Bayern Munich swept aside a naive and not particularly bothered Schalke side to all but guarantee their place in next season’s Champions League – aided greatly by the fact that their goal difference is now 30 goals superior to that of their nearest challengers, Hannover.
To many, this game had something of a dead rubber feel pre-match. Despite it still being mathematically possible for Schalke to go down, such an occurrence would be nigh-on impossible. As for the hosts, with Hannover losing to Gladbach earlier on in the afternoon, Bayern knew that a win here would lift them into the third and final Champions League spot – surely a position they wouldn’t relinquish with two games left to play after this one. Thus, they therefore knew that if they failed against Schalke, the likelihood of spending the 2011/12 season in the Europa League would be strong. That competition is one Schalke are destined for, so long as they win the German cup final against Duisburg on May 21. This season’s Champions League final takes place seven days after that, but Schalke won’t be there – a humiliating 2-0 home defeat to Manchester United in the first leg of one of the competition’s semi-finals in the week saw last season’s Bundesliga runners-up totally outclassed, and the upcoming second leg at Old Trafford four days after this tie against last season’s Bundesliga champions rendered somewhat meaningless.
Nonetheless, Manuel Neuer was outstanding against Sir Alex Ferguson’s side in the first leg, and it seems certain that he’ll be playing alongside the eleven players he was tasked with trying to prevent from scoring in this game next season. However, certain fans at the Allianz Arena have been opposed to his arrival for months, holding up ‘Koan Neuer’ placards during home games.
Such trivialities weren’t on caretaker coach Andries Jonker’s mind, however, as his focus was on picking a team whilst having to make do without Luiz Gustavo, Hamit Altıntop, Ivica Olić and Danijel Pranjić. Opposite number Ralf Rangnick, fancying his chances for that aforementioned second leg (which, beneficially I guess, they can at least play without any inhibitions), rested several players, but wasn’t able to pick Tim Hoogland, Benedikt Höwedes, Christoph Moritz, Levan Kenia, Christian Pander, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar or Mario Gavranović anyway. This was the third time this season that these sides had met, and it was Schalke who had come out on top during the first two occasions.
The game started at a terrific pace, both sides running all over the pitch, on and off the ball. Despite both Schalke full-backs demonstrating their intent to fly forward at every opportunity early on, Schalke’s lack of a focal point up front was immediately apparent – Raúl, preferring to do his work deep, was often found outside the box, rendering the surprise early ball into the box impossible for the visitors. Rangnick’s ploy was clear – playing a narrow 4-3-3ish formation with occasional width from the full-backs, his system was designed to suffocate Bastian Schweinsteiger’s passing prowess, restrict the room for Thomas Müller’s darts, and have a net ready for the inevitable Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry cut-ins. But Hans Sarpei rendered any tactical masterplan futile in the fifth minute when three mistakes involving laziness, slowness and a lack of awareness allowed Bayern two chances to test Neuer. They made Schalke pay at the second attempt, when league top scorer Mario Gómez’s persistence gave him the chance to feed Robben, who scruffily poked home for 1-0.
But two minutes later, Schalke were back on level terms. A short corner was played back to Jefferson Farfán, who crossed the ball into an area two yards from goal. For reasons only known to himself, Hans-Jörg Butt pathetically stumbled into a throng of Bayern defenders under no pressure, resulting in Holger Badstuber, under pressure from Joël Matip, tapping the ball in at the back post for an own goal. 1-1.
If the coaches were praying that their sides had eliminated all mistakes from their collective and respective systems early on, those prayers weren’t answered. On 11 minutes, sloppy delegation passes in the Schalke midfield allowed Bayern to run at the away side’s high back line. The tactical foul on Robben probably had to be performed by this stage, but luckily for Schalke, it happened right on the edge of the box. That luck lasted all of two minutes, the time it took to take the free-kick – Robben’s effort hit the wall, but after a second or two of body pinball, it fell kindly to three Bayern players in front of goal, with Müller slamming home the game’s third goal in its 13th minute for 2-1!
In the immediate aftermath, Bayern kept on attacking – quicker in both thought and feet than their guests. Schalke’s system, clever-looking on the pre-match blackboard perhaps, was now working against them. They struggled to get out of their own half, and when they did, the likes of Sarpei were caught out. The Ghanaian wasn’t exactly helped by his defensive colleagues either – they were constantly second-best both mentally and physically, failing to respond to any movement from the Bayern attackers, let alone hold a tight line. Thus, it was no surprise that when Robben crossed for Müller’s untracked dart between the centre-backs in the 19th minute, the young German looped a header over Neuer (emulating Butt by breaching No Man’s Land), allowing the ball to be turned in at the back post for 3-1 by Gómez (who equalled Luca Toni’s 2007/08 record of 24 goals in a league season in the process).
