Could Bayern's pressing issues give hope to the rest of the league?

Part one: Do Bayern only work if their intensity is at 100%?

Originally, this piece started out as a power rankings exercise, but since everyone pretty much still thinks Bayern will win the Bundesliga (FiveThirtyEight has them at 76% down from a high of 81-84%), they’re still number one. So, the power rankings will commence after we’re done with Bayern.

How we got here aka the Hansi Flick show

  • Hansi Flick’s turnaround job (I think we started this bandwagon) has yielded 5 titles and 3 losses with a ridiculous 37 wins from 41 matches (the lone draw came vs Leipzig in February) and a presumably great book by our good friend Justin Kraft:

    There are multiple elements on the team (using Kimmich and Thiago together, Goretzka the runner) and individual level (rejuvenating Müller, incorporating Davies, turning Alaba into an elite CB) that played in a part seismic shift from Kovac’s lackluster Bayern to Flick’s high-intensity machine that ran over world football, but none more important than pressing. In simplest terms, Bayern could afford to take risks of playing the highest line in the big 5, because most of the time their pressing would force turnovers (hi there Barcelona) and teams would just end up behind. Flick proved to be correct in his assumption that were Bayern’s first line to be overcome, they would have the athleticism (Alaba, Davies and even Neuer) or the positional sense (Neuer sweeping, Boateng intercepting and blocking, Kimmich shuttling between midfield and defense) to only give up 1-2 chances a game - which Neuer usually would save. If teams attacked their buildup there would be a price to pay with Thiago and Kimmich’s passing\press resistance and they could unleash Davies\Gnabry in transition. Finally, thanks to a more compact shape (high line helps in this sense, because the distances between the players are closers), their improved counterpressing would win the ball back and recovery defenses would have to deal with Gnabry, Müller or Lewandowski.

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    Pressing the panic button on Bayern’s pressing

    In light of those virtues and after a dream 2020 calendar year and UCL win, it’s understandable why the FCB brass didn’t feel the need to strengthen the best team in the world. Even when they allowed Thiago to leave and lost some fringe loan players like Coutinho, Perisic and Michael Cuisance, and thus needed to hang on to Javi Martinez (although the fairy tale winning goal vs Sevilla was really cool), only the more astute Bayern fans were becoming worried about squad depth, fatigue and other issues.

    Although we’re not Bayern fans, Constantin Eckner and I discussed on the Bundesliga preview pod that the greatest enemy Bayern (and other top teams like Liverpool, Manchester City or PSG who have all suffered shock losses already) will face this season is not an actual team, but the schedule. With matches at least every 3-4 days from the beginning of September to Christmas on top of basically one week of preseason after the longest football season in recent history, Bayern are just TIRED for good reason:

    In the 96 days between September 18th and December 23rd, the 2nd round of the DFB Pokal, Bayern players will have played 13 Bundesliga matches, 2 cup games, 2 Super cups, 6 match days in the UCL + various national team commitments in 3 international breaks totaling up to 9 more matches), altogether potentially 32 matches. That’s with a spring schedule that will see them compete in 21 Bundesliga matches until May 23rd, plus more UCL\Cup\national team with the Euros beginning June 11th. All during a completely wild pandemic….

    Some of these problems manifested themselves the performances against Sevilla (building out of the back vs pressure), Dortmund (transition defense and counterpressing) and Hertha (again) the match that forced the hand of the Bayern leadership was the 4-1 loss vs Hoffenheim:

    There’s ample evidence, that Bayern’s intensity is just way down. In the Statsbomb comparison radar we can see that despite a lower PPDA (traditionally though to signal amore intense pressing) and similar defensive distance\aggression numbers, Bayern are just shipping xG at an absurd rate: they went from being in the 89th percentile to the SEVENTH percentile, or in other words are on pace to concede 54xG which is on the level of Mainz, Düsseldorf, Augsburg from last season…..

    It is difficult to say whether fatigue and the lack of depth is the sole cause of these problems, but as I wanted to understand their pressing difficulties better I took a quick look at some numbers via fbref:

    • In terms of attacking third pressures Bayern are down from 47 per match to 40, suggesting a tamer high press

    • in the middle third, they are down from 63 pressure events per match to just 44.6, a drop of THIRTY percent - defensive third is 33 to 30, so a minor downturn only

    • individually, their key actors are also way down in terms of pressure events: Thomas Müller, perhaps the best pressing second striker, number ten, etc. in the world is putting up 14.3 vs 22.8 last season, while Robert Lewandowski has halved his 12.5 pressures to 5.8. Other important and younger pieces like Gnabry and Davies are also down from 17 to 12-13, suggesting it is more likely fatigue\pacing themselves rather than age like with Lewy and Müller. What is more Lewandowski and Müller are crucial for pressing, because their pressing actions take place in the attacking third (75% for Lewy, 45% for Müller). The Polish striker, besides all of his goalscoring-creating prowess was 13th in the big 5 in terms of attacking third pressures, while Müller was 57th despite playing jus 25 of 34 matches, thanks to Niko Kovac.

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    While I don’t have the answer to their fatigue levels (other than watching all the matches), there might be something to the idea that Bayern were never likely to start quickly this season - for who’s really going to challenge them given the pandemic losses/Sancho issues of Dortmund, the Werner-Schick departures at Leipzig - just don’t mention that to Hansi Flick Flocka Flame:

    One thing we can say with certainty that Kahn, Rummenigge and Salihamidzic drew the conclusion\finally realized Flick’s pleas for help were justified.

    In part two we’ll take a look at how the likes of Choupo-Moting, Sarr, Roca, Douglas Costa and Tiago Dantas address these issues.

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