Bayern Forced to Decide on Indecisive van Gaal
The Louis van Gaal-watch is the 48-point-font headline in the Bundesliga, and although mid-week speculation held the Dutch coach needed a win over Schalke to retain his job, Saturday’s 1-1 draw exhibited enough life from his team to keep van Gaal on at Allainz Arena through the international break. With Bayern now sitting in eighth place, that relative goodwill is unlikely to last for long. Though another tough match awaits them after the break, München stays at home for Round 13, where they will be expected to beat league-leading Bayer Leverkusen. Should they fail to do so, it will be clear to Bayern management that, on the heels of Champions League failure, van Gaal is unable to meet league expectations. At that point, those 48-point headlines will shift from monitoring a job to reporting a job opening.
The van Gaal watch picked-up in earnest mid-week when it became clear München would not make it out of their Champions League group. Their inglorious display on Tuesday against French champions Bordeaux (a 2-0 loss at Allainz), justifiable in the context of having to start a depleted squad, serves as the prime example of what’s gone wrong in the brief van Gaal-era. More than losing that one match, how did the glorious Bayern get into a position where one loss puts them on the brink? In group stage, in league, it’s never about one match. It’s always about what’s led up to it. If you’re Bayern and you face one match to survive (and it’s not the last round of the season or tournament), at some point in the past, something went very wrong.
For Bayern, those “something (wrongs)” were bloat, discontent, injuries, and indecision. Consistent with recent Bayern summers, München brought in too many bodies, bringing Mario Gómez, Ivica Olic, Anatoliy Timoshchuk, and Arjen Robben into positions they already had covered. The discontent from these moves is still being felt as Gómez and Timoshuck angle for returns to their previous clubs. Before that, an unhappy Lucio forced a move to Internazionale. Injuries that hit Luca Toni, Franck Ribéry, Martín Demichelis and Robben bred future uncertainty, squad rotation, and discontent. Unable to settle on a squad, van Gaal has continuously tinkered with formation, preventing a squad unfamiliar with each other from settling in. The result is a team incapable of its expected dominance in a more competitive Bundesliga (to say nothing of Champions League).
The depth of the Bundesliga is a key component to van Gaal’s perceived failures. If Bayern were closer to the lead in the German league, Champions League struggles could be overlooked. Those struggles consist of two losses to Bordeaux which, in isolation, are explicable. After all, the first loss came amidst two red cards. The second could be attributed to the aftermath of those dismissals, with Daniel van Buyten and Thomas Müller suspended for the reverse fixture in München. Also without the services of Robben and Ribéry, van Gaal could be forgiven for an unceremonious loss to Bordeaux if Bayern was higher than sixth in league, but while there may have been a time where München could stumble abroad while excelling at home, the Bundesliga is now too deep to compete for a title with a flawed team.
The resurgence of the German league – on the backs of new stadia, advertising relationships and television contracts – has created a league where more than half of its clubs are threats to qualify for European competitions. This underscores Bayern’s urgency to improve. With Saturday’s draw to Schalke, München sits eighth in the league through 12 rounds (just over 1/3 of the season). Near half the league could be argued as title contenders, with other clubs like Mainz (currently, 6th place) competing for continental spots. The league is too deep for Bayern to stumble through a season and expect to make Champions League. Even if they are able to right the ship soon, they risk a scenario where they will have to climb over too many teams to reasonably expect a championship run.
Against Schalke, München showed signs that they are moving in the right direction. Despite the 1-1 score, München was the superior team, limiting Schalke’s opportunities with a lineup that surprisingly included all of van Buyten, Demichelis, and Holger Badstuber (who played on the left). This helped render Schalke’s attack was impotent, with their only goal coming off a set-piece.
For much of the match, Bayern’s attack was equally impotent. Their only goal also came off a set piece, though they saw more of the ball and, after Arjen Robben came on in the second half, were able to create some real chances.
Deployed on the right, Robben was given one side of the pitch to himself, with van Gaal overloading the left with Lahm (who started on the right), Thomas Müller (also started on the right), and Bastian Schweinsteiger. The result was pressure on Schalke’s three man back (right-to-left, Benedikt Höwedes, Marcelo Bordon, Heiko Westermann) which, to their credit, was able to hold-out with the help of wingbacks Rafinha and Lukas Schmitz. Robben and the assortment of talent at the left were able to attack the formation’s weak points: the space behind the wing backs. The attackers on the left did it through quick, one-touch play. Robben did it on his own, through sheer talent.
That Robben was able to break down Schalke by himself showed how much (and how soon) Bayern is dependent on his presence. With the exception of a healthy Franck Ribéry, Arjen Robben is the only person on the München team able to create chances from nothing, a slightly ironic statement given how much talent Bayern has. Schweinsteiger, Timoshchuk, and Olic have the type of games that would fit into any squad in the world. Philip Lahm is an undeniably unique talent, and Thomas Müller looks destined to be a star. Still, those players as well as Luca Toni, Miroslav Klöse, Mario Gómez – the striker positions where so many of Bayern’s resources are allocated – are nothing without Robben and Ribéry to create.
That Bayern have no consistent ways of scoring goals without Robben and Ribéry may be van Gaal’s greatest failing: the key argument in his detractors’ case. München has undeniable talent, and even without their two creative presences, they can start a midfield and strike force that includes Müller, Timoshchuk, Mark van Bommel, Schweinsteiger, Toni and Gómez. While they would lack a creative presence in center of the pitch (thanks to the departure of Zé Roberto to Hamburg), that is a squad talented enough to find some goals (some way) until their two creative players return. Perhaps they would need to play more direct or use Schweinsteiger’s speed and athleticism to get into attack. Perhaps they become more reliant on Lahm overlapping Müller. Perhaps they start depending on getting to the line and crossing the ball in. There are options.
But despite Ribéry and Robben being out for long periods of time, none of the these options have been developed. With a squad of many toys, van Gaal has given in to the temptation to play with them all, exactly the opposite of what you want to do. Playing is for preseason. When the games count, you need to decide what you’re going to be good at and work at them. Van Gaal wants to be good at everything and work at nothing, and with a squad of players who lack familiarity with each other, there may be no worse approach. Bayern is talented enough to play a number of different ways. All you have to do is give that talent time to work into an approach.
That Bayern’s approach can barely be recognized means van Gaal should go, but it is also the reason that he won’t. Until van Gaal makes some bold decisions about how (and who) Bayern should play, there is the tendency to think he is still easing into the job. But if you can’t make bold decisions with Bayern’s talent – where that talent has the potential to mask most mistakes – then when can you? And if you have a head coach that won’t make decisions (or makes poor ones), then what do you have from a position where success is predicated on decisions?
After what happened last year with Jürgen Klinsmann, management at Bayern is understandably reticent to make another change. At some point, though, an executive’s choice is between embarrassing yourself or embarrassing yourself and the club. Given how Bayern has started the season, we see the direction this is heading.
Credits: lead photo, Getty Images; TImoshchuk, focus.de; Robben/Ribéry, nhansuvietnam.vn.