Bayern Munich moved back into the Champions League spots after a narrow and unconvincing win against plucky Borussia Mönchengladbach.
At the start of the current campaign, it’s unlikely that the bigwigs at Bayern and Gladbach would have expected to see their sides struggling to reach the Champions League and avoid the drop respectively. If some people were putting Bayern’s topsy-turvy season down to tiredness, the recent batch of EURO 2012 qualifiers and friendlies could not have come at a worse time – 12 players were called up to represent their nation, compared to Gladbach’s eight (four of whom played for the Germany U19 side, and thus aren’t near Lucien Favre’s first team at club level).
There were few injury problems affecting either side at least, so this tussle between two teams with very different goals would ultimately be decided by events on the pitch only. For the visitors, Mo Idrissou was finally dropped from the starting XI and Logan Bailly kept his place after a howler in round 27. There were no surprises in the home side’s line-up, however. Of course, one might rightly have questioned pre-match how Louis van Gaal would be able to motivate his troops for a game against the bottom side now that Jupp Heynckes has been confirmed as the man taking his place in the summer. Even in *happier* times at the start of the campaign, Van Gaal couldn’t guide Bayern to a win over the strugglers, with Gladbach holding last season’s champions to a 3-3 draw.
From kick-off, Bayern knocked the ball about amongst their defence, drawing Gladbach onto them in a 4-4-2. Given their precarious league position and recent Champions League exit, there was no time to waste for the home side if they wanted the crowd to stay happy, so they sought to attack Gladbach nigh-on instantly down the flanks. But by virtue of pushing their defensive line up to the halfway mark, Bayern were nearly caught out when a speculative ball for Marco Reus to chase saw the young German just about out-muscled by Luis Gustavo inside Bayern’s box. With the defence held back and two sitting midfielders nearly always protecting it, Gladbach were willing to gamble on losing possession from their restarts by going long. In the opening five minutes, Reus was everywhere, and working extremely well off the scraps his colleagues fed him with. Although the home side’s defence managed to just about get their tackles in, Gladbach looked to be growing in confidence, and weren’t shy in making forward passes.
Bayern soon managed to squeeze the life out of the visitors’ momentum by counter-attacking from an underhit Reus corner; Arjen Robben cutting infield to have an attempt on goal from range. Added to that, the hosts pressed the ball high up the pitch with their full-backs tucked in, thereby constantly hurrying the opposition and making turnovers an inevitability. But with Gladbach keeping their own banks compact as possible and limiting the passing options available to the Bayern defence by forming a narrow wall just in front of the halfway line, van Gaal’s side lacked cohesion and a spark. Therefore, although Gladbach’s early adventure had been stifled, a stalemate was ensuing with neither centre-forward having any say in proceedings whatsoever.
Yet as the 20-minute mark approached, Robben seemed to be growing into the game, despite the attentions of two or three opposition players following his every move. This injected a degree of urgency into the rest of the Bayern side, meaning they stood higher so as to give Robben the chance to cut in nearer Bailly’s box and get a shot off while the space was there. Yet a speculative punt forward from Gladbach showed Bayern’s vulnerability – first Holger Badstuber struggled to take the ball down and lost possession. It resulted in a clever diagonal dart from Reus which saw Gustavo panic and haul him down.
Just like Robben had done moments earlier, however, Juan Arango wasted a free-kick from a decent position. Nevertheless, the Venezuelan’s side found a number of set-piece opportunities handed to them by Bayern, who, growing frustrated at being unable to boss the game (Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos frequently bobbed towards their defensive colleagues to get the ball, but found themselves shadowed), persistently scythed down the Gladbach man on the ball in the final-third. While Bayern increasingly took this somewhat lazy option to halting attacks, Gladbach continued to press the ball furiously inside their own half. This was all well and good with half-hour gone, as there was still plenty left in the tanks of the ten outfield players. Yet with the warm afternoon sun draping several sections of the Allianz turf, Gladbach’s energy levels would soon become depleted. Favre partially had this base covered – Brazilian centre-back Dante, this week linked with a transfer to Bayern, often being deployed as a no-nonsense style sweeper (and doing what was asked of him every time).
