This could have been Tuesday night all over again. So much of Bayern Munich’s play dazzled a sold-out PreZero Arena, and the champions could easily have done to Hoffenheim what they had done to Red Bull Salzburg four days previously. Maybe the difference between the two games was just “a little bit of luck,” as Thomas Müller said it was.
There was certainly little sense of anguish or regret. Julian Nagelsmann may have the luxury of being able to look at the process knowing that the results will likely follow, but he was satisfied with his team’s performance. Bayern are playingmuch more fluently than they were even a few weeks ago. That they didn’t hand out a second successive thrashing to disoriented opponents was more down to fine margins, with three goals chalked off for offside, and the excellence of a very busy Oliver Baumann in Hoffenheim’s goal.
Yet here Bayern are, improbably, on the brink of being dragged back into a Bundesliga title race, and it’s only natural to wonder how this happened. Borussia Dortmund are far from their strongest, decimated by Covid and injury; on Sunday, they squeezed past struggling Arminia Bielefeld thanks to a single goal by Marius Wolf – who would surely not be playing in a healthier squad. Following their Europa League exit to Rangers, it felt as if BVB’s season was over. Yet if they win their game in hand at Mainz – themselves coming off a hiatus caused by a Covid outbreak – they will nestle just four points behind Bayern with eight games left.
You might feel, justifiably, that the carrot of potential competitiveness has been dangled in front of us before. Dortmund have, though, something to feel optimistic about for the first time in weeks – quite unexpectedly. On Sunday, Erling Haaland and Gio Reyna both made their returns as substitutes. Raphaël Guerreiro and Mats Hummels may well have recovered and others are expected to come back too, while who knows how Mainz will emerge from their lockdown?
That Marco Rose’s team are even in this position of promise feels surreal, or it will do if they can treat themselves to maximum points this midweek.Nagelsmann’s calm is entirely justified, and not just because of BVB’s recurrent habit of fumbling this genre of opportunity. Bayern are undoubtedly great to watch but while the resounding win over Salzburg might have impressed the world at large, those who watched the game rather than the highlights will be aware of their overcommitment to attack, and its potential consequences against better opponents.
“I’ve been asked the question 1,734 times in the last few weeks,” Nagelsmann said in his post-match press conference on Saturday, with more than a hint of exasperation, about his attack-first credo. The three-man defence, with Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman as wing-backs, has been examined more forensically than the lack of a defensive-minded partner for Joshua Kimmich in midfield, and gives the impression of a devil-may-care attitude. “I find it disrespectful to Serge and King [Coman] because the whole world says they can’t defend,” Nagelsmann retorted. “They are world-class players, professional footballers, so defending is part of it.”
Whether they should be asked to defend like defenders, however, is a different question entirely. Having wide players who can make off-ball efforts has been integral to the strategies of Bayern’s best teams for well over a decade – the shared work ethic of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry is part of what made them such an effective partnership. Seeing Coman dash back into his own six-yard box to make a last-ditch block, as he did on Salzburg’s Nicolás Capaldo in the opening two minutes of last week’s Champions League return is something else. It suggests neither great organisation nor a sustainable plan.
The current situation also reflects a lack of alternatives in the squad, not least in midfield with injuries to Leon Goretzka and Corentin Tolisso, while the wing-back recipe underlines the huge importance of Alphonso Davies, who is back in light training but is still a few weeks away from a full return.
Nagelsmann is not inclined to complain about his less-than-perfect room for manoeuvre – and nor should he – but when he said that “Bayern may differ from other clubs in that certain decisions are also made with the players’ consultation,” he perhaps glossed over the fact that the team almost picks itself at the moment – and there are certain strengths on which Bayern have no option but to lean.
Whether Dortmund can take advantage – and who knows how much a refreshed Haaland can do – is a question for later in the week. For now, Bayern are playing beautiful and flawed football, and competitiveness could even end up being the winner.
After their latest reverse at Borussia Mönchengladbach – allowing the hosts a much-needed 2-0 win and their first clean sheet in four months – Hertha finally drew curtains on the Tayfun Korkut era, announcing the coach’s departure on Sunday morning. Just in case you were thinking everything was finally heading for an even keel, though, Hertha then announced his replacement in the early evening: none other than Felix Magath. In a February interview with Kicker, the 68-year-old spoke out at length against his tyrannical image, noting that he has studied psychiatry to become “more sensitive to psychological issues”. But his appointment does underline the post’s lack of attractiveness to candidates like Niko Kovac.
Leverkusen’s derby defeat at home to Köln, authored by substitute Kingsley Schindler’s tidy second-half volley just after coming on, was disappointing enough. But the whole day was overshadowed by the sight of Florian Wirtz being stretchered off in the first half – and the club’s worst fears were realised, with swift confirmation that their teenage star had ruptured his cruciate ligament.
Leipzig continued their fluent form despite going a goal down in the first five minutes at Greuther Fürth; after conceding to Jamie Leweling’s smart finish, Domenico Tedesco’s men led 4-1 by the interval, on their way to a 6-1 victory which sees them in fourth place. “We have a clear plan again,” Emil Forsberg told Dazn of Tedesco, after scoring one and creating two of the goals. “He brought the team back. We’re just playing really great football at the moment.”
The race for the third and fourth Champions League places is close, with Leipzig now just a point behind Leverkusen but level with sixth-placed Hoffenheim and fifth-placed Freiburg – who beat Wolfsburg in a thriller thanks to a late piledriver from their defensive star Nico Schlotterbeck, having given up a 2-0 lead. Die Wölfe’s comeback had been sparked by Max Kruse’s goal, and he was not tender in describing the shortcomings of his team’s young backlinewhen explaining his frustration at the late loss to Sky. “We defended, to put it bluntly, like shit,” moaned Kruse. “We just can’t let in goals like that and we do far too often.”