Even Schalke’s deadly right-sided duo, Atsuto Uchida and Farfán, could do next-to-nothing to change matters. Diego Contento was more restrained than Philipp Lahm, thus keeping attacks down his flank corked. Schalke severely lacked a change of pace in both their passing and movement, something which Bayern had in abundance, and ensured that every time they broke on the high and slow away side rearguard, they looked like adding to their tally. They were the ones playing like Champions League semi-finalists – encapsulated in the 28th minute when Müller and Robben exchanged keepy-uppy through-balls, passes which released the latter through the left-side of the box, totally rendering Schalke’s defence helpless. The Dutchman’s eventual dink over the oncoming Neuer found no red-shirted player there to steer home for four, however.
It was Manchester United all over again for Rangnick and his players, and although the coach himself came across as tactically naive, his experienced players were letting him down. Take Raúl, for example; trudging about the pitch, eyes planted firmly on the grass, presumably looking for a vulnerable spot which might swallow him up. When he had a chance in the 35th minute after a brilliant burst forward and first-time ball in from Uchida, the Spaniard stayed static between the two centre-backs, making no effort to get across the one nearest to the ball. Bayern broke from this chance, using Robben down the left, before Farfán pulled him to the floor, collecting a yellow card for his troubles.
Even when the away side saw more of the ball as we entered the last five minutes of the first half, they were still unable to do anything with it due to a lack of an expansive or imaginative passer in the centre of the park. They therefore had to wait until someone had the space to time an overlap down the flank, their centre-midfielders capable of doing this feeding job at least, short side-to-side passes being their speciality.
Rangnick rung the changes for the second half – off went Sarpei and Raúl, and on came Edu and Alexander Baumjohann. The former Hoffenheim coach opted for a formation that veered between 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 – Baumjohann out on the right and Edu up front, with the Brazilian occasionally joined by Farfán up top, albeit with the Peruvian more often than not found lurking in the hole. Anthony Annan had moved over to left-back, with Matip and Peer Kluge now looking to stand higher as a centre-midfield pairing. Although there was more possession and mobility in the final-third for the away side as a result of the change, Bayern were still posing a mean threat on the break. They were evidently quicker than Schalke over the first yard, epitomised by Müller who showed great agility on the edge of the D in the 55th minute to tee himself up for a left-footed power-drive which went straight at Neuer (who then sent an overarm throw more than two-thirds of the way up the pitch to Edu).
When Schalke attempted to draw Bayern out, starting short, the hosts adopted a 4-1-4-1 – the highest ‘4-1’ not pressing at too great a pace, but standing a good distance over the halfway line, with the defensive ‘4-1’ not too far behind that line in their own half. When Bayern did get the ball, they used it with real discipline; playing nothing too hasty, and more content to pull the blue-shirted players back into their first-third, or looking to win free-kicks and corners (winding the clock down all the while). There was a tremendous amount of interchangability from the foremost five for Bayern, with the wingers regularly swapping flanks, and Schweinsteiger and Müller showing for the ball all over, displaying their talents with long-diagonal passes and thunderous long-rangers respectively.
They were aided when going forward or tracking back by the fact that Schalke’s fightback seemed to have died by the time the hour mark came and went. Whereas Bayern still moved freely and hungrily in the final-third, during a promising Schalke hold on possession in the opposition half in the 63rd minute, the lack of movement was pretty inexcusable, especially with so many blue-shirted players in and around the Bayern box (an area of the pitch protected by a bunch of defenders who the world and his dog know are dodgy). Four minutes later, after Uchida cleverly sprinted infield to allow Kluge to collect the ball on the left strip of chalk and reach the byline after a series of feigned attempts at doing so, neither forward made any real effort to move onto the eventual – admittedly underhit – pull-back.
Jonker made a clever man-management decision in the 72nd minute, taking off Contento despite the youngster not putting a foot wrong (a move that ensured he wouldn’t go on to make an error at all). Badstuber moved over to left-back, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk dropped to centre-back, with the man who replaced Contento, Andreas Ottl, moving to the centre of midfield. The temporary uncertainty that followed this switch allowed Schalke to open Bayern up. Annan, who more often than not slowed things down, cleverly picked out Kluge in front of the D after the midfielder had jogged into acres of space. He pushed the ball out to Baumjohann on the flank, who had the chance to run diagonally at Badstuber, the young defender still having his centrally-positioned mindset. However, the rejuvenated German winger’s touch was poor, allowing Badtuber to clear the danger. Rangnick opted to make his third and final change in the 79th minute, replacing Matip with Sergio Escudero (who went to left-back, forging an all Spanish left-sided pairing with José Jurado, while Annan moved back to the centre of midfield alongside Kluge). And as the game petered to a close, Miroslav Klose came on in the 82nd minute, making either his penultimate appearance at the Allianz Arena before he leaves in the summer.
Despite being on the pitch, the veteran forward had little to do with Bayern’s fourth, which followed two minutes after his arrival. It involved Ribéry breaking through a tired and static defence on the right and pulling back for Müller. The youngster had enough time to recover from Neuer saving his first strike – the young custodian was off his line and using his legs superbly all evening – to bury the second for 4-1. It was goal number 12 of a post-World Cup season for the 21-year-old. It summed up the game in a nutshell – the positivity, energy and cleverness of the hosts proving too much for their guests.