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Bayern Munich coach Thomas Tuchel said that the confrontation with Bayer Leverkusen, the unbeaten league leader, was a match “to take off our pants and put the cards on the table.” But instead of the required display of ingenuity, Saturday's big reveal was a truly unfortunate spectacle.
His Bayern side had little going forward and a dangerously exposed back side. Their hand turned out to be seven deuces, the two worst cards in poker, and, incidentally, the same two numbers that summed up all their helpless misery better than a thousand words: a paltry 0.27 expected goals in a 3-0 defeat is everything. They managed to achieve the most important match of the domestic season.
Seeing the series' heroes being outdone on an occasion of this magnitude was hardly believable. For 11 years in a row, they always showed up when it mattered against whoever was closest at the time, but their defeat at the BayArena was reminiscent of the 5-2 defeat at the hands of Jurgen Klopp's Borussia Dortmund in the 2012 German Cup final, the previous year. Their dominance began.
In the league, you had to go back even further, to the humiliating 5-1 defeat in 2009 by eventual champions Wolfsburg, to find this title match that was one-sided in their rival's favour.
The post-mortem predictably focused on Tuchel's surprise 3-4-3 formation, which he rehearsed all week behind the gray curtains of the Sabiner Straße training ground.
The unusual set-up, deployed for the first time this season, was designed to mimic Leverkusen and was supposed to place right-footed Sascha Pouille on the left to deal with speedy Jeremie Frimpong.
Tuchel could not have known that Xabi Alonso would also opt for a different system, moving away from his wing-back style of play to a hybrid style of four or five at the back with Josip, on loan from Bayern Munich, much more defensive-minded. Stanisic instead of Frimpong.
Bowie hasn't played on the “Wrong Side” in four years. Going out to undermine their opponents' strengths rather than ruthlessly exploiting their weaknesses is not the way things are traditionally done in Munich.
However, Tuchel was right when he insisted that chalking it all back to the formation was “very controversial”. Bayern started well and were in control for at least 10 minutes, before a series of unrelated fouls and fouls opened the door for the hosts. But the complete lack of reaction after falling behind by a goal to Stanisic in the 18th minute proved that the matter went much deeper than that.
Joshua Kimmich, who came on as a substitute in the second half, rightly said: “A team like ours should be able to adapt to the new system.” Thomas Muller agreed, speaking loudly and angrily about players who “lack the balls” to play with the kind of freedom and guile they routinely displayed in training.
“We don't have to go to the coach, it's not about tactics,” the 34-year-old said. “We had enough players of international quality. But I'm talking about making decisions on the ball, about playing intelligently, about running and understanding situations. It's okay to feel pressure. But that pressure needs to be transformed into energy.
Additionally, he criticized his team for playing too many safe passes that did not advance the ball. He added: “We are overcomplicating matters.”
Mueller's brilliant intervention described the problem well, but it fell short of clarification. How come good players don't play with such fluidity and confidence? Is it because many of them lost their hunger after all those tournaments, as some think? The malaise is certainly nothing new: low energy and disorientation had affected Bayern's possession of the ball before Tuchel's arrival last March.
But the manager must bear some responsibility as well. Tuchel, and this is not the first time, attributed the offensive problems to the players not beating their men on Saturday. One of his guiding tactical ideas, influenced by Pep Guardiola, is to isolate defenders in a one-on-one match.
Since Bayern's players are better than their rivals in the Bundesliga, this should be a promising strategy. But injuries to Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman have reduced the overall impact on the flanks, while Leroy Sane and Jamal Musiala have lost momentum since the winter break, along with everyone else.
Too many players are struggling to maintain their level of playing with the kind of personality and presence expected of an experienced Bayern regular, while their outspoken and critical coach has done little to boost their self-confidence either. Just look at the midfield duo of Leon Goretzka and Kimmich, who have been undermined by the former Chelsea boss's public pursuit of a specialist midfielder.
Worst of all, there doesn't appear to be a collective backup option at Tuchelpool. It is built on individualism, and therefore cannot function properly if too many of the individuals involved seem preoccupied with their own shortcomings.
Against Leverkusen, Bayern were so straightforward going forward that one wonders whether Harry Kane's goals have only conjured a mirage of attacking efficiency so far.
This is not a situation that will be tolerated for long in the Bavarian capital. Bayern Munich's last coach to lose away to Alonso's Leverkusen, Julian Nagelsmann, was sacked five days later.
Things are not as bleak for Tuchel as they were for his predecessor 11 months ago; Not now anyway. But it will take a strong Champions League run to lessen the shock of Bayern's most dissimilar performance in a potential title decider in 15 years. If he cannot quickly inspire more confidence into his lifeless squad, the inevitable changes of the summer may not be limited to the squad.
(Top image: Stefan Matzke – Sambex/Corbis via Getty Images)
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