Up until a week ago beating Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich seemed just about impossible. Other than the loss to Manchester City in an inconsequential game in the Champions League group stage Bayern had been undefeated under Guardiola going back to July.
Fast forward a week and Bayern find themselves in their poorest run of form in over three years. The draws against Hoffenheim and Manchester United followed by their loss to Augsburg means Bayern have failed to win three consecutive competitive games for the first time since 2011, then under Louis van Gaal.
Their 53-match unbeaten run in the Bundesliga has also come to an end as have 63 consecutive games in which Bayern have scored. While both streaks could not have gone on forever the manner in which they ended was quite worrying.
Pure and simple, Bayern actually look vulnerable and beatable for the first time this season, which means Manchester United are facing the defending champions at the perfect time in their second leg quarterfinal match this week.
Of course, it should be said that Bayern securing the title early has played some part in their last two league results. That said, Guardiola was adamant about seeing out the remainder of the league in strong fashion, and Bayern wanted to maintain their unbeaten record.
Yet a sense of complacency perhaps, along with a visible drop in performance, has crept up that resulted in arguably the three most disappointing performances of the season all in a span of eight days and ahead of their most important game this season
Last week’s 3-3 draw against Hoffenheim was the first time Bayern conceded three goals in a league match this season. In fact, it was a series of firsts for the record champions. It was the first time they dropped points at home this season and also the first time they dropped points in a league game after leading by two goals. It was also the first time they conceded three goals at home since 2011.
The list of first goes on and on. The point is Bayern looked like a shadow of themselves, and even with several first-choice players out there they had a difficult time keeping up with Hoffenheim.
Sure enough, Bayern started slower than usual against Hoffenheim. But they also finished poorly. There was a lack of pace in their game and they seemed overwhelmed by Hoffenheim’s pressure. They allowed a season-high 20 shots on goal in that game, also the first time their opponent created more chances than them.
Similarly, Bayern struggled to deal with the pressure exerted by Augsburg this weekend. Usually so comfortable in control Bayern were too casual in possession, and the defense caved under that pressure too easily at times.
These two games indicate that without Bayern’s tight control in midfield, they make themselves extremely vulnerable to turnovers. Just as Manchester United did last week by bypassing their midfield and running at the two center-backs, Augsburg and Hoffenheim exposed the sometimes slow Bayern backline.
Guardiola started three inexperienced young players against Augsburg, but like the Hoffenheim game, the overall shape and comfort in possession was lacking. They mustered just one chance in the first half, and Guardiola had to make changes an hour into the game to try and restore some semblance of order.
Against United Guardiola will be without the influential Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thiago and the versatile Javi Martinez, all of whom are crucial in maintaining Bayern’s possession game. Toni Kroos and Philipp Lahm will start in midfield for Bayern and there lies United’s biggest opportunity to exploit Bayern.
One of Thomas Muller or Mario Gotze will start ahead of them, and because both usually play a more advanced attacking role, United could do to Bayern what both Hoffenheim and Augsburg did.
Instead of going direct with long balls over the top and counter attacks, Moyes should try to match Bayern in midfield. Or in this case, potentially outmatch them in midfield. It does not necessarily have to mean United outpossess Bayern, but the opportunity is there to choke them enough and cut off the supply to their attackers.
Bayern relied very heavily on Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery to create most of their chances in the first leg because Schweinsteiger and Kroos did not get involved enough in attacks in the final third. And that was with three central midfielders.
If United cut off the supply to Ribery and Robben and put enough pressure on Kroos and Lahm in midfield they could disrupt Bayern’s game entirely. Guardiola may very well have his own game plan for this game with all the absences, but the opportunity to upset Bayern is very much there for the taking.
Follow Cristian on twitter @cnyari