What Now for Carlo Ancelotti and Bayern Munich?

Ian Holyman@@ian_holymanFeatured ColumnistDecember 24, 2016

Where will Bayern Munich go from here?
Where will Bayern Munich go from here?AMELIE QUERFURTH/Getty Images

How many bottles of champagne does it take to celebrate an autumn championship? Eleven, apparently, as Bayern Munich let their hair—blond, in Mats Hummels' case—down after their 3-0 win over RB Leipzig on Wednesday left them top of the table at Christmas.

According to Bild, Bayern eschewed Bavarian beer for Veuve Clicquot as the tipple of choice to toast the success. With qualification for the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League secure, albeit in second place, and the team mightily impressive in the run-in to Christmas, there was reason to be happy.

Yet the feeling persists that the first six months of Carlo Ancelotti's reign at the Allianz Arena have not been quite as good as they could have been.

Inevitably, comparisons are going to be made with Pep Guardiola, Ancelotti's successor, and they do not make for pretty reading for the Bayern boss. There have been fewer points, fewer goals scored and more goals conceded in the Bundesliga than in Guardiola's maiden campaign of 2013/14, while the former Barcelona boss took his side through to the knockout stages of the Champions League top of their group.

Ancelotti's return to Guardiola's tactics worked well.
Ancelotti's return to Guardiola's tactics worked well.GUENTER SCHIFFMANN/Getty Images

Things might have been different had Ancelotti implemented the tactical switch that his players were crying out for sooner.

The 4-3-3 formation the Italian used at the start of the season simply did not play to Bayern's strengths. The full-backs were not able to provide the width required. The forwards could not get into the box as Ancelotti wished. Striker Robert Lewandowski looked all but a waste of a shirt as ball after ball bypassed him or was played into his feet when all around him were snapping at his heels while his team-mates struggled to support him.

When Ancelotti was named as Guardiola's successor, former Bayern boss Ottmar Hitzfeld told Bild (h/t Jack Otway of MailOnline): "Ancelotti is more of a clever tactician. ... He does not stick to his system no matter what. He can adjust his style to the opponent."

Hitzfeld was right, though the system Ancelotti switched to was one that benefited his team.

The 4-2-3-1 formation used since the Bundesliga win over Mainz 05 on 2 December has seen Bayern become the formidable attacking machine they were under Guardiola, who favoured the same system (or 4-1-4-1, which is not hugely different).

Bayern have scored an average of three goals per game in the three Bundesliga matches they have played since the tactical tweak. Prior to that, it was just over two. They have also conceded just a single goal in their last three league outings, having shipped eight in the first 12.

Not only are they more dangerous, but they're also more solid defending from the front and less vulnerable to counter-attacks.

Ancelotti needs to stick to that strategy, and given he appears to have little trouble in swallowing his pride—not a given in world-class football—he most likely will. He said back in September that he doesn't "have to change a lot of things," per L'Equipe. Perhaps he realised that he did not have to change anything.

Liverpool outcast Mamadou Sakho would fit in at Bayern.
Liverpool outcast Mamadou Sakho would fit in at Bayern.Scott Heppell/Associated Press/Associated Press

But the accepted football adage is that if you stand still, you go backward. And Bayern do have some areas in which they can develop. If they appear to have settled—or resettled—on the optimum strategy, there are still some gaps in personnel that require filling.

Jerome Boateng's injury problems and Holger Badstuber's continued difficulties in getting match fit make the purchase of a central defender a must. Javi Martinez is nothing more than a good makeshift alternative, which also goes for David Alaba and Joshua Kimmich, pressed into action in the position last season.

Niklas Sule would be a good fit, though the Hoffenheim youngster looks unlikely to move to the Allianz Arena until the summer. And the need is somewhat more pressing, with the next six months the most important of this season.

A great winter purchase would be Valencia's Aymen Abdennour. The Tunisia international was superb in AS Monaco's run to the Champions League quarter-finals in 2014/15. Mamadou Sakho, an outcast at Liverpool, would be another great option and surely a bargain given Jurgen Klopp's apparent desire to rid his squad of the former Paris Saint-Germain centre-back.

While some might sniff at the prospect of bringing in a player who has seemingly caused problems at Anfield, they should be reassured by the fact Ancelotti and his backroom staff know the France international well from their time at PSG.

Sakho did feel aggrieved that Ancelotti favoured Thiago Silva and Alex at centre-back in the French capital but later said he had understood his boss' decision. "Looking at it from a distance, he's a coach who taught me a lot, who made me grow up," Sakho told Canal+ (h/t Foot Mercato). "I discovered competition for places at the highest level."

He would be in the same situation in Munich, so who better than Ancelotti to handle him?

Both players have the physical attributes that complement the silkier side to Hummels' game, and both would be eligible for the Champions League, something difficult to find in quality players available in January.

Speculation, as relayed by Transfermarkt, linking Bayern to Napoli left-back Faouzi Ghoulam makes sense to a certain degree, too. The Algeria international has six goals in 21 combined Serie A and Champions League matches this season, making him a valuable alternative to David Alaba in that position going forward. And his defensive qualities are stronger than those of Juan Bernat.

The disadvantage is that he could not play in the Champions League, having already featured for the Partenopei in the competition this season.

Robben has had a standout first half of the season.
Robben has had a standout first half of the season.Matthias Schrader/Associated Press/Associated Press

Perhaps the most important signing of the winter transfer window will be Arjen Robben's contract extension.

Though 32, the Netherlands international has been one of Bayern's most explosive and influential players since the start of the season. Five goals and four assists in 10 Bundesliga appearances, and one and two respectively in four Champions League outings, are records that speak for themselves. His ability to change the pace of a game could be still more important still.

The good news is that it appears likely to happen. "We're actually in agreement," said Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, per Bild, after the Leipzig game, glass in hand. "At least, we're very close." Hopefully it wasn't just the drink talking.

While that win over Leipzig showed the Bundesliga title is Bayern's to lose, the real acid test will be in Europe. But Ancelotti has already won the Champions League as manager three times with two different clubs and clearly has the European nous—and the calmness under pressure—to steer this Bayern side deep into the competition.

Perhaps most importantly for the second half of the season, the players are conscious that there is room for improvement.

"It's very positive that at Christmas and the turn of the year, we're right at the top," said captain Philipp Lahm, per Bayern's official website. "Having said that, we must improve in the second half of the season. We have dropped too many points. We have to tackle that."

Their display against Leipzig, when they clearly motivated themselves to push their game to new heights, shows that Lahm's statement is not merely lip service. That can only be good news for Bayern fans.

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