Bayern Munich's 2-0 loss to Borussia Dortmund in last week's DFL Superpokal was a doubly devastating blow for the Bundesliga double-winners, who in addition to losing the game also lost Javi Martinez for the majority of the season.
The Spanish center-back's acrobatic attempt at a volley backfired when his leg collided with Marcel Schmelzer. The incident forced his substitution, and MRI later confirmed that he had torn his anterior cruciate and lateral collateral knee ligaments. The prognosis for Martinez is not good: Six to seven months on the sidelines, then a slow and gradual return to training. The injury is unlikely to be career-threatening, but it will take some luck and a yeoman's effort in rehab training for him to be at 100 percent for Bayern's most important matches next spring.
Martinez's loss is a bitter one for Bayern, but not one beyond the club's ability to compensate for. It may even lead Pep Guardiola to use less experimental and more pragmatic tactics, those that might better suit his players.
Although Guardiola praised him (per Bild, h/t Goal.com) for being in great form before his injury, Martinez had actually looked anything but sturdy in the center of a three-man defense that was short of natural defenders. He made a poor mistake that led to a penalty against Monchengladbach in the Telekom Cup and didn't exactly cover himself in glory in Bayern's loss to the MLS All-Stars. He didn't finish even the first half of his first competitive match of the season, against BVB, but in that time struggled with his positioning. He was often either too high up the pitch or too deep, in either case leaving space for opponents to run into.
The BVB match was typical of Martinez's experience as a center-back. He's had some good games, including one especially stellar performance in May's DFB-Pokal final, but more often than not he's struggled when put to the test. Radamel Falcao ran him ragged in the Europa League final in his last season at Bilbao, and there's no mystery why Jupp Heynckes used Martinez in midfield, decidedly his best position, after signing him in 2012.
Martinez's struggles at center-back are entirely understandable. Center-backs usually don't reach their peak until their mid-20s, after several years of learning the positional intuition to play the position. Martinez has been shuffled from midfield to defense and back again and again during his career; given the continued changes and his relative inexperience playing at center-back, it's no surprise that he's still rather green in defense.
With Bayern down to just three natural center-backs (Jerome Boateng, Dante and Holger Badstuber), among whom Badstuber hadn't played competitively for more than 20 months before Sunday, Guardiola will have to be careful in his planning. In previous years, the likes of Martinez, Luiz Gustavo or Anatoliy Tymoshchuk could be used as emergency cover at the back if needed, but Bayern currently lack a holding midfielder with all the physical qualities needed to play in central defense.
Bayern at this point are at least one and at most two injuries and/or suspensions from needing to resort to very questionable tactics. They can and must sign another center-back, a natural defender who may be good on the ball but who also is experienced as a defender and who understands the role. Mehdi Benatia would be perfect, a much more reliable option in defense than Martinez.
Beyond signing a new center-back, Bayern may be forced to use a four-man defense, thus ending the "no-defenders" defense of Martinez, Rafinha and David Alaba that featured prominently during the preseason. The new three-man defense tactic is one that simply hasn't worked when put to the test against serious opposition and, although something can be said for Bayern's players being fatigued and not in the best of shape following the World Cup, has theoretical weaknesses if Alaba and/or Rafinha are used in defense.
Alaba's talent on the ball is wasted in central defense and although he offers much-needed pace at the back, his sleight stature make him less than ideal for dealing with burly forwards in an area of the pitch in which muscle is especially needed. A similar explanation can be given for Rafinha being an unwise choice in such a role. Both are full-backs, full-stop. It's possible that the system would become increasingly effective throughout the campaign as players become acquainted with it, but there is no such guarantee. And there certainly is no guarantee that it, or a back three of Badstuber, Dante and Boateng would work better than a tried-and-true method involving the use of Alaba and Philipp Lahm as full-backs in a four-man defense with a double pivot in midfield.
Guardiola may have a personal motivation to achieve succession his own, unique, innovative way, but there are worse fates for a team than being forced to play with a less far-out approach than the trainer would prefer. Bayern have a squad of elite players; they proved this in reaching three Champions League finals in four seasons before Guardiola's tenure and in having seven winners and nine semifinalists from the 2014 World Cup. If they play to their already well-understood strengths, they can reestablish themselves as the top club in Europe. Although a hefty blow at first, Martinez's injury could well push Bayern to achieve their potential in a system they understand and can implement from an early stage in the campaign.
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