Even Bayern Munich’s best players are making mistakes. Thiago Alcantara – the only footballer with vision through the middle for the Bavarians during Saturday’s meeting with Borussia Monchengladbach – casually turned into Jonas Hofmann’s not-so-hard press after receiving a pass from Manuel Neuer.
Five seconds later, the visitors scored their second in a 3-0 win.
Some sympathetic viewers may attribute Bayern’s winless four-game run to unfortunate and uncharacteristic errors – Neuer flapped at a cross for Augsburg’s late equalizer that began the poor streak for Niko Kovac’s side, and Jerome Boateng conceded a penalty in the defeat at Hertha Berlin – after they started the campaign with seven wins, but that would be shortsighted. The truth is, Bayern are quite easy to play against, and Kovac’s resources to address their slump are thin. The board should have seen this coming.
Over the years, Bayern Munich have looked at their big-spending rivals in Europe with disdain. There was almost an arrogance at how they would scoff and refuse to make a huge splurge in the transfer market. But when Der FCB lost in the DFB-Pokal final to Eintracht Frankfurt – then handled by Kovac – there appeared to be cracks in their resolve.
“If we want a player and he costs us €80 million or even €90 million, we must make that leap one day,” chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said in May. “I don’t know whether this will be this year or next year.”
It should have been this year. Bayern Munich were ruinously one-dimensional during their latest weekend wrangle. They produced 30 crosses to Gladbach’s five, with a third of Bayern’s hopeful deliveries from the flank coming from Joshua Kimmich.
Inventiveness and purposefulness in the center started and ended with Thiago, the anchor in midfield, as Leon Goretzka – the only marquee signing over the summer, and he was free after his Schalke contract expired – ineffectively bumped against a deep defensive block, and Thomas Muller simply got in the way. James Rodriguez and Arjen Robben started wide for Bayern, and when Kovac withdrew Robben and Muller at the interval he brought in two more wingers: Serge Gnabry and a struggling Franck Ribery. There was no inkling of a plan B.
Naturally, a slump in form triggers questions about the manager’s role, and some are rueing the decision to overlook Hoffenheim’s Julian Nagelsmann (who has since agreed to take over RB Leipzig at the end of the season) when appointing Kovac.
Kovac was seen as the better option due to his superior experience and – perhaps most vitally in the insular, nepotic environment at Bayern Munich – his previous employment in the club’s midfield. That may give Kovac time to correct things but, primarily, so should the fact he wasn’t trusted with pricey recruitments for the 2018-19 season.
Corentin Tolisso’s dynamism has been sorely missed, and beyond him, the options aren’t good enough. Many of the club’s European rivals would have dumped Muller by now, but he remains an integral part of the first-team furniture despite a severe drop in productivity since the start of the 2016-17 term. Reinstating Renato Sanches and hoping he’ll find some consistency after two miserable seasons is a gamble. The center of midfield was a position Bayern Munich should have bolstered to keep the squad fresh and competitive. But in their current guise there’s little choice for Kovac, aside from exhausting Muller and Sanches.
Now that David Alaba has fallen to injury, desperately low resources in that department have been exposed. Rafinha, at 33, was already a haggard, uncomfortable right-footed second choice at left-back or left wing-back, but he’s also sidelined with an ankle issue. His rehabilitation may have to be stepped up over the international break. Otherwise, Kovac will have to get creative with somebody playing out of position.
The most pawed-over weakness is at center-back. Boateng’s talents are clearly declining, and his morale is bleak after he voiced concerns over a lack of public support from the club during his summer links to Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United. Attempting fewer tackles per 90 minutes is evidence of his receding physical gifts, and he’s also committing more unsuccessful touches compared to previous campaigns.
Rummenigge echoed earlier sentiments when he said in September that Bayern have a “different philosophy to some European rivals.” It sounded like an excuse after his concession four months prior that a €90-million signing is nigh. The club has glaring issues, making a bid for Champions League glory unlikely, and collecting a seventh-straight Bundesliga trophy doesn’t seem so straightforward – a predicament which seemed unthinkable in the season’s earlier days.
When Xabi Alonso retired in 2017, a new era for the club was heralded. Instead, an aging team has gradually shed numbers and overall quality, and picking up the pieces has been left to Kovac. This time they surely can’t turn to Jupp Heynckes again.