As Bayern continued to search in vain for a way to break Gladbach down, their attackers began to lose positional discipline. So when not starting short from Bailly in order to wear Bayern’s foremost four players down, there was now room to unleash a visiting full-back. This nearly reaped a reward for Favre and his side when Tony Jantschke flew forward, totally untroubled (neither of Bayern’s full-backs covered themselves in glory in the first half, anonymous in attack and just generally physically and mentally lethargic), and fed Reus through the D (again, scrappy Bayern just about managed to clear their lines). The half petered to a close, with the home side viciously jeered off. Not only had their side underperformed, but they’d just witnessed a forgettable half of football that was in no way value for money.
Personnel-wise, there were no changes at half time. However, there had been a change in the mentality of the Bayern XI, who played like they’d just been given the blowdryer treatment from van Gaal. In the opening few minutes, we witnessed more imaginative and expansive passing, determination and canny movement than we’d seen at any point in the first half from the home side. Franck Ribéry, the epitome of his team’s new-found rejuvenation, was drawing panic, fouls and space. Yet as highlighted by several wasted free-kicks and several one-pass-too-many moments on the edge of the box, there was no still cutting edge to round off the hosts’ build-up play. The Frenchman, absolutely flying at this point, set about showing his team-mates how to worry Bailly, dropping a shoulder inside the box to engineer enough of an angle to swerve a shot just past the Belgian’s left-hand post in the 53rd minute.
Of course, his team-mates were at least helping him to have such an increasing impact – it was their improved movement which began to prise Gladbach’s compact banks apart, giving the right-footed left-winger the time and space to build up speed and formulate plans for his final balls. Thus, rather than allowing themselves to be skinned out wide, thereby letting one of Bayern’s two attacking widemen find space infield, Gladbach’s players began to huddle in and around the D during the defensive phases of play as Bayern camped out in the final-third with their full-backs stood hands-on-hips on their respective strips of chalk (waiting to drop a cross into the box). Yet with so many bodies in and around Bailly’s goal, it wasn’t particularly easy for Bayern to put the right ball in or steer it goalwards.
The home side’s grip on the game and bamboozling of Jantschke meant Favre turned to his bench with just under half-hour to play. Patrick Herrmann, the young right-back’s supposed assistant in halting Bayern’s left-sided assault (kudos to Danijel Pranjić, who had improved considerably in the second half, acting as a worthy foil and apprentice to the master that was Ribéry), was taken off in place of the more experienced Algerian, Karim Matmour. Yet the away side’s main problem was their lack of a bridge between the midfield and attack. Whereas in the first half, they had confidence to try passes even if it meant losing possession, now they had none – merely timidness and fear. Reus and Mike Hanke had become increasingly static and isolated, starved even of speculative punts. The importance of these cynical, direct passes was epitomised in the 69th minute, when a punt by Dante from inside his own box allowed Reus to out-sprint two Bayern defenders, and give Thomas Kraft a fleeting moment of panic. At this point, you felt as though if Favre really wanted to, he could encourage his side to go for all three points.
But when Reus again went close moments later, a series of changes were made by van Gaal (and Favre too, who brought on Idrissou for the ineffectual Hanke, and put him higher than Reus in order to get a fresh pair of legs pressing the ball in Bayern’s half, as well as helping to build a midfield-attack bridge via Reus). Off went Thomas Müller and Kroos, and on came Andreas Ottl (who, unlike Kroos who signed a new long-term deal midweek, sees his deal with Bayern expire at the end of the season), and Miroslav Klose. These were two suitable substitutions from van Gaal because there was no opportunity to be creative in either the support-striker or quarterback roles, so an extra bit of protection to halt Reus and a goal-poacher in the box were just what was needed.
Yet it was the genius of Arjen Robben which saw Bayern finally break the deadlock with 12 minutes left to play, albeit genius aided by some careless passing in the midfield from Gladbach. Cutting in from the left flank but dribbling with his left foot, the Dutch winger showed poise, balance, strength and unselfishness to first dribble the ball from the wing into the box and feed Ribéry, before finally turning in the Frenchman’s clever return pass for 1-0. With Bayern set up in a system and tactics aimed at attacking, they didn’t try and see their one-goal lead out, instead spending the final stages of the game maintaining their assault on Bailly’s goal and keeping Gladbach pinned back. They weren’t able to add a second despite Schweinsteiger and Klose both going close, and Robben’s attempt at winning a penalty (for which he was cautioned). Bayern may have got the job done, but no one in the crowd will have gone home satisfied by what they saw. As for Gladbach, next week’s match at home to Cologne must be won if they’re to have even the slightest chance of staying in the top division.