Saturday, August 23, 2014

Bayern start Bundesliga campaign with fortuitous win

Bayern Munich got their bid to win a third consecutive domestic title underway with an exciting victory over Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga season opener. Here are some reflections on the match.

Gaudino has an impressive debut

For fans who don’t pay much heed to pre-season fixtures (including this observer) the inclusion of Gianluca Gaudino’s name in the team sheet came as a major surprise. A quick Wikipedia search before kick-off revealed the 17-year old made it to the first team squad after impressing Pep Guardiola in pre-season. It took less than five minutes to realize why.

Playing at the base of midfield ahead of a back three, the youngster displayed remarkable composure on the ball and kept the team moving forward with sensible passes. As the first half wore on, his movement and range of passing made him more prominent in Bayern’s play. Gaudino could have had the first assist of the match but for a miss by Robert Lewandowski. Like the rest of the team, Gaudino faded in the last 20 minutes as Wolfsburg began to dominate. That phase of play wasn’t to detract from a fantastic performance. The standing ovation he got in the 90th minute was a fitting tribute to an excellent debut.

It is still too early to make any major pronouncements on someone so young and sterner tests await. One has to consider the fact that when Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thiago Alcantara return to full fitness, it’s going to be difficult for Gaudino to get a starting spot. Such a scenario would benefit the youngster anyway, but in Guardiola he has a manager that won’t shy away from starting him on the biggest stage. The senior players will be aware that they can’t afford to suffer a drop in form. Guardiola has stated that he is going to add midfielders to the squad and it would be wise to do so. Failing that, Bayern can draw comfort in Gaudino, as we may witness the burgeoning of a new midfield orchestrator at the Allianz Arena this season.

Guardiola shows his tactical flexibility

Gaudino wasn’t the only novelty on display, as Guardiola implemented a hitherto unseen 3–4–3 formation for Bayern. While the formation itself caught Wolfsburg off guard, seeing Phillip Lahm play as a centre-back and David Alaba on the left side of midfield added to the surprise element. Most managers would struggle with tactics in light of the current injury situation at Bayern. One also has to consider the fact that many of the World Cup winning stars are not yet at peak fitness. Guardiola took it in his stride and implemented a system that best suits the players currently at his disposal.

It wouldn’t surprise anyone if Guardiola continues to experiment with a variety of formations and tweak systems as the rest of the first team gets up to speed. Critics may consider it unnecessary experimentation, but it augurs well for Bayern that Guardiola can make his team so versatile. If Bayern want to conquer all fronts, Guardiola’s tactical flexibility and problem-solving abilities will put them in good stead.

Wolfsburg’s strength on the wings

After missing out on Champions League qualification to Bayer Leverkusen last season, the Wolves will be looking to go one step further this time around. Dieter Hecking’s team look like they are going to entertain the neutrals again this campaign. Wolfsburg deserved a point from the match after giving Bayern’s defence a torrid time in the second half.

That the Wolves managed to make life so difficult on Bayern’s home patch was down to their play on both wings. Kevin De Bruyne has played well at the Volkswagen Arena since joining from Chelsea during the winter transfer window. The Belgian international had a good game, although the final ball at times was lacking. Besides De Bruyne, Wolfsburg threatened on the wings through their full-backs Ricardo Rodriguez and Sebastian Jung. The Swiss international left-back is certain to move to a bigger club sooner rather than later if he maintains his form. It was the introduction of Daniel Caliguiri ahead of Rodriguez on the left that rattled Bayern in the last quarter of the game. After getting some joy past Lahm a few times, Caliguiri delivered the cross of the game that should have earned the visitors a point. Denied by Manuel Neuer’s superb reflexes at first, Junior Malanda followed up with an early contender for miss of the season as he blasted his rebound wide.

On the basis of this performance Hecking will know that there won’t be many teams in the Bundesliga who will be able to live with his attack for most of the season. Ivica Olic maintained his excellent scoring record in the Bundesliga with a sensational goal. Alongside the veteran, if Ivan Perisic and Bas Dost can maintain their form from last season, the Wolves won’t be lacking for goals. Even the defensive midfield duo of Luiz Gustavo and Josuha Guilavogui looks solid. Hecking should look to add a creative presence in the centre of the park so that there is greater attacking variety. If that signing happens before the transfer deadline, Wolfsburg can be confident of finishing in the top four and qualifying for the Champions League.

Bayern’s defence vulnerable

Fans of Die Rotten may still have nightmares of Real Madrid’s front three running past their defence at will in last season’s Champions League semifinals. Many will now hope that the opening display against Wolfsburg wasn’t a portent of things to come.

In mitigation it was Holger Badstuber’s first game in the team after injury ruled him out of the whole of last season. To his credit, Badstuber was comfortable until he lost Olic for Wolfsburg’s goal. The goal was also a reminder that for all his glorious sweeping prowess, Neuer can sometimes be a little too cocky with his passes. It was his risky ball that resulted in Wolfsburg having the throw that led to the goal.

Javi Martinez’s injury couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time for Bayern. Guardiola must now hope that Badstuber regains his best form as soon as possible. The tail end of last season and a nightmarish World Cup suggest that Dante’s best days are behind him. The ideal scenario in the second half of the season would see Bayern pair the World Cup winning Boateng alongside a revitalized Badstuber. A returning Martinez would be handy as well. In the meantime Guardiola might get away with playing Dante against most teams in the Bundesliga. In the Champions League he will have to rely on his side’s attacking prowess to navigate the group stages.

Robben and Muller are Bayern’s main men

After helping Borussia Dortmund to so much success, Robert Lewandowski finally became a Bayern Munich player this season. Lewandowski linked up well with his attacking teammates and created some nice chances including the assist for the second goal. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to score for his new team as he missed a few sitters that should have resulted in a debut hat trick.

Lewandowski might well end up playing a crucial part in Bayern having a successful season by scoring lots of goals. Regardless of his results, Bayern know that when it comes to delivering in the final third, it doesn’t get better than Arjen Robben and Thomas Muller. The duo were spectacular at the World Cup and a lethargic start to the season would have been understandable. That isn’t an option for either player as they delivered the goals that got Bayern the victory.

For one shorn of his hair from an early age, Robben hasn’t seemed to age at all on the field. Still able to run and dribble at pace, the Dutch winger was at the heart of Bayern’s attacking moves for most of the match including his delightful cross for Muller’s goal. Muller was his usual self, small sensible passes mixed with excellent positioning and movement in the final third. The Raumdeuter performs in telling moments and this display was no different. Bayern possess one of the most well-rounded squads in Europe, but for all their quality there is no denying the fact, that the talents of Robben and Muller complete the dominance of the team.