Bayern Munich Defense Impresses, Attack Flops with Juventus Clash on the Horizon

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Bayern Munich Defense Impresses, Attack Flops with Juventus Clash on the Horizon
Martin Meissner/Associated Press

On a typical day, Bayern Munich can steamroll their opponents in the Bundesliga. Man for man, they're miles ahead of any team the likes of Augsburg, Hoffenheim, Darmstadt and Hannover can field. So it is in the few games when the talent gap is somewhat narrower that Bayern's true form can be assessed.

On Saturday, Bayern played against a Bayer Leverkusen team that were vastly inferior to their opponents yet still a very strong team: Overall, Roger Schmidt's side had talent to offer in every part of the pitch, and the former Red Bull Salzburg manager had enough tactical nous to bring the best out of his team.

This was a Werkself side that had pushed Bayern to penalties in the DFB-Pokal a year before and done the same with Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Champions League round of 16 in 2015.

If there was ever going to be a form check for Bayern ahead of their Champions League run-in with Juventus on February 23, it was playing Leverkusen at the BayArena.

On balance, Bayern and Leverkusen both deserved their 0-0 draw: No more, no less. It was an evenly played game. The Bavarians were held to a modest nine shots; it was more than their hosts managed but a season low that was forced by Schmidt's high-pressing system.

On the one hand, Bayern's attacking performance was rather disappointing. There were too few chances created, and the tactics just weren't right from the outset.

Pep Guardiola started Douglas Costa in the central position behind Robert Lewandowski, which didn't work very well. After the game, the trainer justified his decision (per Deutsche Welle): "We knew that [Christoph] Kramer and [Kevin] Kampl would push forward. So that's why we played Costa in the middle."

Guardiola had the right idea in that both of Leverkusen's holding midfielders were not strictly anchors and were the type to get forward. His mistake was using Costa in a role that diminished the value of his pace and exposed the Brazilian for his limited abilities as a number 10.

Costa creates chances not so much due to his brilliant passing skill and creativity (think Mesut Ozil), but due to his clever dribbling and blistering pace.

After an hour, Thomas Muller was brought on to play as a supporting striker, and Costa was moved out wide. The result was two good chances for the substitute within minutes of his introduction to the game, and Roberto Hilbert had a nightmare trying to contain Costa for the rest of the encounter.

Bayern could well have won Saturday's match, and it wouldn't have been entirely different from many other instances this season in which they struggled initially but eventually got their goal and went on to win. But it didn't happen, which is cause for concern for a club that are so thin on defensive options at the moment.

On the other hand, Bayern's defense was surprisingly firm given that the center-back pairing included 20-year-old midfielder Joshua Kimmich, starting in just his second match as a defender.

Leverkusen had few chances, which is impressive on Bayern's part—especially given the form Javier Hernandez was enjoying entering the game. Actually, the hosts only took six shots all game, and it's not as though they didn't ever get a touch on the ball.

Kimmich and Holger Badstuber were impressive in the center, while Philipp Lahm and David Alaba were superb on the wings. The only caveat was Kimmich's height and positioning let him down with an early headed chance for Omer Toprak that could have left the Bavarians against the ropes.

The way the Leverkusen match panned out for Bayern has somewhat surprising implications on what to expect against Juventus. Given the Bundesliga leaders' options in attack and defense, it would be expected that an attempt to outgun their opponents is probably their best bet. If they try that, the Leverkusen result will be greatly disconcerting: They lacked incisiveness to create many chances and the sharpness to finish those they did manage to carve out.

Juventus have a better defense than Leverkusen's and a much more tactically disciplined model. It's hard to imagine the Italians being caught out and having to defend one-on-one the way Leverkusen did.

At the same time, the Leverkusen clash proved that things might not be all that bad for Bayern at the back. A few days ago, the prospect of Kimmich and Badstuber facing off against Paulo Dybala and Alvaro Morata was troubling at the least, if not downright terrifying. Yet now, after another clean sheet, it may not be so disconcerting. If Bayern can keep the ball and close down space in midfield, their defense may have enough quality to keep Juve's chances to a minimum.

There are still two-and-a-half weeks until the Juventus clash, which is plenty of time for Bayern to sort out their attack and for their defense to get more practice working together. Injuries have hurt their defense, but Guardiola and company have time on their side.

If they pull themselves together, they have every reason to be seen as favorites to advance.


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