there. Instead, Bayern seemed to struggle to keep track of runs, caught between two minds whether they should track the man or the space.
Getting caught out with numbers forward
As was the case with Germany at the World Cup, there were far too many occasions when Boateng, Hummels, Alaba, and Kimmich were positioned high up the pitch in Bayern’s search for a second goal, leaving wide open space for Ajax to attack. Once the visitors won the ball, they launched counter-attacks freely. It took only a single outlet pass to reach dangerous areas inside Bayern’s half. Neither Boateng or Hummels are the quickest center-backs, and they were out-paced numerous times by Ajax’s relatively youthful attacking core comprised of Dušan Tadić, Hakim Ziyech, Donny van de Beek, and David Neres (the four players have an average age of just 24).
In the second half in particular, Ajax repeatedly capitalized on Bayern’s poor positioning, with two main outcomes: Ajax either registered an attempt on goal, or they forced a foul from Bayern, winning a free kick in a dangerous position.
Where to go from here?
As BFW’s own Jake Fenner has alluded to in his formation analysis piece, Bayern’s defense could perhaps benefit from a tactical switch to a 3-5-2 formation — something Kovac deployed quite often when he was Frankfurt manager. With a 3-5-2 system, the back three could potentially receive more protection from the holding midfielders, giving wing-backs (presumably David Alaba and Joshua Kimmich) license to bomb forward and get involved in the attack. As Jake himself notes, this system would also eliminate some of the alleged unrest that’s arisen as a result of Kovac’s heavy rotation policy.
It might not be an end-all solution, but with the resources Kovac has at his disposal, it’s well and truly worth a shot to help get Bayern out of this mini rut they’ve found themselves in.